In February 2022, a battle rages between two Sundance groups over the documentary “Jihad Rehab,” which won critical acclaim when it played at the virtual festival a month earlier but was targeted by a small group of vocal detractors. The two sides — festival programmers and non-programmers — came together to discuss the sensational controversy over the Meg Smecker-helmed film, which depicts a handful of Guantanamo detainees released from a US prison in a 12-month Saudi de-radicalization program. .
Sources describe a knockdown, drag-out showdown between programming director Kim Yutani, a defender of the film, and some members of the institute, who had not seen “Jihad Rehab” but wanted to appease those outraged by its inclusion in the lineup. Critics of the film targeted Smucker, for being a non-Arab director and for potentially endangering the film’s subjects while reinforcing stereotypes of Muslims as terrorists. Los Angeles Times critic Lorraine Ali drowned out the voices of those who championed the doc, including Muslim and influential former imam Jihad Turk.
Days after the Sundance showdown, institute CEO Joanna Vicente and then-festival director Tabitha Jackson took the unusual step of apologizing for saying that the film “hurt members of our community.” Other festivals—including SXSW—followed Sundance’s lead and withdrew their invitations The once-promising dock was suddenly “radioactive,” as Smecker recalls.
“Sundance is considered a leader in our industry,” added Smecker. “But when they start dragging him through the mud on Twitter, instead of supporting a film slash filmmaker they choose to program, they throw that film and everyone involved under the bus to save their own asses.”
For many in the indie film world, the drama surrounding “Jihad Rehab” (now titled “The Unredacted”) marks a new status quo. Consider that just nine years ago, the Sundance Gitmo-set Kristen Stewart-starring “Camp X-Ray,” directed by non-Arab filmmaker Peter Sattler, debuted without a peep. But now, everything is being put “under the microscope of scrutiny,” says veteran film finance attorney Mark Simon: “These are critical times.”
Indeed, that quick-to-capitulate reflex underscores a new, unspoken modus operandi in which festivals — once bastions of provocative, button-pushing fare — are desperate to avoid controversy and the wrath of any identity-focused Twitter mob.
Terracino, a one-name indie director with an A-list festival pedigree, is also on the wrong side of the growing culture war on the circuit. In late 2021, he took a rough cut of his latest narrative feature, “Waking Up Dead,” to some of the major festivals that have shown his work in the past. After directing the only SAG-cleared microbudget film in Los Angeles during the height of the 2020 Covid pandemic, Terracino thought he’d be embraced with open arms. The film, starring Gabriel Sousa and Traci Lords, also secured distribution before bowing out through Breaking Glass Pictures.
“But that’s when the ‘wook’ pushback started,” he says of festival organizer resistance. “My main character is gay [is initially] Transphobic, which is what I wanted to explore — transphobia in the gay community — and they had a problem with it. They were afraid to show a film with a transphobic lead.” She says she was asked: “‘Why do you have to bond your Latino lead with a white woman?’ I was really surprised by that one. Here I am, a gay Latino filmmaker, and I have to answer about nasty racial politics?
OutFest, which had shown all of Terrachino’s previous work and produced his film “Elliot Loves,” rejected “Waking Up Dead.” “I’m sure in the near future we’ll find ways to support the film as it comes out into the world,” one programmer wrote. Frameline and NewFest rejections followed, though Terracino is a veteran of both. That means abstaining from three of the largest LGBTQ fests in the US
“You can feel the fear between the festivals. They are afraid of showing a film that might offend someone,” he adds. “A programmer at a Latino film festival told me, ‘If one person objects to your film, I could lose my job.'”
And while no one will officially confirm it, plug-in indie sources and Sundance board members say so diversity They believe Jackson’s departure is related to his conduct of “jihad rehab.” Sundance and Jackson declined to comment on her departure.
“Tabitha Jackson is a beautiful woman,” says Smucker. But the problem is that he tries to please everyone. And if you’re a leader, you have to make tough decisions that sometimes piss people off—that’s part of the job. Instead, Sundance bent over backwards to satisfy a small group of people who hadn’t seen the film.” (Smecker said he was told by Sundance that 95% of the more than 230 artists who signed a March 2022 letter condemning “Jihad Rehab” had not seen the film, a statistic the festival was able to provide based on virtual screening attendance data.)
Perhaps to avoid a repeat of the “Jihad Rehab” gimmick, the Sundance application now asks filmmakers for additional information on the stories and subjects behind the document submission. A Sundance representative said while the requirement is new, it has been in the works for some time. Similarly, the Doc Society’s Safe + Secure guidelines, cited as a useful tool in the artist’s letter decrying “jihad rehab,” ask filmmakers: “If your subject(s) have experienced some form of trauma, how do you ensure that Do they have experiences?Excited to participate in your film?
Other recent festival films also took heat for allegedly exploiting attendees, including the drama “Sparta.” It was accepted by the Toronto International Film Festival but then Austrian director Ulrich Seidl pulled the narrative feature after complaining that the film’s central theme of pedophilia was not revealed to its two and teenage actors, who were “faced with alcoholism, violence and nudity without sufficient preparation and adequate support”. According to a report by the German magazine Der Spiegel. Unlike Sundance, TIFF didn’t even bother to explain its decision and simply posted a message on its website that the film had been pulled.
In an unforgiving climate, sales agents say they must trust their gut now more than ever.
“If we see something that we think is going to be problematic, we might walk away from it, even if we think it’s a good movie,” says Submarine’s Josh Brown. “Everybody probably ends up being a little too loyal to what might be problematic. There’s ‘controversial’ and then there’s ‘problematic’. I think it’s a fine line.”
For his part, Smecker felt vindicated by the growing response to the initial response. Sympathetic pieces in the New York Times and the Atlantic helped breathe new life into a film left for dead, and many reconsidered why it happened in the first place. And Terracino is determined to find his own happy ending, picking up trophies at the Palm Springs LGBTQ Film Festival, including best picture and director, with “Waking Up Dead” set to play.
“If you look at what happened to me, look at ‘unredacted,’ ‘wook’ is silencing artists of color and women,” she says. “And it’s interesting to me that you have so many people of color supporting something that actually silences people of color. I think it’s going to lead to some very dangerous places and it already has, and I think very soon a lot of artists of color are going to regret this awakening ideology.”