Critics put halt to director’s film that earned Sundance nod

Dan Abrams Live

(NewsNation) — Last year, Meg Smaker was reveling in the fact that her documentary film had been selected for the Sundance Film Festival.

Now, she can’t find a distributor willing to pick it up.

It was a swift turn of events for the filmmaker who set out to tell the story of four former Guantanamo detainees who were sent to a rehab center in Saudi Arabia. The men open up about their lives, sharing what drew them to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in their younger years.

The documentary originally titled “Jihad Rehab” earned an invitation to the 2022 Sundance festival held in January, and it earned strong reviews.

“The absence of absolutes is what’s most enriching,” the Guardian stated, adding, “This is a movie for intelligent people looking to have their preconceived notions challenged.”

But then came the backlash, including from some who worked on the film. Arab and Muslim filmmakers and their white supporters accused Smaker of Islamophobia, with some suggesting that Smaker’s race should disqualify her from making the film, the New York Times reported.

Abigail Disney, a grandniece of Walt Disney, was the executive producer of the film and called it “freaking beautiful” in an email. She later changed course when she said it “landed like a truckload of hate” in an open letter.

“People who had been champions of the film for years … when they kind of saw the tide was turning, did a complete 180. For me, that was the most frustrating,” Smaker said. “When I read the letter I was very taken aback because this is someone who had been a champion for almost a half a decade on this film, and for her to issue that letter … was very hurtful.”

The film has since become near untouchable, with film festival rescinding invitations and pressure campaigns for investors, advisers and friends to withdraw names from the credits, The Times reported.

Sundance announced the selection in December 2021 for the festival that would be held the following month. Immediately, a wave of criticism crashed down on Smaker’s film before people even saw it, calling out the festival for selecting a film about Muslims and Middle Eastern men that was being told by a white woman.

The executive producer on the film is Yemeni-American and the co-producer is Saudi.

After the critics erupted, Sundance apologized for selecting the film.

Noting that criticism of a film after a screening at a festival like Sundance is commonplace, Smaker said her rub is with institutions that are supposed to safeguard against the very thing they were doing.

“They’re supposed to be a platform for these films and be able to withstand these types of pressure,” Smaker said. “You have these institutions like Sundance and South by Southwest that are supposed to be these leaders of free expression and arts now caving to a couple people on Twitter. The one place I thought that was immune to this was the independent film space.”

The film has since been renamed to “The Unredacted,” to represented the formerly redacted stories of the four men that are now being told. It was a suggestion given to Smaker by Lorraine Ali, a television critic for the Los Angeles Times.

Ali wrote that the film was “a humanizing journey through a complex emotional process of self-reckoning and accountability, and a look at the devastating fallout of flawed U.S. and Saudi policy.”

Smaker has raised money via a GoFundMe and is still working to get the film distributed.

“There’s a line between criticizing a piece of work and trying to actively have it blacklisted,” Smaker said. “I think that space is a very dangerous space to operate in.”

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