“Do you think that you are you a terrorist?” This is a question director and producer Meg Smaker asks of Mohammed, a former Guantanamo prisoner she interviews less than 30 minutes into her documentary “Jihad Rehab.” The documentary, which she has since renamed “UnRedacted,” features four men released from the Guantanamo Bay prison to Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Nayef Counseling and Care Center, which claims to rehabilitate terrorists. Smaker said her motivation for the film was to understand how and why the 9/11 attacks happened — insight she hoped to gain from the men effectively detained at the Saudi center.
The film was selected for the Sundance Film Festival last December and garnered some good reviews. But even when the documentary’s name was just a whisper, Muslim filmmakers and advocates had criticized “Jihad Rehab” for its recycling of Islamophobic tropes and issues of consent. The documentary, which I saw online at its Sundance premiere, avoids any significant critique of Guantanamo, including the fact that the men in the documentary were held but never charged with a crime. Smaker also doesn’t question the broader paradigm of the War on Terror that brought these men to the rehabilitation facility in the first place. Nor is there much attention paid directly on the bin Nayef Center itself and how its concept of supposed terrorist rehabilitation is situated in a larger context. Then there is the issue of consent — whether, and the extent to which, the men in the film could give their approval to be interviewed since they were effectively prisoners.
In response to mounting criticism, the CEO of the Sundance Institute and the festival director acknowledged the harm the film caused to Muslims and the Middle Eastern, North African and South Asian communities. “Jihad Rehab” executive producer Abigail Disney also wrote a letter apologizing for her role in the film, and some of Smaker’s former financial and creative supporters took their names off the credits after reading Muslim and Arab filmmakers’ open letter to Sundance. In turn, many remaining supporters of Smaker and her documentary have declared her a victim of cancel culture.
But a claim of cancel culture is a misnomer. It is used to erroneously and dishonestly frame Muslim filmmakers as troublemakers simply because they dared to reject yet another Islamophobic documentary made by someone outside of the community who they say neglected the extreme precarity of the imprisoned Muslim participants featured and the larger context of the demonization of Muslims post-9/11. This isn’t cancel culture — this is a matter of recognizing the power dynamics a white non-Muslim woman with her camera brings to her work interviewing imprisoned Muslims. This is about treating your sources with respect and refraining from reiterating the terrorist stereotypes that continue to have devastating impacts on the community.
“My life is already difficult, but this film poses a serious threat to my life and that of my family,” one of the men featured in the film told the Guardian.
As a Muslim Arab American who has focused on research and writing on the War on Terror for over a decade, I have worked with marginalized populations, including former Guantanamo prisoners. I have spent significant time considering the impact of the research process on those willing to share their stories and experiences. For my doctoral dissertation on the impacts of the War on Terror, I conducted interviews with 75 Muslim Americans. But before I could even begin doing outreach, I had to submit an extensive application to the Institutional Review Board at American University, where I was completing my studies. The application not only asked about any potential physical, psychological and social risks to those being interviewed, I also had to address how, as a researcher, I would mitigate any harm from the process. Anyone interviewing incarcerated people also had to fill out additional forms and adhere to an even more stringent set of protocols. Because of the risks involved in my research project, and the ongoing War on Terror in the backdrop of our conversations, I knew these were important safeguards that I had to be intentional and thorough about, beyond what the review board process dictated. This included making sure participants felt comfortable with what I would be sharing in my dissertation after the interviews were done.
While academic research is, of course, different from documentary filmmaking and journalism, the same ethical concerns are foundational to producing work that speaks to the realities different communities face without putting them in harm’s way. Here are some best practices to consider — applicable to journalists and documentarians alike — to ensure the safety and security of marginalized communities without retraumatizing them:
Use a trauma-informed lens that centers those whose stories you are seeking. This means prioritizing and centering the welfare of the participants above all else, including the journalist’s desire to “get the story.” Formulate and ask questions in a way that doesn’t retraumatize the participant or engage in victim-blaming (like Smaker asking, “Do you think that you are a terrorist?”). Trauma on the individual and collective level is very real for many marginalized communities, and any ethical journalist and documentarian should take time to understand what this means for the story they are seeking to tell.
