Meg Smaker’s hoping for some redemption after a nightmare year endured on her documentary The UnRedacted: Jihad Rehab. She premiered her film as a hot sales title at Sundance, only to watch the festival apologize twice after angry charges were leveled by Muslim voices that a white filmmaker was perpetuating Islamophobia. That led to backers like Abigail Disney disavowing the film when social media criticism reared up, and SXSW rescinding an invite. Smaker is taking her last shot at getting her fascinating docu considered as voting for the Oscar docu shortlist begins today.
Smaker released a new trailer reflecting a new title for the film — the original Jihad Rehab became part of the film’s problematic narrative. She has gotten a second wind thanks to a GoFundMe campaign that allowed her to hire a publicist and set a limited qualifying theatrical run. This was made possible by the investigative work by a few respected journalists who largely debunked the allegations made online against the film often enough to be accepted as fact. Everything from “how could a white woman direct a film that perpetuates Muslim terrorist stereotypes” to warning that the release of the film would endanger the men who took part, to questioning whether the four participants who form the film’s core were coerced into participating. But Smaker says she continues to communicate with the four Yemeni men who were the only ones to open up to her about why they joined Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and how they were then held and allegedly tortured at Guantanamo, and now were trying to prepare for civilian life in a rehabilitation facility run by Saudi Arabia.
Smaker’s taking a longshot last ditch attempt to regain some stature for a film rendered radioactive by the online criticism and rejection by the docu establishment that continues even now. Just the other day the IDA email blasted an article that referred to The UnRedacted as “a film whose very existence endangers the lives of four Yemeni men at the film’s center who were unlawfully detained at a Saudi carceral institution.” Smaker has tried to draw Oscar Docu branch voters to see the film on the Academy Screening Room, and is in the middle of a weeklong run at the Laemmle Monica Film Center in Santa Monica, taking part in post-screening discussions. The first round of docu voting opened today, and Smaker believes the only path to vindication is building awareness to get the film on the Docu shortlist.
The journalists who wrote about the film’s demise are estimable. A New York Times story by Michael Powell gave Smaker the momentum to start a GoFundMe page to hire a publicist and set up screenings. A National Review cover story by Sebastian Junger, an investigative article by Graeme Wood for The Atlantic, and a podcast by Sam Harris called “A Tale of Cancellation” have all helped give a dismissed film a new reckoning. But the only thing that matters is, will voters watch the film and make up their own minds, which is how it is supposed to work?
Junger’s journalism work informed the blockbuster The Perfect Storm. Restrepo, a docu he made with the and whose film with fellow war correspondent Tim Hetherington — they spent a year with a platoon in a bloody valley in Afghanistan — won a Sundance Grand Jury Prize and was Oscar nominated. After publishing his eye-opening article, Junger just moderated an interview with Smaker at one of UnRedacted screenings. He finds himself incensed by what he discovered had been done to Smaker, her film maligned in such a shadowy way, especially by left leaning entities that are supposed to stand up for and protect worthy docus that are provocative by nature. Taking a position like this isn’t something Junger does often, but here he wanted to right what he considered an injustice.
“As a journalist, I had to walk a fine line. I couldn’t sound like a subjective advocate, I had to be impartial,” Junger told Deadline. “But you can be impartial and come to a conclusion. I had to make it clear I wasn’t putting my thumb on the scale to do a friend a favor. Essentially, this was unbelievably unfair [the maligning of Smaker’s film], and there was so much cowardice on the part of powerful people. I was just, wow, what a coming together of ghastly things, vengeful, petty malicious people who don’t really have a case, and fearful powerful people looking to protect themselves. It’s grotesque.”
Junger said he didn’t know Smaker well, but wrote the article after she reached out, full of despair.
“She said, I’ve had the worst six months imaginable. I’m really depressed that I got completely canceled,” Junger recalled. “I’d moved off the film industry so I wasn’t really focused on it. When she sent me the documentation, I was like, God, this is terrible. I’m a Democrat and some of the right wing stuff going on in this country is pretty upsetting. This is exactly the same thing. Suppression of the truth, and the indignation of some people who want power rather than truth, this is horrendous. The right wing does this, and if the left wing starts doing it, then the country is doomed. I was really shocked by the bad faith and dishonesty of the attacks.”
Smaker’s no shrinking violet, and she came to Sundance last January with a life backstory that seemed sure to establish her as a breakout coming in Park City. She was kidnapped in Colombia for several tense weeks in 2003, where her captors brutally killed seven hostages in front of their families; she trained in Cuba to be a boxer and found the only female boxer in that country and turned it into the docu short Boxeadora. She left her job as a firefighter after 9/11, on a search for how such a hateful act could happen, and she spent a decade living and working in the Middle East teaching firefighting in Yemen. She learned the local language and studied Islam, all to seek the answer of how terrorists could fly passenger planes into buildings and kill so many innocent people. She found the handle in the rehab facility. Now , all this character building through adversity has strengthened her resolve to not have her film be a casualty of cancel culture.
Here quest is a longshot, seeking validation from a docu division that has rejected her, and also entering her film in the Best Picture category. Junger acknowledges the Don Quixote-esque nature of what Smaker’s doing, but believes it is admirable.
“Sometimes, the defense of human dignity is Don Quixote-esque, and that means we should do it anyway,” Junger said. “I have never seen a film more Oscar-worthy than Meg’s film.”