The documentary “Jihad Rehab” opens with a series of testimonies from former Guantánamo Bay prisoners. One former detainee, wearing a red headdress and seated on a living room sofa, says, “The American government did bad, bad, bad things against us, and at least I am honest with what I did.” He goes on to describe explosives training he says he received at an Al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan. The film then introduces a small group of other former Guantánamo detainees, all Yemeni, who are now part of a government rehabilitation program for accused former terrorists in Saudi Arabia. They, too, appear to discuss frankly their past involvement in militancy.

The controversy around “Jihad Rehab” began before many people would have a chance to see those opening minutes of the film. The announcement that it would be screened at Sundance Film Festival this year triggered objections among some Muslim American filmmakers, who expressed concerns about its content and how it was produced. Sundance would eventually apologize for screening the film, leading other prestigious film festivals to rescind their invitations.

The fallout at Sundance and the rescinded invitations kicked off a fierce debate that was, initially, limited to a small community of documentary filmmakers and Guantánamo Bay activists. But it has since exploded to national attention.

A recent front-page New York Times article about the subject framed the controversy as a culture war issue centered around the identity of the filmmaker, Meg Smaker, and whether she, as a white American woman, had the perspective necessary to produce a film about the lives of Arab Muslim former prisoners. A recent segment on the MSNBC show “Morning Joe” about the film echoed this characterization of the controversy, introducing it to viewers as a battle over race and free speech in the United States. The Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism, a free-speech advocacy organization focused on the culture war over what some refer to as “wokeness,” has also spoken out in support of the film and organized a screening for it this summer in Los Angeles.

If the dispute about “Jihad Rehab” were just a case of “white lady bad,” it could be seen as “woke” excess, left-wing identity politics run amok. The full story is a bit more complex. While Smaker’s identity and the notion of authorship have been part of the debate over the film, particularly on social media, they were not the entirety of the public and private discussions over “Jihad Rehab.” Nor were they the focus of the early questions raised to Sundance Film Festival.

Those questions initially came in the form of an email sent to Sundance last December by a group of six Muslim American filmmakers, including Assia Boundaoui, creator of the award-winning documentary “The Feeling of Being Watched,” after the film was announced in the lineup for the January festival. Boundaoui shared the email — sent after some signatories had viewed excerpts of the film, but not its entirety — with The Intercept. It raised three broad concerns, none of them having to do with identity politics. The authors questioned the movie’s title, the scope of Saudi government involvement in its production, and possible bias in the framing of its subjects.

The email asked Sundance to provide a private viewing of the film for the signatories, before concluding on a note of dismay that the festival would screen “Jihad Rehab” at all.

“We are thoroughly disappointed by Sundance’s decision to include this film in the program and to further amplify it by inclusion in the Documentary competition,” the letter says. “We expect that if the film is screened and platformed by Sundance as planned, there will be a much larger public outcry.”

A Saudi man walks past the Mohammed bin Nayef Center for Counseling and Advice, a rehab centre for jihadists, on October 4, 2017, in the Saudi capital Riyadh. / AFP PHOTO / FAYEZ NURELDINE        (Photo credit should read FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images)

A Saudi man walks past the Mohammed bin Naif Counseling and Care Center on Oct. 4, 2017, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Photo: AFP via Getty Images

Beginning to End

“Jihad Rehab” is a hard film to watch, emotionally, due to its subject matter, but also literally since it has now been pulled from circulation after the controversy. Part of the difficulty assessing the debate about the film is that it has gone through a few small but important changes since its original release at Sundance. The Intercept viewed both the original theatrical cut of the movie and its current form.

Most obviously, the film now has a more sensitive title: “The Unredacted.” But other smaller modifications were made that correspond with objections raised to the original production. The original theatrical release included a sequence that introduced the prisoners along with a stylized “rap sheet” of allegations from the U.S. government. These allegations, which were used to justify the men’s detentions at Guantánamo, appeared to be presented as plain fact in this critical scene. Yet, as years of legal proceedings at the prison have made clear, such allegations were frequently overblown or even fabricated.

Following the Sundance premiere, and private screenings where the filmmakers received feedback, asterisks were added to the lists of allegations stating that the former prisoners had never been charged or convicted of any crimes during their years in custody.

The portrayal of the men in the film is complex. The opening scenes, with their sinister characterization of the former detainees, gradually give way to a more compassionate narrative. Smaker has said this narrative arc reflected the evolution of her own relationship with the former prisoners, which she says became more mutually sympathetic over the course of three years of filming.

