Life Line: AG's Story
director, animator, designer
In 2020, I was approached by Buck to direct, design, and animate one of four animated segments for Meg Smaker's debut feature documentary, then titled simply 'Rehab.' The film followed four participants in a Saudi Arabian art therapy program designed to rehabilitate accused 'terrorists' and former detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Each animated segment was based on a piece of artwork created by one of the accused – in my case, a man referred to by his initials, AG. The most reserved of the group, AG's artwork consisted of a single green pencil line, etched in an uncertain hand, representing the shape of his life from childhood through imprisonment. This 'life line' became the unifying visual thread for the animation.
Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, given the ensuing controversy – to which I respond below) none of the original four segments was included in the final film, 'Jihad Rehab.' Toward the end of animation production, Smaker abruptly pulled her support for the collaboration, notably without compensating any of the directors for the months of creative labor we devoted to the project. For legal reasons, the version posted here doesn't include any original audio of AG's interview, but I've kept the subtitled translation of the original recording for thematic legibility.
My frustration and disappointment the experience has since turned to deeper reflection. I believe the breakdown of the collaboration was, at its core, a fundamental miscommunication about the nature of imagery in motion, and in particular, the material qualities of cinematic time in animation versus documentary film, which differ greatly in both form and function. I've translated these reflections into an article for the journal Animation Practice, Process & Production (AP3), exploring this tension as a window into contemporary motion design practice.
A REFLECTION ON THE CONTROVERSY
Jihad Rehab (now rebranded as The UnRedacted) has garnered massive controversy since its 2022 Sundance premiere, from which it was quickly revoked with apologies and resignations from the Sundance Institute. Detractors have accused Smaker and her backers of perpetuating Islamophobic stereotypes that erase real stories of Muslim victimization, while defenders have accused Sundance of cowardice in caving to mob mentality. It must be fairly noted that much of the initial criticism against the film was levied by people who had never seen it, given its limited screening, and that I count myself among those who have not seen it, beyond the short clip provided to me by Smaker.
As a 'Muslim-adjacent' American myself – over half of my family is Muslim, although I'm consciously nonreligious – I'm sensitive to the fraught history that sparked the Jihad Rehab backlash. I share dismay at the under-representation of Muslim film talent, yearn for more normalized and realistic portraits of Muslim people in our popular culture, and experience the same frustration and fatigue when yet another director (usually white) flattens Muslims onscreen through the long lens of the terrorist stereotype. Yet as an artist, I'm also deeply frustrated that much of the early backlash against the film came before almost anyone had seen it, including many of those who were most vocally critical of it. The nuances in any specific criticism of the actual film – the collective American obsession with terrorists as dark-faced denizens of the desert and never the white guy next door, the complexities of navigating consent with incarcerated subjects who never faced a proper trial, the long shadow of influence cast by a dictatorial regime over the participants and their families – became subsequently obscured by the tired label of 'cancel culture.' Conversations around cultural identity as a hard marker of permission and ownership in principle, rather than a soft power of compassion and sensibility in practice, bubbled up most readily to the surface, and stuck there.
Setting aside my own difficulties as a creative contributor to the project, I cannot speak to the merits or demerits of 'Jihad Rehab/The UnRedacted' until and unless I see it for myself.