Been a while since I did a film review, but I recently had the opportunity to watch “The Unredacted” and, spoiler alert, thought it so profound that I felt compelled to make a video on it. Which might be a bit pointless, quite frankly, because there is a good possibility that you may not ever be able to see it.
“The Unredacted” is a documentary about former prisoners of Guantanamo Bay accused of being Al Qaeda who have been released into Saudi custody and gone through a year-long rehabilitation program – the so-called “Jihad Rehab” that was the original title of this film.
Principally following three Yemeni and one Saudi who were arrested in Afghanistan early during the intervention in that country, the film covers several years of their lives as they undergo therapy and reeducation and ultimately are released into Saudi society. In the film the subjects recount their experiences in Guantanamo, with particular highlights on the torture they experienced in American custody.
Now, it’s important to say that these are effectively allegations, as no proof other than their testimony is offered to this. Having said, that, the same can be said of the allegations made against the men themselves, and the film points out that despite the accusations, none of them was ever so much as charged with a crime. Despite this they spent years in prison, in the case of the three Yemeni’s fifteen years each before being sent to Saudi, where they are to remain as they are forbidden from returning to their homeland.
Filmmaker Meg Smaker, who was able to obtain an unparalleled level of access over several years to make the documentary, is able to coax some information from the subjects on their experiences, but one aspect I found of particular interest is why they ended up in Afghanistan. *Spoiler*, it was basically because they were young, being largely between 16 and 18 years old when they went. Thus they spent their formative years in prison where they were allegedly tortured and are now effective exiles in a foreign land.
It would be easy to say “well, they were terrorists, so tough,” but it is a much more complex and engaging story than warrants such a simplistic attitude.
Notionally the film is about the rehabilitation program and whether it is truly possible to make someone who has been so committed to a terrorist cause a functioning member of society. But what unfolds as the film progresses is a human-interest story that I think pretty much anyone can relate to.
The men are worried about how the world will view them when they achieve their freedom. Will they be able to marry and have children? What’s Google? Seriously.
As it progresses you see them undergo highs and lows, express their hopes and fears and ultimately be sent off to their fate as free men, though as effectively immigrants in Saudi Arabia and considered former terrorists that is a very relative term.
What Smaker has done is make a film about men who for a generation have been the enemy of pretty much the entire planet and made them human, showing them as the same flawed individuals that we all are and not just mindless monsters from an archaic death cult.
I hope you’ll bear in mind my own personal history with Islamic extremists when I say this, but I found the men who agreed to be in this film utterly relatable and I am rooting for them to succeed in the future and not fall back to old ways. And for this reason, I think it is a film that people should watch.
If they can, that is. Because now I should address the controversy surrounding this film, and the attempts to “cancel” it.
Obviously, making the subjects of your film people accused of being members of Al Qaeda was always going to be controversial, though not in the way the producers originally thought. Instead of facing backlash from the political right for daring to portray possible former terrorists as being human beings with all their foibles, instead the film received attacks from the left.
This saw it go from receiving good reviews after its release at the 2022 Sundance Festival to suddenly getting dropped like a hot potato when it faced criticism on the grounds that it was Islamophobic. What followed was a panicked flight from the film of supporters, including Abigail Disney, one of its principal financiers, who went from singing its praises to writing a groveling letter of apology over her involvement.
Another criticism against the film was that it violated journalistic principles as the subjects could not be considered to having given their consent in a free and fair way, considering the circumstance they were in. There was also the allegation that by including certain statements made by the men, the film was placing them in risk of actual harm. This is possible, though Ms.Smaker has pointed out that of all the participants undergoing the program at the time of production only this few agreed to being filmed and she strongly asserts that the men were all happy to take part and signed off on appearing.
Certainly, the concern on the ethnical implications were enough for Sundance to demand an independent report on the issue, which was subsequently delivered though apparently for naught as the festival dropped the film from its lineup.
So I don’t think those concerns properly hold up, and I have to say for much of the other criticism leveled at the film, I just don’t get it. Now I’ll admit, I probably don’t have the political nuance or cultural awareness that some of the critics of the films have, but regardless I’m still mystified.
For example, one review I read accused the film of not treating the subjects with depth and fairness. But I personally cannot think of another film that has managed to follow former Guantanamo detainees over several years and portray them in a way that, in my opinion, makes alleged former terrorists not just relatable, but actually likeable.
Other reviews accuse the filmmaker of parroting Saudi and American propaganda. Again, this baffles me, because if there is one thing that comes across is the awful things that the men allege they experienced at the hands of their captors, which does not exactly inspire the best image of the American military or authorities. Because whether the tales they tell are true or not, I personally thought they sounded convincing and was appalled.
Meanwhile accusations of being used as a stooge by the Saudi authorities are generally followed by claims that the documentary is also putting their subjects at risk at the hands of said authorities, which seems counter intuitive.
As for the claims of being Islamophobic, the initial critique which caused the stampede of previous supporters, well, again, I’m not seeing it. The initial complaint seems to have been about the original name of the film, “Jihad Rehab”, which was criticized as being insensitive to Muslim sensibilities and reinforcing negative Western attitude towards the broader concept of Jihad.
Ms. Smaker’s reply to this is that the term is that used in Saudi Arabia as a sort of nickname for the program, and she was surprised by the reaction. However, this did lead to the changing of the film’s title to its current one, in the hopes of negating the criticism.
In that it seems to have failed, because the Islamophobic label seems to have well and truly stuck and as a result distributors don’t want to touch it. Again, I am somewhat intrigued by the allegation and what is the justification for it, as none of the negative reviews I have read seem to give example of just what in the film is Islamaphobic.
I suspect that it is footage of the subjects discussing marrying when they get out of the rehabilitation centre. In the conversation in question, the subjects are advised to marry women younger than themselves as “women age quicker than men, so if you marry a woman your own age you will need to get a second wife later to look after you both.”
But if the accusation of Islamophobia is rooted in the fact that the film portrays elements of Saudi culture that the critics don’t like or think portray Islam in a negative way, this would seem more a case of shooting the messenger rather than addressing the actual issues.
Regardless of this, the damage is well and truly done and “The Unredacted” was only available for a short run in a tiny number of theaters in the Unites States and the UK, and this only achieved after a Gofundme appeal raised enough money for the limited distribution that occurred. At the time of this post going live I am unaware of any future showings of the film, though I believe the producers are hoping to be able to release it for digital download sometime in 2023.
And I hope they do, so I will put a link to the film’s website in the description so anyone interested can keep track of developments and, if it does come out, would encourage people to watch it and make up their own minds. Because the job of a documentary maker is to encourage discussion on a topic.
And with “The Unredacted”, Meg Smaker has created discussions on not just how we deal with terrorism, its causes and what to do with those who perpetrate attacks, but also on our own nations’ actions during the War on Terror, journalistic ethics, identity politics and the so-called “cancel culture”. As a result of all that this film will, I suspect, prove to be important in the long run.