The film shows the former prisoners before and after their release from the Saudi-run rehabilitation program, as they attempt to rebuild ordinary lives. Some get married and raise children, while others struggle with financial problems, loneliness, and ostracism over their pasts. The testimonies and snapshots of former prisoners’ lives are interspersed with captivating street scenes of Saudi Arabia and artistic renditions of the detainees’ experience in custody, as they narrate their hopes and fears for the future.

Some of the men profiled appear to speak frankly about past involvement in militancy. They describe things that they feel guilty about, such as training with Al Qaeda, or that they maintain was morally justified, such as fighting against Serbian ethnonationalists during the Bosnian genocide. One can understand from listening to these stories that joining a militant group over the past few decades was intended, for some, as means of fighting injustice rather than perpetrating it. The viewer is left with a sense of moral complexity.

Over two hours of runtime, the subjects appear to warm to the filmmaker and speak more freely about their lives. Yet it’s hard to ever know with certainty what’s going on in the minds of former terrorism detainees, who, as critics have pointed out, live in an authoritarian country under intense surveillance, as they share their accounts with the camera.

Under Saudi’s Thumb

“Jihad Rehab” deals with a sensitive subject — the plight of former Guantánamo Bay prisoners ­— and, rather than the identity of the filmmaker, that is what seems to have touched a nerve with most critics. In March, an open letter about the movie from a larger group of filmmakers again raised questions about the issue of informed consent when making a film about former Guantánamo prisoners, even adding specifically that their concern about the movie was not primarily about authorship.

Smaker did take steps to be sensitive to the communities at hand: The film had input from a religious scholar for sensitivity and was screened prior to release with Yemeni and Muslim American community organizations. She told The Intercept that she intended to make the film to “understand the men that I had heard so much about for so many years, but never heard directly from. They had been labeled the worst of the worst by our government and popular media, but that is where the story seemed to end. I wanted to understand these men on a more nuanced and human level — their motivations, their personalities, their backgrounds.”

Yet “Jihad Rehab” found critics among perhaps the most relevant constituency: former detainees at Guantánamo Bay. In July, the U.K.-based activist group CAGE, which advocates on behalf of terrorism detainees, and which has been at the center of controversy over some of its past advocacy, issued a public letter about the film. The signatories, former Guantánamo prisoners involved in CAGE, raised issues about “power asymmetries and possible coercion” in its production.

Mansoor Adayfi, an activist with the group, was one of those who signed. Adayfi, who spent 14 years at Guantánamo and suffered torture at the hands of guards, pointed to the cooperation of the Saudi government in making the film as a major concern. “I lived with these men for years, they live in fear in Saudi Arabia every day,” Adayfi said on a call from Serbia, where he now resides. “She was talking to people who spent years being tortured and given no chance to clear their names. But when you look at how the film is made, it seems to give some kind of legitimacy to Guantánamo.”

BELGRADE, SERBIA - SEPTEMBER 8: Mansoor Adayfi, former Guantanamo detainee from Yemen, reacts from a pain in his neck as he reads the Quran at a park near his apartment in Belgrade, Serbia, Wednesday, September 8, 2021. Adayfi said was harassed  by locals at the park multiple times before. (Photo by Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Mansoor Adayfi relaxes and reads at a park near his apartment in Belgrade, Serbia, on Sept. 8, 2021.

Photo: Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Adayfi, who wrote a memoir of his time in Guantánamo, said that the film appears to accept the framing of former detainees as admitted terrorists, a characterization that he and others dispute. He fears that the film will contribute to stigmatization that has prevented many former Guantánamo detainees from regaining normal lives upon release.

“The U.S. government treated us as the worst of the worst, then we came out of Guantánamo and didn’t even have time to process our trauma from that experience,” he said. “We thought maybe we had left it behind us, but it seems like people are going to be punishing us for the rest of our lives.”

“Jihad Rehab” contains some scenes that critics have said could potentially cause problems for subjects of the film in conservative Saudi Arabia, including one where a subject smokes shisha in an apartment with sexualized images on the walls and later appears to be on his way to buy drugs. Another detainee changes their mind about participation and withdraws partway through the film. A subject revoking consent to participate midway through often means that the footage taken before then can still be used. When dealing with people in a uniquely vulnerable position, however, the ethics become harder to gauge.

