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Sundance 2022 Critic’s Notebook: I Didn’t See You There, Jihad Rehab

A man in a motorized wheelchair silhouetted in front of a circus carouselI Didn't See You There

Reid Davenport’s I Didn’t See You There, which won the Directing Award in Sundance’s US Documentary competition, is an essayistic and perspectival portrayal of the history of disability spectacle and the filmmaker’s personal experience with cerebral palsy. The first scene follows the path Davenport takes from station entrance to subway platform, as he points out that the elevators to the platforms are outside the turnstiles, meaning that the straightest route via wheelchair is one that encourages fare hopping. In voiceover, Davenport explains that he was caught once, but that hasn’t stopped him since. After a career of giving TED talks, founding a media non-profit focused on amplifying the voices of those with disabilities and directing many short films on the subject, Davenport hasn’t, until this film, manipulated a camera himself. Here, he operates a small one which he deliberately points at negative space, making it the primary backdrop of life’s stuff—the street, the walls and the sky, edited into captivating sequences by Todd Chandler (whose own directorial debut, Bulletproof [2020], is an insightful essay film tour of the effects of mass school shootings and industries that profit off of them). In synopses of I Didn’t See You There, the narrative spine of a circus tent set up across the street from Davenport’s Bay Area apartment and associated histories of freakshows are usually emphasized; in actuality, the sensorial experience of life with cerebral palsy in sight and sound rouses an indelible, powerful counter-narrative to the noble suffering of disabled people.

Thankfully, the film isn’t driven by contrived plot or belabored documentary metaphor. Like the socialist, anti-imperialist, anti-racist and proto-feminist heft of Helen Keller’s writing and speeches, Davenport’s lived experiences, conversations with his family members and research on the profits generated by circus freakshows make it clear that understandings of disability must necessarily engage with the political dimensions of mobility and inequality. As Davenport explains in voiceover, he chooses to live in the Bay Area because of ample public transportation, though this removes him from his family in Connecticut and personal connection to his residence. Crucially, he doesn’t absolve himself of effects such as contributing to gentrification of the surrounding environs. Several trips back to his hometown, which is also the hometown of PT Barnum, allow the filmmaker to organically connect the history of the circus with the propertization of human beings (as Barnum’s first circus “freak” was an enslaved woman), Davenport’s own political radicalization and the paternalistic structures limiting human travel. Self-representation of the filmmaker’s visage is limited to brief glances off of mirrored surfaces, formally rejecting the visual spectacle of disabled people (reinforced in the film by a story Davenport asks his mother to recount, of strangers staring at the two of them at a grocery store, which comes with a twist). If this all sounds too intellectual, I Didn’t See You There’s great strength is that it combines the didactic essay form with the sights and sounds of a defiantly independent existence. 

The final scene in I Didn’t See You There takes Davenport straight to his white whale, which he has been chasing for the majority of the film’s run time. This is not his first time making a personal film, or a film about disability. But one senses, in this project, that Davenport has put a stake in the ground for an emboldened cinema of disability. The depiction of sound in this film is especially noteworthy. With additional sound recorded by former Sensory Ethnography Laboratory manager and sound designer Ernst Karel, the clattering of Davenport’s wheelchair over different grounds is highlighted both audibly and through audio description captions. With the virtual turn, festivals like Sundance have highlighted how affordances like closed captions in their virtual festival platforms can increase accessibility for individuals in the D/deaf, disabled, and neurodivergent communities. After this piece was published, producers reached out to tell me that for every film selected in the 2022 lineup, Sundance required film teams to provide their own closed captions. (Audio descriptions were not required.) There’s a lot more that can be said about how festivals have started soliciting these captions without accounting for the labor, design, and cost of their creation. As someone who has binaural hearing loss and prefers to watch films with CC, if available, I sadly report that many of the films had inaccurate captions. For instance, in one tense scene in Nikyatu Jusu’s Nanny, which won the Grand Jury Prize in the US Narrative competition, “I used to teach in Senegal” appeared as “I used to teach in Synagogue.” Additionally, a couple of music cues were translated, in captioned form, as “[African music]”, flattening cultural specificity in a way I don’t think the filmmakers intended. In contrast, I Didn’t See You There‘s complex, immersive sound design is extended to audio descriptions created by its team (e.g., “[cars pass as chair bumps and bops on sidewalk]”) and baked into the making of the film as opposed to being a clearly ancillary project. 

