2022 Sundance Film Festival Review: ‘Jihad Rehab’ Is Fascinating But Deeply Irresponsible

Audrey Fox reviews Jihad Rehab, the latest film from documentarian Meg Smaker. Jihad Rehab premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 22, 2022.
User Rating: 3

In a post-9/11 world, any nuanced conversation about the roots of terrorism and the insidious role of extremist indoctrination is dominated by knee-jerk, emotional reactions and outright Islamophobia. In exploring a Saudi-run program that prepares former Guantanamo Bay detainees to reenter normal society, director Meg Smaker attempts to highlight the humanity of her subjects. And their stories are undeniably moving: It is no difficult task to find shreds of empathy for people living in perpetually unstable societies who fall victim to predatory extremist groups. While the content of Jihad Rehab is valuable, Smaker’s approach is flawed, often insensitive, and potentially dangerous. Many of her narrative choices are dubious at best, making Jihad Rehab fall beyond disappointing into the realm of irresponsible.

When we first meet our subjects, they are frustratingly presented in context with their alleged crimes, a rap sheet of reasons why they were imprisoned in Guantanamo that appears on the screen next to an image of their face, as though this was an episode of America’s Most Wanted. Whatever they did (and this is not to say that they weren’t involved in terrorist activities), from the very beginning, Smaker makes a choice to allow the US government to dictate the lens through which we see these men. They have all spent over 15 years in prison without ever being charged with a crime, and many were tortured and sexually abused during their time in Guantanamo. Smaker, in her role as interviewer, unwittingly reenacts an American-led interrogation, probing them relentlessly for information on their activities.

The men face the difficult challenge of rejoining the world after so many years imprisoned. The focus of this rehabilitation center’s work is to make sure that they are intellectually, emotionally, and financially prepared to face this without the temptation of returning to their former terrorist cells. From instruction on the internet use to advice on marriage, they seem to provide a wide range of support. The men themselves seem personable enough, especially once they allow themselves to relax. They come across as surprisingly normal. Many are eager to get married and start a family, and one even bemusedly watches news coverage of Donald Trump, taken aback at how unstable he comes across. The youngest among them is the most poignant: The younger brother of a major figure in Al-Qaeda, sent to Guantanamo at the age of 16, spending half his life there before being released at age 32. His feelings towards his brother are complex. He loves him as a member of his family but hates how his actions have essentially ruined his life.

As though it wasn’t going to be hard enough to reintegrate these men into society, they must do so against the constantly moving goalposts of the al-Saud regime, which faced a major coup while Jihad Rehab was being filmed when Mohammed bin Salman seized power. The men featured in the film are Yemeni, and as a condition of their release, they are not allowed to return to their home country. But Saudi Arabia places increasingly strict rules on what Yemeni nationals are legally entitled to do, making their path to everyday life more complex. They cannot hold a job, but they are also not allowed to leave the country searching for work elsewhere. It’s an unwinnable solution, and it becomes patently clear why so many men join extremist organizations in the first place: Despite everything else, they provide security for their members, something increasingly hard to find by honest means.

The men are often easy to empathize with, and they remain compelling in the moments they are not. So why is it that Jihad Rehab leaves such a lingering bad taste? Although Smaker seems to understand the precarious position these men occupy in Saudi Arabia, little of that understanding is reflected in how she constructs this documentary. Throughout the film, she shows poor judgment and a lack of documentarian ethics to put her subjects in danger. How can one justify asking these men leading questions about whether they feel tempted to rejoin terrorist cells, knowing that Saudi Arabia frequently executes suspected terrorists and that any of their answers could have grave consequences? How could you stand off-camera, interviewing the staff at this center and trying to trick them into criticizing the regime, knowing that such an action could get them killed? 

These are the inexcusable decisions of a documentarian more interested in forcing a dramatic narrative climax than protecting her subjects. The stories featured here are vital, and they deserve to be heard, especially in the West, where insidious Islamophobia still runs rampant. But Smaker’s methods are so misguided, making Jihad Rehab difficult to recommend.

Written by
Audrey Fox has been an entertainment journalist since 2014, specializing in film and television. She has written for Awards Circuit, Jumpcut Online, Crooked Marquee, We Are the Mutants, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic. Audrey is firm in her belief that Harold Lloyd is the premier silent film comedian, Sky High is the greatest superhero movie ever made, Mad Men's "The Suitcase" is the single best episode of television to date, and no one in the world has ever given Anton Walbrook enough credit for his acting work. Her favorite movies include Inglourious Basterds, Some Like It Hot, The Elephant Man, Singin' in the Rain, Jurassic Park, and Back to the Future.

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