Part of the difficulty with evaluating aspects of the film is the unique legal gray zone that former prisoners inhabit after release from Guantánamo Bay — unlike almost any other prisoners in the world, and certainly distinct from people released from custody for crimes in United States. Previous reports, including in The Intercept, have documented former Guantánamo detainees who have simply disappeared upon saying or doing something to unexpectedly displease their host countries. Many others have suffered at the hands of their hosts. Adayfi experiences ongoing abuse and harassment from Serbian authorities since being placed there in 2016.

“I lived with these men for years; they live in fear in Saudi Arabia every day.”

Dealing with former Guantánamo Bay prisoners living in Saudi Arabia presents a particular challenge, since they lack any semblance of political or due process rights in the kingdom. The former detainees’ stays at the “rehab” facility were a condition imposed for their release from Guantánamo, which also required them to make admissions of past alleged wrongdoing. CAGE has claimed, based on communications with two of the film’s subjects, that they “were denied the power to share anything other than what comported with the Saudi state’s official narrative.”

Smaker denied reports in the press and from CAGE that former detainees have asked to be removed from the film following its release out of concerns for their safety. She said she went through a rigorous process of obtaining consent during filming and has been in communication with former detainees since the film premiered at Sundance. After the controversy over the film took hold, Smaker completed an ethics review at the request of Sundance, which concluded that the film met standards of safety for their protection.

The voices of the former detainees themselves are notably absent in the public fight over the documentary; it’s not even clear whether they have seen the film at all. Their absence itself seems emblematic of the political and ethical challenge of producing a documentary like “Jihad Rehab.” As another condition of their release in Saudi Arabia, former Guantánamo prisoners have strict controls on their ability to communicate publicly, which, save for representations of their views from CAGE, has rendered them unable to weigh in on the debate raging over a film in which they, ultimately, are the stars.

Yemenis wearing orange jumpsuits, similar to those worn by prisoners at the US detention centre in Guantanamo Bay, hold a protest demanding the release of inmates on hunger strike, on April 16, 2013  outside the US embassy in Sanaa.  Attorneys representing inmates at the prison have said most of the estimated 130 detainees at Guantanamo's Camp Six wing, which houses "low-value" prisoners, were on hunger strike. AFP PHOTO/MOHAMMED HUWAIS        (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP via Getty Images)

A girl holds a photo of Abu Ghanim, a Yemeni man featured in Meg Smaker’s documentary, during a protest to demand Yemenis imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay, on April 16, 2013, outside the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, Yemen.

Photo: Mohammed Huwais/AFP via Getty Images

War on Terror Legacy

After the September 11 attacks, Guantánamo Bay became a global symbol of the U.S. government’s draconian retaliation, including the use of extrajudicial detention and torture. Although it was promoted to the American people as a place to hold hardened terrorists, U.S. government officials later admitted that many, if not most, of the people held at the prison over the years were innocent of involvement in terrorism.

Several dozen prisoners continue to live in a state of legal purgatory inside the facility, while many others, released after being picked up in a wave of mass detentions based on flimsy accusations, have been denied the chance to rebuild normal lives or mend their reputations. Though it discusses the use of torture at Guantánamo Bay, including sexual violence, the film does not engage with this broader legacy of abuses.

“Believe me, no one cares if Meg is Black or white, or a man or a woman. I don’t even understand how this is being made out as a debate about a person’s race.”

The response to the film has differed depending on the audience. In her appearance on “Morning Joe,” Smaker said that she has received positive responses from U.S. military veterans, for whom the film depicted people they had considered enemies in a more sympathetic light. She told The Intercept that she was seeking to challenge the “simplistic narrative” that terrorism could be understood purely through reference to the perpetrator’s religion, as was widely assumed in the years after 9/11.

A documentary about former terrorism detainees in Saudi Arabia raises inevitable hard questions about research ethics, consent, and security. It also offers interesting insights into the human condition, including the inner lives of men who have been cast simplistically as enemies in the eyes of many Americans. Those important discussions about the film, which kicked off nearly a year ago, have now been effectively sidelined to slot it into an ongoing debate in the U.S. over identity politics.

Regardless of what happens with the film, whose future is still in question, the reductive depiction of the controversy in the press as merely another episode in an ongoing U.S. culture war has mystified some critics, including former detainees for whom Guantánamo Bay remains a personal issue.

“Believe me, no one cares if Meg is Black or white, or a man or a woman,” said Adayfi, the former Guantánamo prisoner. “I don’t even understand how this is being made out as a debate about a person’s race. It’s just childish.”