Why Film Festivals Are Steering Clear of Controversial Movies

In February 2022, a battle was brewing between two Sundance factions over the documentary “Jihad Rehab,” a film that earned critical raves during its run at the virtual festival a month earlier but was being targeted by a small group of vocal detractors. The two sides — festival programmers and non-programmers — converged to discuss the spiraling controversy over the Meg Smaker-helmed film, which depicts a handful of Guantanamo detainees who have been released from the U.S. prison into a 12-month Saudi de-radicalization program.

Sources describe a knockdown, drag-out showdown between programming director Kim Yutani, defending the film, and some members of the institute, who hadn’t watched “Jihad Rehab” but wanted to placate those outraged over its inclusion in the lineup. The film’s critics took aim at Smaker, namely for being a non-Arab director and potentially endangering the film’s subjects while reinforcing stereotypes of Muslims as terrorists. Their voices drowned out those who championed the doc, including Los Angeles Times critic Lorraine Ali, who is Muslim, and influential former imam Jihad Turk.

Days after the Sundance showdown, institute CEO Joana Vicente and then-festival director Tabitha Jackson took the unusual step of apologizing that the film “hurt members of our community.” Other festivals — including SXSW — followed Sundance’s lead and rescinded their invitations. The once-promising doc was suddenly “radioactive,” as Smaker recalls.

“Sundance is considered a leader in our industry,” Smaker adds. “But when they started getting dragged through the mud on Twitter, instead of supporting a film slash filmmaker they chose to program, they threw that film and everyone involved with it under the bus to save their own ass.”

For many in the indie film world, the drama surrounding “Jihad Rehab” (now titled “The UnRedacted”) marks a new status quo. Consider that just nine years ago, Sundance debuted the Gitmo-set Kristen Stewart starrer “Camp X-Ray,” directed by non-Arab filmmaker Peter Sattler, without a peep. But now, everything is being placed under a “microscope of scrutiny,” says veteran film finance attorney Marc Simon, who observes: “These are complicated times.”

In fact, that quick-to-capitulate reflex underscores a new, unspoken modus operandi in which festivals — once the bastion of provocative, button-pushing fare — are desperate to avoid controversy and the wrath of any identity-focused Twitter mob.

Terracino, a one-name indie director with an A-list festival pedigree, has also been on the wrong side of the simmering culture wars on the circuit. In late 2021, he took a rough cut of his latest narrative feature, “Waking Up Dead,” to some of the major festivals that have shown his work in the past. Having directed the only SAG-cleared microbudget film in Los Angeles during the height of the COVID pandemic in fall 2020, Terracino figured he would be embraced with open arms. The film, which stars Gabriel Sousa and Traci Lords, had even secured distribution before bowing via Breaking Glass Pictures.

“But that’s when the ‘woke’ pushback began,” he says of festival organizer resistance. “My gay lead character [is initially] transphobic, which is something I wanted to explore — transphobia within the gay community — and they had an issue with that. They were scared to show a film with a transphobic lead.” He says he was also asked: “‘Why does your Latino lead have to bond with a white woman?’ I was really taken aback by that one. Here I am, a gay Latino filmmaker, and I have to answer about bullshit racial politics?”

Outfest, which showed all Terracino’s previous works and developed his film “Elliott Loves,” turned down “Waking Up Dead.” “I’m sure in the near future we can find ways to help support the film as it gets out into the world,” a programmer wrote. Frameline and NewFest rejections followed, despite Terracino being a veteran of both. That meant snubs from the three biggest LGBTQ fests in the United States.

“You can sense the fear out there among the festivals. They are terrified to show a film that someone may object to,” he adds. “A programmer at a Latino film festival told me, ‘If just one person objects to your film, I can lose my job.’”

And though no one will officially confirm it, plugged-in indie sources and Sundance board members tell Variety that they believe Jackson’s exit is related to her handling of “Jihad Rehab.” Sundance and Jackson declined to comment on her departure.

“Tabitha Jackson is a nice lady,” Smaker says. “But the problem is she tried to make everyone happy. And if you are a leader, you need to make hard decisions that sometimes piss people off — that’s part of the job. Instead, Sundance bent over backwards to appease a small group of people who had not even seen the film.” (Smaker says she was told by Sundance that 95% of the 230-plus artists who signed a March 2022 letter condemning “Jihad Rehab” had not watched the film, a statistic the festival was able to provide based on virtual screening attendance data.)

Perhaps to avoid a repeat of the “Jihad Rehab” maelstrom, the Sundance application now asks filmmakers about the backstory of docs being submitted and for additional information on the subjects. A Sundance rep says while the requirement is new, it had been in the works for some time. Similarly, Doc Society’s Safe + Secure guidelines, touted as a useful tool in the artist letter that slammed “Jihad Rehab,” asks filmmakers: “If your subject(s) has experienced any kind of trauma, how will you ensure their experiences are not exacerbated by participating in your film?”

Other recent festival films also took heat for allegedly exploiting participants, including the drama “Sparta.” The Toronto Intl. Film Festival accepted but then pulled the narrative feature following allegations that Austrian director Ulrich Seidl did not convey the film’s central theme of pedophilia to its tween and teen actors, who were exposed to “alcoholism, violence and nudity without sufficient preparation and adequate support,” according to an exposé in the German magazine Der Spiegel. Unlike Sundance, TIFF didn’t even bother to explain its decision and simply posted a message on its website saying the film had been pulled.

Amid the unforgiving climate, sales agents say they must trust their gut now more than ever.

“If we see something that we think is going to be problematic, we might shy away from it, even if we think it’s a good film,” says Submarine’s Josh Braun. “Everyone is probably a little more attuned to what could end up being problematic. There’s ‘controversial,’ and then there’s ‘problematic.’ I think that’s a fine line.”

For her part, Smaker has felt vindicated by a growing backlash to the initial backlash. Sympathetic pieces in the New York Times and the Atlantic have helped breathe new life into a film left for dead, and have many reexamining why that happened in the first place. And Terracino is determined to find his own happy ending, having racked up trophies at the festivals willing to play “Waking Up Dead,” including best picture and director at the Palm Springs LGBTQ Film Festival.

“If you look at what happened to me, look at ‘UnRedacted,’ ‘woke’ is silencing artists of color and women,” he says. “And it’s interesting to me that you have so many people of color supporting something that is actually silencing people of color. I think this will lead to some very dangerous places and it already has, and I think a lot of artists of color very soon are going to regret this woke ideology.”

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