A still from Jihad Rehab by Meg Smaker, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Jack Shurman.

Sundance Responds to Jihad Rehab Controversy

Festival leaders acknowledge need for better representation and support for Muslim, Arab, and MENASA artists

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4 mins read

Sundance Institute CEO Joana Vincente and Sundance Film Festival Director Tabitha Jackson have issued a statement concerning Jihad Rehab. The festival leaders posted a statement today on Sundance’s blog. Jihad Rehab screened in this year’s U.S. Documentary Competition at Sundance where it was embroiled in immediate controversy. Critics, including this one, took issue with the film’s problematic gaze and the way the director, Meg Smaker, framed subjects in a facility designed to reintegrate men arrested for charges of terrorism back into society. The film sparked a strong debate online, particularly among filmmakers who identify as Muslim or as people of Middle Eastern, North African, and South Asian descent, and even prompted commentary from the counterterrorism lead of Human Rights Watch.

“We have been listening to, and reflecting on, the many perspectives shared around the inclusion of Meg Smaker’s documentary film Jihad Rehab at our Festival in January,” notes the statement. “As with every film we show, we hope to stimulate conversation and debate that adds value to our civic society. In this case it is clear that the showing of this film hurt members of our community — in particular, individuals from Muslim and MENASA communities — and for that we are deeply sorry…

“With the power of our Festival platform comes a responsibility: to balance freedom of creative expression and support for contentious and thought-provoking work with the assurance that it is presented with proper context and space for debate, and to maintain, and where necessary evolve, a curatorial process that upholds our mission and values.”

The Jihad Rehab controversy is arguably the sharpest debate about representation and point of view in the documentary community south of the border in some time. The outcry evokes similar conversations surrounding filmmaker identity and subject misrepresentation sparked by the inclusion of Dominic Gagnon’s of the North at RIDM in 2015, which appropriated YouTube images of the Inuit without consent, and the fallout from Inconvenient Indian director Michelle Latimer’s identity, which prompted the film to be pulled from distribution (including a competition slot at Sundance) after one of the most successful runs on the fall circuit ever for a Canadian film. Two top Sundance staffers resigned amid the Jihad Rehab controversy, while critics and filmmakers have weighed in with commentary that emphasized an industry overhaul for ethic programming and stronger representation among filmmakers, funders, and decision makers.

Vincente and Jackson thanked the filmmakers who spoke out for their bravery and for addressing significant concerns. They also included several key points of reflection in their statement:

“This moment reflects the dynamic and continuing evolution of broader, fundamental issues that we have always considered in our work and must continue to grapple with as an organization, and as a field:

  • Representation, authorship, and the perpetuation of stereotypes, particularly as they apply to oppressed/marginalized communities.
  • Increased support of, and for, Muslim and Arab artists, their art, and the creative expression of their own lived experience.
  • The contribution to, and upholding of, best practices around ethics, journalism, and duty of care in documentary filmmaking.
  • Expectations of festivals, funders, and the field around the questions we should be asking of film teams before selection.

“If we are to make a meaningful contribution to this present moment and ensure that independent storytelling is preserved, protected, and propelled forward, we must find a way of harnessing the transformative power of individuals, institutions, and collectives to do this work together,” the statement reads.

 

Read the full statement at Sundance’s blog.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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