The film perpetuates an ignorant and profoundly offensive discourse that marginalises and harms Muslims and Arabs.
A white woman embarks on a journey to the Middle East in hopes of finding a human, possibly one with a beating heart and a soul, and she’ll report back her findings. Wish her luck.
We’ve heard this all before. Or in this case, seen it. “Jihad Rehab” director Meg Smaker’s intentions claim to be the same. In an attempt to understand “why they hate us” after 9/11 and why her “parents voted for Trump twice”, she mentions coyly, the documentary honours the West's long lived suspicion, fear, and paranoia in relation to the East.
The recently premiered Sundance documentary follows former Guantanamo detainees sent to a rehabilitation centre in Saudi Arabia.
The West’s obsession with Arabs/Muslims being either hypersexualised or violent lives on. The film is propaganda 20 years too late. Meg is on a quest to understand the region, but why does that quest only land her in the Kingdom? This is not the humanisation white people need to see. This is not what it means to be Muslim. This guilt trip takes up our space.
We exist without this travel into the desert; this film does not validate us, this filmmaker does not make us human. The only perspective needed is the Muslim one, and that’s it. If someone can’t see that, then their entire conversation around representation has no basis.
Rather than travel 8,000 miles to humanise, look in your backyard for who is dehumanising whom. One must ask, what is the purpose of this film? What discourse is this film promoting? Who is it educating?
The bottom line is such: when I, a practising Muslim woman, say that this film is problematic, my voice should be stronger than a white woman saying that it isn’t. Point blank.
This review isn’t an intellectual or an emotional response to something offensive, it is a moral response to something profoundly unethical. Since 9/11, there has been an alarming increase in the number of hate crimes against Arabs and Muslims in America.
The US started a war on “terror”, the first war in the history of civilisation against an adjective. Words have the power to kill, so how relevant is this for images that are reprehensible, ignorant and profoundly offensive and marginalising?
Muslims live with an unspeakable amount of fear. We are living in a time when families can’t walk at night, women can’t play sports in hijab, men can’t pray in peace and yet, the release of another terrorist film is upon us. The inability of the US media to view Muslims through anything other than the “War on Terror” rhetoric will continue to haunt and harm our communities.
To speak, to write, to think, to feel, means that we all carry an individual responsibility to a higher and greater social good. Isn’t that our role as human beings, but more so as film-makers and storytellers?
“Do you think you’re a good person or a bad person?” Smaker asks one of the men. This limited view quite literally sees the world as black or white, without any colour or nuance. It is also in no way critical of Guantanamo or the real issue, which is that people can be tried, judged and in some cases killed without any knowledge of what they are being accused of, or who accused them, and even without the right to defend themselves against this phantom of liberty.
The film presumes the guilt of the incarcerated, who were taken to Guantanamo as children, and raped, held, and tortured without charge, judge or jury. The real direction that this film could have taken is by starting with the present and moving backwards to truly understand why these people were at Guantanamo in the first place. The film has no voice of its own. It exists in collusion with the institutions that have imprisoned these individuals. There is no criticism of US policy, or of the fingers that stitched the quilt – a quilt can’t stitch itself.
Upon reviewing the 20-year history of documentary programming at the largest and most influential independent film festival in the US, it is clear that “Jihad Rehab” is merely part of a larger pattern that appears to demonstrate a sheer lack of interest in telling nuanced stories from an Arab or Muslim perspective, or providing a platform for Arab and/or Muslim film-makers to do so. Sundance, what stories by Muslim film-makers did you not choose to programme this year in place of this one?
It takes a village to get a film this far. Not only Sundance celebrated this film, but all of the funders, foundations, distributors, gatekeepers, institutions, fellowships, and labs that allowed it to reach this point. Dialogue, discussion, safe space, acknowledgement, and representation are all terms of rhetoric, rather than reality, for if these terms had any weight, I wouldn’t have to be writing this right now.
I met Meg a few years ago at a film-makers’ retreat. When I heard the title of the film, I took her aside and told her how problematic and hurtful using ‘jihad’ in that context is. This was a word I knew too well, as it was something I practised daily on my inner path to God.
She brushed my concerns off with a simple: “I studied Arabic in Yemen”. It was clear that this was someone uninterested in engaging Muslims, a community she can easily pitch to a meeting full of white men but one that she forgot to include in her feedback sessions.
As a Muslim film-maker currently working on a nuanced, intimate Muslim story for my first feature documentary, “Q”, with an aim to complete the film for next year’s Sundance. After seeing the stakes at which films are amplified, maybe the first stop for “Q” won’t be Utah.
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