Sundance 2022: Jihad Rehab Is A Powerful Portrait Of Societal Complicity, Film Companion

In Jihad Rehab, firefighter-turned-documentarian Meg Smaker follows three 30-something Yemeni men at the “world’s first terrorist rehabilitation” facility. In theory at least, the Mohammed bin Nayef Counseling and Care Center in Saudi Arabia sounds right. The place acts as a 12-month cleansing gateway into civilized society for former Guantanamo Bay detainees, most of whom were al-Qaeda members arrested in Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks. Given where the center is located, Smaker’s access is nothing less than extraordinary. Her own time in the Middle East becomes evident from the trust she establishes with her Arab-speaking interviewees. The three men – Nadir, Ali and Mohammed – don’t just speak to her; they confide. The initially cagey reactions suggest that they still think they are being interrogated. They aren’t used to being asked for the sake of asking. Once they get comfortable, though, Smaker’s empathetic (as opposed to sympathetic) gaze lets our own uncomfortable questions emerge: Are 12 months of learning supposed to undo two decades of cultural conditioning? Is one year of healing supposed to wipe out 15 years of hurting?

At first, I was apprehensive that the bureaucratic hoops Smaker might have had to jump through would force her to exhibit this center in a certain way. For instance, when the ‘students’ are given some time off to visit their relatives, the documentary all but morphs into a Saudi Arabia tourism advert. There’s no way the authorities would have agreed to a full critical study – the pros and cons – of the controversial place. Access always comes at a price. But as Jihad Rehab progresses, it becomes apparent that Smaker lets her own curiosity do the talking. Her art turns into a smokescreen for the film’s journalistic integrity. Sometimes, presenting the facts is better than designing a story. 

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While the Islamic course is constructed to mentally reintegrate these men into the world, the camera does not shy away from filming its blind spots. By simply recording, it’s also revealing. The gender studies lectures, for instance, reflect a typically regressive view towards women. When Mohammed, the most emotional and colourful of them, gets angry with Smaker towards the end, he goes on a “women like you should get married” rant because he knows no better. The lessons that were supposed to sensitize him weren’t exactly flawless. Then there’s the center’s 85 percent success rate, with the instructors skirting responsibility for the odd violent relapse. 

Most importantly, Smaker’s thoughtful interviews expose the complicity of an America desperate for 9/11 answers. The education they receive at the center is not nearly enough, mostly because the men who enter this place are already broken after years of torture and imprisonment. Nadir, Ali and Mohammed were teenagers when they were recruited by al-Qaeda, and still teenagers when they were captured by US forces looking for easy heads to serve a bloodthirsty President Bush. They weren’t close to the top in terms of power, even though one of them was Bin Laden’s bodyguard. When the three start to describe their 15 years at Guantanamo Bay, the recent film The Mauritanian comes to mind. This is towards the beginning of the documentary, so that the viewer can appreciate that their bitterness towards a cruel America has not destroyed them (yet). I found myself in awe of their coherence despite the lifelong ordeal. That they can sit in front of an American filmmaker and speak of those days without breaking down is a testament to their fortitude and Smaker’s talent as a seeker of humanity. 

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In addition, Smaker does not spare her hosts from scrutiny. She has no qualms following the story into unchartered territory. At one point, the release of the graduates is imminent, but gets indefinitely postponed when Saudi undergoes an abrupt change in leadership. The stance towards terrorism changes, and it’s once again unclear when they will be free. The wait continues. Yet, she continues to film them in pursuit of a bigger picture. Post their release, once she’s denied permission to shoot anymore in the country, she includes her struggle to complete the documentary, too. These parts speak to the hypocrisy of a culture that seems more interested in showcasing a change in image than actually practicing it. That the center is eventually turned into a detention facility for “political dissenters” proves that the world these men are released into is not very different from the one that brainwashed them. It asks the one simple question the documentary is interested in: Does true freedom exist? 

The post-center portions evoke parts of The Shawshank Redemption, where the world that once promised to absorb the outliers shuts all their doors on their return. You feel for the bittersweet situation of the three men – their freedom is heavily restricted, so they aren’t sure whether to feel lucky to exit Guantanamo Bay or feel cursed to be stuck in a land with no opportunity. A second chance at life is barely an approximation of life. I’ll be honest: I was so provoked by the documentary that I had to cool off for a few days before writing this review. The unflinching honesty of Jihad Rehab made me angry – about USA and its arrogance, about Afghanistan, about Riyadh, about the human spirits that are restored only to be crushed again. It also made me grateful for filmmakers like Meg Smaker, who take unprecedented leaps of faith without knowing where they will land. With Jihad Rehab, she creates a fire that cannot be doused. 

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