A fellow graduate of Stanford MFA Documentary program, Meg Smaker, made a very different sort of first-person documentary, which has been beset by criticisms by Muslim and Arab filmmakers in the face of laudatory reviews from US- and UK-based white film critics. Her Jihad Rehab is unapologetically anti-Muslim jingoism cloaked in a no-less objectionable paternalistic humanitarianism. It starts with a condensed retelling of half a century of conflict in the Middle East. The onscreen text is naive in the most generous reading and, regardless of intent, actively perpetuates US propagandistic “War on Terror” rhetoric. The opening states, in the passive voice: “Then came 9/11. As US troops invaded Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden ordered his men home, returning many battle-hardened extremists back to Saudi soil,” and ends by characterizing a Saudi carceral institution as an “experimental program” and “the world’s first rehabilitation center.” After this retelling, the film reveals its first image, a shot of a seascape, with a thick black line on the horizon dividing the ocean from the sky. Onscreen text reads: “There’s good, there’s bad, in every story… it’s a thin line,” as said black line gets thinner. These inept middle-school presentation aesthetics continue over the film’s runtime, proceeding directly into an animated recap of the information just conveyed via onscreen text, in a clumsy emulation of Waltz with Bashir (2008), before fading into the verite footage and sit-down interviews.

Jihad Rehab adopts the worst of the countdown structure of school, sports and performance documentaries, marking time over a year of sporadically filming four Yemeni men unlawfully detained at Guantanamo Bay without trial, and applying these well-worn conventions to jovially conveying the gilded cage of the Saudi “rehabilitation center.” (An epilogue presents a “where are we now'”update on three of the mens’ lives, a few years after the initial shoot, and it’s clear that at least some of the sit-down interviews are also drawn from this second shoot.) “The subjects have been forcibly relocated to this center for an involuntary integration process into a kingdom (Saudi Arabia) that is actively bombing and inciting violence in their homeland (Yemen)—all this context is conveyed in the film with cloaked language. For instance, one representative of the center proudly states that “our duty here is to help them become a normal citizen,” bolstered by ill-advised sequences of the men attending classes. These aren’t depictions of restorative justice or healing processes that might deal with the traumatic experiences of being held without due process, tortured, and sexually assaulted for half of one’s life, which have been well-documented in reports and testimonies over the last 20 years, or raised this week by Letta Taylor, the Human Rights Watch’s counterrorism lead. There is a brief art therapy scene, but otherwise the “classes” depicted are edited for humor, showing the briefest moments in lectures on using Google and how to find a wife in a ham-fisted attempt at levity, scored to a jaunty soundtrack. “As detainment drags on, the staff take the men camping to boost morale,” onscreen text reads, followed by a wordless montage of an outdoor crackling fire and roasting food. The sequence transparently plies an imagined middle-America: “Al Qaeda terrorists, they’re just like us!”

Part of the way that the production team are trying to establish the legitimacy of Jihad Rehab is by citing Smaker’s proximate experience with 9/11 (working as a firefighter following a father who worked as a firefighter), move to the Middle East to seek answers (at age 20, according to the press notes), and five years in Yemen learning Arabic before “gaining access” to the center. These details are all textual as well as extratextual—but all of them, while they may be true to the filmmaker’s motivations, are under-examined, appearing in the film as window dressing for the positioning of Smaker’s subjects. Though the press notes stressed that Smaker’s fluency with Yemeni Arabic (“a distinctive dialect”) is what created the initial bonds between her and the men she records, it’s eerily absent from the film. During the sit-down interviews, Smaker asks a couple of short preliminary questions in Arabic, but the rest are in English, and when she communicates with the men in observational scenes, she is always speaking in English. The questions themselves transparently reveal her eagerness to produce gotchas, such as the exact moments two of the four featured men refused to be filmed (one refused any further contact). To be clear, other documentaries have deployed such scenes after consulting with the people in them about whether or not they wanted to continue with the project (as of this writing, none of the four men in the film have seen the film yet)—ethically, consent is an ongoing process, not a one-time answer that absolves filmmakers, nor one that can be imposed by others onto the footage. One participant asks Smaker, who is credited as one of the film’s cinematographers, across two different scenes to stop filming for safety reasons. The only explanation I have for Smaker continuing to use the scenes depicted is that she had an overwhelming desire to establish participants were “backsliding” from the center’s lessons, and how extraordinary she thought these situations were.

