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Sundance Addresses ‘Jihad Rehab’ Controversy: ‘The Showing of This Film Hurt Members of Our Community’

A statement from Sundance empathized the organization's focus on representation of Muslim artists and journalistic ethics.

“Jihad Rehab”

Courtesy Meg Smaker

After weeks of turmoil that culminated in the resignations of two staff members, the Sundance Film Festival has spoken publicly about the controversy caused by the film “Jihad Rehab.” Meg Smaker’s documentary about former Guantanamo Bay prisoners being held in a Saudi Arabian rehab facility has attracted controversy from the moment it was selected for Sundance. Criticisms of the film ranged from accusations that it did little to help offensive stereotypes about Muslim men to more serious charges that the documentary placed its subjects in danger.

IndieWire’s Eric Kohn summarized the film community’s grievances with the movie, writing “among the many problems with director Meg Smaker’s look at a Saudi Arabian institution designed to help former Guantanamo Bay prisoners reintegrate into society: There’s the title, which reinforces the most negative connotations of the term ‘jihad’; the positioning of the subjects as ominous Muslim stereotypes; and an ethically dubious approach to labeling men as ‘terrorists’ who haven’t been accused of actual crimes.”

In a new statement, Sundance Institute CEO Joana Vicente and Festival Director Tabitha Jackson apologized for any upset that the screening of the film caused and stressed the organization’s commitment to diversity. “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,” the statement reads. “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.”

Last month, a group of Muslim-American filmmakers signed a letter to Sundance criticizing the decision to allow “Jihad Rehab” to compete in the U.S. Documentary category at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Two of the letter’s recipients, Brenda Coughlin, director of Impact, Engagement, and Advocacy, and Karim Ahmad, director of the Outreach & Inclusion Program, soon resigned from Sundance. At the time, Sundance leaders emphasized that the group’s concerns were being heard, but this new statement represents the strongest position the institution has taken on the film to date.

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