Sundance Institute leaders ‘deeply sorry’ for hurt caused by showing ‘Jihad Rehab’ film at festival

Documentary was criticized by Muslim American filmmakers, and prompted two Sundance staffers to resign.

Leaders of the Sundance Institute have issued an apology related to a controversial documentary that screened at January’s Sundance Film Festival — one that Muslim American filmmakers argued was offensive and reinforced negative stereotypes.

“As with every film we show, we hope to stimulate conversation and debate that adds value to our civic society,” wrote Joana Vicente, CEO of the Sundance Institute, and Tabitha Jackson, the festival’s director, in a joint letter posted Friday on the institute’s website.

“In this case it is clear that the showing of this film hurt members of our community — in particular, individuals from Muslim and MENASA [Middle Eastern, North African and South Asian] communities — and for that we are deeply sorry,” they wrote.

The institute later clarified it was apologizing specifically for the hurt caused by the showing of “Jihad Rehab,” a documentary directed by American filmmaker Meg Smaker.

The movie went inside a Saudi Arabian treatment center for former Guantanamo Bay prisoners to reintroduce them into society. The movie followed three Yemeni men who acknowledge in the film that they had been involved with Al Qaeda before they were captured by American forces and held prisoner in Guantanamo.

The movie — which played in the festival’s U.S. Documentary competition — was criticized for the title, which some argued stressed the most negative interpretation of the word “jihad.” Smaker was also criticized for making her subjects appear as threatening Muslim stereotypes, and for referring to them as “terrorists,” when they never had been accused of specific crimes.

IndieWire, the movie news outlet, reported in early February that two Sundance Institute staff members — Brenda Coughlin, director of impact and strategy, and Karim Ahmad, director of the Institute’s outreach and inclusion program — resigned over the criticism leveled at Sundance for programming the movie in the festival.

IndieWire also reported that a group of Muslim American filmmakers wrote to Sundance leaders in December, voicing their concerns about Staker’s film.

In their letter Friday, Vicente and Jackson stressed Sundance’s 40-year history, since its founding by actor-filmmaker Robert Redford, of “elevating work with a diverse array of voices, perspectives and creative forms.”

In the letter, Vicente and Jackson acknowledge the criticism they have heard, particularly by “some members of the Sundance artist community. … Now it is time for us to act on what we have heard as we move forward with our work.”

The letter does not mention concrete steps Sundance will take in response to the dispute over Smaker’s film. It does lay out “broader, fundamental issues that we have always considered in our work and must continue to grapple with as an organization, and as a field.”

Those issues include:

• “Representation, authorship and perpetuation of stereotypes.”

• Support for Muslim and Arab artists.

• Upholding best ethical practices in documentary journalism.

• “Expectations of festivals, funders, and the field” about the festival’s selection process.

Having a festival platform also comes with a responsibility, Vicente and Jackson wrote, “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.”