The thrill-seeking ethos of this film is key to understanding the film’s appeal and positive critical reception in the face of glaring ethical and formal ineptitude. The press notes profess that Smaker traveled to Afghanistan six months after 9/11 in 2001 and was shortly thereafter inspired to move to Yemen, with a pitstop in the Darién Gap, where she had a life-changing experience being “kidnapped” by AUC. In earlier reporting, Smaker characterized the situation as more of an interception and that she received protection from AUC. The kidnapping story is all in service of a personal realization about a reported kidnapper: “Her trajectory from teenage girl to executioner had nothing to do with being born evil. It wasn’t about good and evil at all, it was simply about time and circumstance.” After I read this story, which centers Smaker’s own personal edification, I realized that the film’s structure supposedly emulates Smaker’s personal journey in changing her binary thinking from good-evil to time-circumstance axis, presumably in the hopes that a viewer would do the same. This hubris discounts the actual storytelling power necessary to change an Islamaphobic person’s worldview (this Daily Beast reviewer repeats the worst of American Islamophobia even after watching the film), let alone one that reinforces the equation of Islam with terrorism and a presumption of guilt. It also, according to social media posts and op-eds written by Muslim and Arab filmmakers (mostly based in the US), marks years of ignoring concerns raised by these filmmakers as they encountered Jihad Rehab through independent documentary film financing and development spaces. Documentary studio XTR, once attached to Jihad, quietly removed its name from the film (and deleted the tweet that formerly announced their involvement) between Sundance’s lineup announcement and its premiere, a scant few days before Abigail Disney was lauded for co-directing a Sundance premiere indicting her family corporation’s contribution to inequality in America; meanwhile, the continued attachment of major funders like Abigail Disney’s Fork Films to this film reveal the particular ideological limitations of philanthropic impact-driven documentary investment.

The film was included in puff pieces such Documentary magazine’s recap of how filmmakers adjusted to a virtual Sundance and an Anne Thompson article whose language is almost a carbon copy of the press notes’ director’s statement. Smaker has addressed the criticisms of her film in interview form with The Wrap, Variety, and IndieWire. The latter half of the Variety interview is reliant on the cultural expertise of Mohamad Aabas—introduced as a Yemeni criminal justice advocate, but who, Smaker revealed in the Sundance Q&A with programmer Basil Tsiokos, she met because they were “in the same fight club,” and who joined the film as an executive producer in 2020 after most of filming had concluded. Across these media appearances, Smaker and Aabas insisted that the film speaks to Yemenis and they had done feedback screenings with “the Yemeni community in the Bay Area” and other stakeholders, which appear to amount to an endorsement of the film’s approach, themes and use of jihad in the title. The Wrap article confirms with Sue Obeidi, director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council’s Hollywood Bureau, that the MPAC provided “honest and concrete feedback” on the film but that she could not comment further because of an NDA with the film’s production company. 

What does this all amount to, as a sign of Sundance’s programming? This is not the first time this festival has courted controversy with underthought programming selections. Two years ago, competition selection Into the Deep (2020) was removed from circulation by its distributor, Netflix, after interview subjects in the film claimed (as corroborated by the film’s cinematographer) that they didn’t consent to being in a film about Peter Madsen’s murder of the journalist Kim Wall. Into the Deep was similarly well-received by other critics, who didn’t see how the film hides its smug salaciousness behind a formal veneer, unlike the true-crime clumsiness of Jihad Rehab. My fellow Sundance dispatch writer pointed out similar flaws in the spectacularizing of dangerous access via action movie music in Matt Heineman’s Cartel Land (2015), a Sundance hit from a recent year. Some controversies have been addressed, such as Sundance quietly pulling Michelle Latimer’s An Inconvenient Indian (2019) from the World Documentary Competition on the producer’s request after a CBC investigation revealed that the filmmaker’s claims of Indigenous descent were suspect. To be fair, Sundance has also stood on the side of victims in exposé documentaries such as On the Record (2020), keeping the film in the lineup to honor their voices after executive producer Oprah left the project. But after years of watching dozens of documentaries from Sundance lineups, it’s rather clear that the team is drawn towards these types of films: no publicity is bad publicity for the enduring relevance of Sundance as the center of US documentary.

Editor’s Note: As noted in the text above, this piece has been updated and corrected after publication regarding Sundance’s closed captioning requirements.

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