Obtain informed consent. Beyond a basic statement of consent, it is incumbent on the journalist to anticipate and describe any potential harm that may come from the story. Obtaining informed consent should also be an ongoing process, especially as stories evolve and become more complicated; withdrawal should be presented as an option at any time.
Smaker’s film provides a good example of why this is necessary. In one scene, a man at the bin Nayef Center talks about how he and others there were taught to “admit the things we did.” In response, Smaker asks him what he needed to admit, and even though he says he doesn’t want to talk about it and gets up to leave, she tells him there are only three questions left. After he sits back down, she asks him the question about admitting what he did again, and after repeating that he doesn’t want to talk about it, he walks out of the frame. Text then appears on the screen: “Abu Ghanim refuses further contact with the filmmaker.”
Journalists should understand that there are clear contexts in which obtaining actual, free consent is limited, as in the case of prisoners. When a source who’s been a victim of trauma explicitly and clearly articulates that they don’t want to answer a question, their request must be honored.
Understand the role of your identity and position in the journalistic process. Journalists should acknowledge upfront the identities they bring to the table and the lens through which they are telling participants’ stories. This includes acknowledging the power dynamics that exist, especially in the case of white journalists or documentarians telling the stories of BIPOC communities that have been historically misrepresented in the media.
When contacting potential participants as part of my doctoral research, I had to be cognizant of my position and identity, even though I was interviewing fellow Muslim Americans. In many Muslim communities, the long presence of FBI informants has made them skeptical to new people and outsiders, a reality I had to contend with. There are also internal divisions, conflicts and oppressions within the Muslim American community that I had to consider, for example, as a non-Black Arab entering into Black Muslim spaces. While this prolonged the process of finding and interviewing participants, telling meaningful stories and developing genuine relationships is contingent on establishing trust.
Establish rapport: Rapport requires building strong relationships through respect, trust, honesty, empathy and the creation of a safe environment. If your interest truly lies in the well-being of your participants, tread slowly and lightly — the relationship-building will take time.
A strong working relationship also doesn’t have to end just because the story has been told. Terminating the relationship after the story runs or the film is complete may seem extractive and repetitious of colonial and white supremacist patterns of exploiting lived experiences for personal benefit and gain. By maintaining a relationship with your participants, you can mitigate any harm your story causes in the short- and long-term.
Don’t write the story before listening to the storytellers. Regardless of whether the purpose of the story you’re telling is out of sheer curiosity or to examine your trauma related to a significant event, like the 9/11 attacks, don’t approach potential sources with a predetermined storyline through which their quotes and interviews are made to fit. If you’re not willing to listen, maybe ask yourself if you’re the right person to tell the story. In other words, don’t treat sources as characters in the story you are trying to tell; let them tell you what the story really is.
Consult with the community your story is about. This is extremely important, not as something to check off on a list or to use in response to critiques, but rather because you are interested in presenting the most holistic and nuanced picture. Instead of just consulting with one or two community members whose beliefs and perspectives ultimately mirror your own, engage with those from the community who share different perspectives and can offer feedback on your piece. It is especially crucial to engage with those who have a direct stake in how your story is told — including, in the case of “Jihad Rehab,” former Guantanamo prisoners.
“The interrogation-like interviewing and presumption of guilt is evocative of what we had to endure every single day,” Mansoor Adayfi, who has been imprisoned in Guantanamo, told the Guardian. “The film is a stark reminder that even as free men, we are never truly free from the shackles of Guantánamo.”
Recognize your fallibility. You might think you wrote the perfect story that captures the breadth and scope of a person or community, and then you find out you were wrong. The first step is to listen, really listen. Stonewalling or preemptively coming up with responses to criticisms is disrespectful and dishonest to the community that opened up their lives to you. What are the critiques and who are they coming from? Take them seriously, even at the expense of your ego. Most importantly, work directly with the community whose stories you told and ask them what remedies they would like to see in place. This should be done with a genuine desire to rectify the damage rather than making sure you can work with the community on a subsequent story.
Being entrusted with people’s stories carries with it a great sense of duty and obligation.
Good storytelling can change the world for the better and uplift voices that have been excluded, minimized or erased altogether. These stories, however, are only told when relationships are built on a strong ethical foundation where dignity, respect, honesty and minimizing harm are valued above all else.