Meg Smaker’s Film, Retitled ‘The UnRedacted,’ Was Blackballed After Sundance Debut, But She Won’t Give Up
The film, an in-depth look at five men who were imprisoned and tortured at Guantanamo after fighting for al-Qaeda and other extremist groups and then sent to Saudi Arabia for rehabilitation, provoked a giddy reaction at the Film Festival from Sundance in January.
Smaker had spent years getting permission from Saudi Arabia to make the film, and other years earning the trust of the men in the film, four Yemenis and one Saudi. The documentary broke new ground in examining why these men were drawn to jihad and received strong reviews. “This is a movie for smart people looking to challenge their preconceptions,” wrote The Guardian.
But on the eve of the festival, a number of Muslim filmmakers objected to the film for a variety of reasons – most being somewhat vague concerns about the safety of the men and whether they had indeed consented to be filmed – but notably the fact that Smaker is an American with blonde hair and not from the Muslim community. Two Sundance Institute staff members resigned in protest, and a month after the festival, Sundance issued an apology, saying “it is clear that the screening of this film hurt members of our community – especially people from the Muslim and MENASA communities – and for that we are deeply sorry.
From then on, “Jihad Rehab” became toxic and politically untouchable. Financier Abigail Disney has distanced herself from a film she had previously enthusiastically supported. The distributors who were turning in front of Sundance have all disappeared. And festival after festival that invited Smaker, from SXSW to The Gotham, suddenly uninvited her and the film.
The filmmaker was flattened.
“What happened at Sundance was devastating,” Smaker said in conversation last weekend at the Ojai Film Festival, one of only two festivals to screen the film from Sundance (the other was in Atlanta). “Having institutions like Sundance and Gotham throw the movie under the bus was equally devastating. As a first-time filmmaker, it was amazing to have the whole industry on your back, especially when 90% of the people complaining about it hadn’t seen the movie.
But a funny thing happened this fall. Smaker had continued to reach out to reporters (including this one) in the months following the film’s cancellation, insisting that what happened to him was unfair, divorced from facts and a knee-jerk response to a handful of “woke” (and perhaps jealous) militants. For my part, I found it difficult to understand the objections to the film, if not the fact that Muslim filmmakers would have preferred this story to be told by a Muslim. It’s a fair point of view, but hardly something Smaker could address. And hardly a reason to say the film should ever be seen.
And so “Jihad Rehab” — renamed “The UnRedacted” as Smaker hoped to assuage objections to the film — became the latest sacrifice to cancel culture, this time from the left.
It was perhaps unsurprising that anti-revival journalist Bari Weiss defended the film. But in quick succession this fall, major publications ran heavy criticism on the film’s cancellation. The New York Times ran a front-page article by Michael Powell, along with a photo of Smaker in a heroic stance, describing the controversy and noting that the film had become a prisoner of identity politics.
“In the case of ‘Jihad Rehab’, identity critique is married to the idea that the film should function as political art and examine the historical and cultural oppressions that led to the imprisonment of these men in Guantánamo,” said writes Powell. “Some critics and documentary makers say the mandate is reductive and numbing.”
It would have been quite remarkable for a movie no one had seen, but that article was then followed by another article that defended Smaker in the Atlantic by veteran Middle East journalist Graeme Wood. This piece dismantled, point by point, the various reviews of the film. One criticism was that the men interviewed had not given informed consent to be filmed or quoted, which Smaker had always refuted. (You can read those arguments here.) Wood’s title was startlingly simple: “Cowardice at Sundance.”
And then Sebastian Junger, the veteran war correspondent who covered the conflict in Afghanistan for a decade, stepped forward to offer a resounding defense of the film in The National Review titled: “Inside the Shameful Cancellation of ‘Jihad Rehab’.”
“Exclusion… – the exclusion of certain individuals because of their race or ethnicity – is ethically more problematic,” he wrote, considering the issue. “Carried far enough, the exclusion seems to exclude the whole practice of journalism. The premise of foreign reporting is that you don’t have to be Jewish to understand the Holocaust, black to understand civil rights, or dispossessed to understand ethnic cleansing; being human is enough.
More recently, author and podcaster Sam Harris invited Smaker to talk about his cancellation. The three-hour conversation went viral, leading to the creation of a GoFundMe account, which at this point has raised $736,000 in donations so the filmmaker can self-distribute the film.
This is not a simple case of the tide turning in favor of Smaker: The Times and National Review articles were followed by a lengthy article in the Guardian that explored issues of informed consent and Smaker’s connections with inmates in detention centers. Filmmakers like Marjan Safinia, an Iranian director and producer and former chair of the board of directors of the International Documentary Association, continue to speak out against the film.
Yet following the recent backing, Smaker has now built up a war chest to distribute the film and – yes, she’s being cheeky – to qualify for the Oscar. What she did.
“I’m grateful that respected journalists like Michael Powell and Graeme Wood and Sebastian Junger took deep dives and vindicated me and the film for the public. But the industry as a whole has been silent,” the still-hurt Smaker told me. “I hope now that the film is qualified for the Oscars and on the Academy’s website, people will see the film for themselves.”
Smaker, who is basically broke (except for this GoFundMe bargain), doesn’t have a team other than co-producer Stavroula Toska. She has no publicist, no agent, no manager. She is completely autonomous.
And she is also totally shameless. When asked if she would have done something different if she could, Smaker was adamant, “No,” she replied. “I wouldn’t change anything.”
She changed the title, she said, after LA Times writer Lorraine Ali, who is Muslim and also championed the film, said it reduced the film’s complexity to what seemed like a thoughtless slogan. “Lorraine Ali said the film is nuanced, but the title is not,” Smaker said. “It made sense to me.”
Whether or not in the fiercely competitive documentary race, documentary voters will take the time to watch Smaker’s film remains to be seen. As reported by TheWrap Awards Editor Steve Pond, 144 documentaries qualified for 15 spots on the shortlist.
Hurry up. Smaker has cut a new trailer for his film and – in his own way – refuses to give up. “Maybe I do it because people tell me I can’t,” she said. “I don’t like to reward bullying.”
And also, like most independent filmmakers, she’s a stubborn optimist.
“If you asked me four months ago if my movie would be justified on the cover of The New York Times, I would say, ‘Probably not. But crazier things have happened,'” she said. you ask me if he can be shortlisted? I would say, “Probably not – but crazier things have happened.”
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