Sundance’s Spotify Problem: The Debate Over ‘Jihad Rehab’ Is a Wakeup Call (Column)

The widespread backlash to the documentary is an opportunity for a teachable moment.
Sundance’s Spotify Problem: Debate Over ‘Jihad Rehab’ Is a Wakeup Call
"Jihad Rehab"
Courtesy Meg Smaker

For those of us who spent the last two weeks of January in Sundance mode — my final count came just shy of 40 features, thank you very much — there’s no doubt that its program will resonate in the year ahead. The lineup launched exciting new genre filmmakers, gave jailed Russian dissident Alexei Navalny a voice with his own thrilling documentary, and led to some serious marketplace activity.

Even as the Sundance 2022 news cycle moves on, a sore spot remains with “Jihad Rehab.” 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.

As Documentary magazine reported earlier this week, complaints didn’t begin with the film’s Sundance premiere; the Muslim community raised its voice months before the festival announced its selection. Others in the documentary community claim to have raised their concerns with Smaker’s approach much earlier, during the film’s prolonged financing.

As for the director, sources in the documentary community say that Smaker has long been resistant to feedback but is in a state of shock about the response and uncertain about next steps. (She declined to comment for this piece.) I’m not here to linger on the multitude of problems with “Jihad Rehab” or dig deeper into the behind-the-scenes of its production — more erudite voices did that all week — except to confirm for anyone wondering that, yep, it’s got issues.

A white woman who embedded herself in Saudi Arabia, Smaker injects her own leading questions as if on a mission to box in her subjects. She attempts to get them to admit to crimes as they deny culpability. The movie turns on assumptions about Islamic misogyny and militant impulses. Even without the dopey “rap sheets” that detail unsubstantiated charges, “Jihad Rehab” maintains an air of Western superiority — as if the men were the stooges at the center of Chris Morris’ dark post-9/11 satire “Four Lions.”

In December, several Muslim American filmmakers wrote an eloquent letter addressed to Sundance leadership voicing their concerns. They hadn’t seen it, but were troubled by the reductive title and online synopsis (which was later surreptitiously edited). That led to a Zoom conversation with festival director Tabitha Jackson and director of programming Kim Yutani. (The filmmaking team also invited the authors of the letter to watch a rough cut, but only if they signed an NDA; they refused.)

The voices that raised the alarm around “Jihad Rehab” were certainly justified in doing so, but perhaps even more valuable is that their protest stirred up valuable conversations about the movies that America’s most prominent festival chooses to endorse.

Jihad Rehab
“Jihad Rehab”Sundance

As Spotify reminded us this week, curation is threaded into our lives in ways we often don’t realize until someone makes a stink about it. Joe Rogan platformed misinformation on his rambling podcast for years before Neil Young and Joni Mitchell left the service in protest of his anti-vaccination positions. “The Closer” wasn’t the first Dave Chappelle special on Netflix with transphobic jokes.

When people protest these programming decisions, the first order of business isn’t really about pulling them from the service; it’s about forcing these powerful institutions to reconsider supporting these troubling works in the first place. 

Unlike Netflix and Spotify, Sundance is a non-profit, not a global media giant consumed with bottom-line interests. However, it does have a pair of dueling agendas, with the Institute and the festival as discrete (if interrelated) operations. The Institute, which hosts filmmaker labs and issues grants, fosters marginalized voices at early stages of their careers. Festival programming can also serve that role, but only through the lens of a more idiosyncratic programming process. Sources suggest there was a divide between those entities over the decision to screen “Jihad Rehab,” which raises questions about which agenda comes first. 

Asked for comment, the festival provided a statement that has already been circulated elsewhere in shorter form. A rep wrote:

The Sundance Institute has a long-standing commitment to supporting artistic expression by sharing diverse, original, and thought-provoking works from an array of independent storytellers. We remain steadfast in our commitment to freedom of creative expression while lifting up anti-racist, anti-sexist, and anti-discriminatory practices. We acknowledge that the documentary film ‘Jihad Rehab’ has raised concerns for some of our audience and we are listening with respect and humility. As always, we encourage constructive discourse around the films we show —‘Jihad Rehab’ is no exception.

But “Jihad Rehab” is an exception. By selecting the movie, the festival repudiated the community that views it as problematic, even if that wasn’t the programmers’ intent. Curatorial choices are explicit endorsement, particularly in the context of a competitive selection process. Of the 3,762 features submitted to Sundance this year, “Jihad Rehab” was one of 10 programmed in the U.S. Documentary Competition.

Should Sundance have pulled the movie? Most programmers I contacted saw this subject as so politically volatile that they refused to discuss it on the record. Suggesting that any curation should self-censor its aesthetic preferences sounds dicey, but “Jihad Rehab” isn’t “Last Tango in Paris.” It’s a movie that makes some pretty obvious missteps in the framing of its subjects. The anger it incited proves that Sundance’s artist-first ethos did nobody any favors here, not even “Jihad Rehab.”

This kind of outcry has happened before. As former True False Film Festival programmer Chris Boeckmann reminded me this week, in 1985 Sundance co-founder Lory Smith was forced to step down as programmer of the documentary competition after screening “Nicaragua Is Our Home,” a documentary in which a white American filmmaker followed an indigenous community on the run from the Sandinista National Liberation Front. The film itself was deemed anti-Sandinista propaganda filled with staged footage. 

More recently, in 2016 the Tribeca Film Festival decided to drop “Vaxxed,” a slipshod documentary filled with conspiracy theories about the MMR vaccine, after festival filmmakers pushed back. Then came 2019, when True False programmed “The Commons,” a documentary in which its white filmmakers portrayed student protests around a Jim Crow-era Confederate statue at UN-Chapel Hill. Programmers made the risky decision to invite a protestor onto the stage for the Q&A.

“It was not a nuanced conversation as much as a protest onstage,” Boeckmann said. “As a programmer, my response afterward was that we had to try to predict every person who could be hurt by a screening of every movie we showed.” 

Boeckmann, who shared his own critique of “Jihad Rehab” in Film Comment this week, said that the practical issue for Sundance was its failure to prepare for the blowback; no one could say they weren’t warned. “I don’t think the infrastructure of Sundance can hold a controversy like this,” he said. “The festival isn’t built around having a nuanced discourse around documentary. The festival itself is a marketplace. First and foremost it exists for hype and sales.”

A less cynical reading by this Sundance regular is the festival fuels enthusiasm for new voices and surprising perspectives through the unique impact of its programming choices. That takes many forms, and makes every selection a statement, which means that programmers must prepare to defend it. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the response to ‘Jihad Rehab’ means they will have to rethink their internal protocols,” Boeckmann said. “Maybe it forces them to do this sort of thinking around every movie they program.”

That might sound like an alarming takeaway. Programming is a brutal process that involves months of unreasonably long hours to come up with a shortlist that’s often based on unfinished material. Some decisions will inevitably be more considered than others, but “Jihad Rehab” wasn’t just a blind spot; its shortcomings were easy to see.

There’s no reason programmers should lose sleep over every movie they select. I spoke to some of the Muslim American filmmakers invested in this cause and it’s clear that they aren’t hellbent on destroying this movie. They see it as symptomatic of a larger problem related to the retention of Islamophobia in current media.

“We’re not sitting around waiting for someone like Meg to make a film so we can jump on it,” director Razi Jafri said. “This is exhausting for us. It’s not a good way to use our time.”

Jafri, who’s currently participating in Sundance’s documentary labs, said he was divided on the decision to speak out against the movie. “There’s a huge risk in tagging Sundance in tweets and Facebook posts,” he said. “You think twice about it. But it got to the point where it was so egregious that I couldn’t let it go.”

He was joined on Zoom by director Samia Khan, one of the filmmakers who sent the initial letter of concern to Sundance in December. “This is unpaid, emotionally taxing labor,” she said. “We are serious people raising serious concerns. It’s very dismissive to describe us any other way. In fact, it’s a way to marginalize us further — you know, ‘Oh, it’s just because she’s a white woman, and they’re Muslim.’”

Khan said when she and others met with Jackson and Yutani in December, the pair listened to their concerns but deferred to the director. “Tabitha was quite clear that she couldn’t answer our questions, that those questions were for the filmmaker,” she said. “They assured us that they were asking the filmmaker the same questions.”

An irony in this is Jackson has long been regarded as a patron saint of non-fiction cinema; some would say that her oversight of the Institute’s Documentary Film Program did more to support the form’s expansion than any other festival figure in recent history. In her role as the Sundance festival’s director, she occupied an awkward slot in the Venn diagram that intersects the festival, the program, and the the broader community. But that is also key to influence and one of the reasons she’s an essential champion of the field. (Jackson was unavailable to comment for this article.)

Khan said she was not advocating for some token diversity hire. “I would hate to see a festival go out and hire a Muslim and say, ‘This person is now responsible to vet all films that have anything to do with Muslims,’” she said. “However, there needs to be a contextual understanding when you’re looking at a film like this. We are really focused on how ‘Jihad Rihab’ has revealed in the most egregious way the pattern of Islamophobia entrenched in the doc industry. We’re invested in this because our careers depend on it.”

Filmmaker Amber Fares, who was also on the Zoom call, added that their actions were meant to be constructive. “A lot of us have been through Sundance programs,” she said. “I’ve been through several of the labs. We appreciate Sundance. We love Sundance. It has a special place in our hearts and elevated our careers. This isn’t about trying to bring down Sundance. We are trying to make it better.”

In scrutinizing Sundance programming, these filmmakers concluded the festival featured 76 films in the U.S. and World Documentary Competitions that focused on Muslim characters over last 20 years; of these, roughly 65-70 percent were directed by non-Muslim or -Arab filmmakers.

“We need to have these really brave conversations as an industry about how long we have been perpetuating an Islamophobic narrative,” Khan said. “We know that cultural portrayals, how you see people on screen, has been dictating the real lives of people.”

Sound familiar? It was only four months ago that Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos was forced to apologize for asserting that content “doesn’t directly translate into real-world harm.” It’s hard to imagine anyone at Sundance making the same misguided assertion. Instead, they should act.

As it stands, Sundance and other festivals fight for relevance in an ever-competitive media landscape; by the same token, curators at every level have the opportunity to consider the moral authority of their roles. With the business and the art form more fragile than ever, every choice matters.

Programming teams might consider developing a more robust internal review process. That could mean the equivalent of studio test screenings for a diverse, engaged audience that can react to a rough version of the program shortly before it’s locked. The staff could retain veto power but scrutinize its own choices through the prism of the audience they serve. It’s very much OK to show movies that not everyone likes, but this extra step would provide the opportunity to better manage expectations. It could also make it clear that some movies simply don’t belong in the lineup. 

The team behind “Jihad Rehab” also has an opportunity to listen and learn. It might not save their movie — at least, anything like the version that showed at Sundance — but if they’re willing to acknowledge as much and realize there’s more at stake, it could lead to a greater dialogue about Islamic representation and persecution, bringing the culture forward in ways their project never could.

This story is not over. More than ever, I encourage readers to share their feedback on this week’s column, suggest other ways of addressing this matter, or tell me what I’m missing. You can even call me an idiot, as long you can back it up:

Browse previous columns here.

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