Sundance and others cancel a talented filmmaker for “Islamophobia” and “white saviorism”

September 25, 2022 • 1:20 pm

This story is extremely disturbing as an exemplar of cancel culture. It’s the story about how a woman made a documentary about Muslims who, having been accused of terrorism, were sent from Guantanamo to a “terrorism rehab facility” in Saudi Arabia. The director of the film, originally called “Jihad Rehab” (now named “The UnRedacted”), found four of the “rehabilitated” willing to tell their stories on film, and, according to nearly all accounts, the film is good (it has a 75% critics’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes). It was so well done that it was invited to the 2022 Sundance Festival. That was a great honor for the young director, Meg Smaker.

But then the problems surfaced, promoted by Muslims and the Woke on social media. There were two issues:

1.) Smaker is a white woman. Being white, argued the critics, how could she possibly have the understanding needed to make a film about Muslim men? (It took her 16 months of filming.) She was accused of being a “white savior”.

2.) The film is about Muslim terrorists. Muslims and especially many “progressives” on the Left shy away from that aspect of Islamism. Palestinian terrorism, for example, is nearly always minimized by MSM on the Left.

The result, documented in this longish New York Times piece (click on screenshot below) was that Smaker was canceled in a very real sense—deprived of her livelihood. Although Sundance did show her film, the backlash soon came from social media. The film’s executive director, who had initially called the film “freaking brilliant”, apologized in the most groveling and pathetic letter you can imagine. The letter of apology was written by Abigail Disney, a grandniece of Walt Disney, and you can read it here. It is pathetic, cringe-making, reprehensible, and disgusting.  Smaker can’t get her film publicized or shown, and, after being demonized and called an “Islamophobe”, she’s nearly broke.

I recommend reading this article to understand how Progressive Authoritarianism is ruining our culture:

Indented text is from the NYT article.

Smaker’s background:

Ms. Smaker was a 21-year-old firefighter in California when airplanes struck the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. She heard firefighters cry for vengeance and wondered: How did this happen?

Looking for answers, she hitchhiked through Afghanistan and settled in the ancient city of Sana, Yemen, for half a decade, where she learned Arabic and taught firefighting. Then she obtained a master’s from Stanford University in filmmaking and turned to a place Yemeni friends had spoken of: the Mohammed bin Nayef Counseling and Care Center in Riyadh.

The Saudi monarchy brooks little dissent. This center tries to rehabilitate accused terrorists and spans an unlikely distance between prison and boutique hotel. It has a gym and pool and teachers who offer art therapy and lectures on Islam, Freud and the true meanings of “jihad,” which include personal struggle.

Hence the documentary’s original title, “Jihad Rehab,” which engendered much criticism, even from supporters, who saw it as too facile. “The film is very complex and the title is not,” said Ms. Ali, the Los Angeles Times critic.

To address such concerns, the director recently renamed the film “The UnRedacted.”

The United States sent 137 detainees from Guantánamo Bay to this center, which human rights groups cannot visit.

But reporters with The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic and others have interviewed prisoners. Most stayed a few days.

Ms. Smaker would remain more than a year exploring what leads men to embrace groups such as Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Saudi officials let her speak to 150 detainees, most of whom waved her off. She found four men who would talk.

The film’s content:  It’s mostly interviews, I hear, with no politicizing or twisting of the narrative. The article will tell you more about it, as will the critics’ reviews (link in next line).

Some reviews:  (Read other critics’ reviews at Rotten Tomatoes.)

Film critics warned that conservatives might bridle at these human portraits, but reviews after the festival’s screening were strong.

“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.” Variety wrote: The film “feels like a miracle and an interrogative act of defiance.”

. . .Lawrence Wright wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11” and spent much time in Saudi Arabia. He saw the documentary.

“As a reporter, you acknowledge the constraints on prisoners, and Smaker could have acknowledged it with more emphasis,” he said. “But she was exploring a great mystery — understanding those who may have done something appalling — and this does not discredit that effort.”

To gain intimate access, he added, was a coup.

I loved Wright’s book, and I wonder why he wasn’t criticized about writing the history of the background to Al-Quaeda, beginning with the foundation of the Muslim Brotherhood. Shouldn’t Wright be criticized for portraying some Muslims as terrorists? How can a white man even tackle this subject? I needn’t respond: the answer lies in the nature of art itself.

One more, which you should consider when reading the critics below:

“What I admired about ‘Jihad Rehab’ is that it allowed a viewer to make their own decisions,” said Chris Metzler, who helps select films for San Francisco Documentary Festival. “I was not watching a piece of propaganda.”

. . . Lorraine Ali, a television critic for The Los Angeles Times who is Muslim, 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.”

She is dismayed with Sundance.

There are a few negative reviews too, which you can see on the Rotten Tomatoes site, but the public criticism came largely from people who hadn’t even seen the movie. It was performative outrage:

The backlash:

But attacks would come from the left, not the right. Arab and Muslim filmmakers and their white supporters accused Ms. Smaker of Islamophobia and American propaganda. Some suggested her race was disqualifying, a white woman who presumed to tell the story of Arab men.

Sundance leaders reversed themselves and apologized.

. . . Many Arab and Muslim filmmakers — who like others in the industry struggle for money and recognition — denounced “Jihad Rehab” as offering an all too familiar take. They say Ms. Smaker is the latest white documentarian to tell the story of Muslims through a lens of the war on terror. These documentary makers, they say, take their white, Western gaze and claim to film victims with empathy.

Assia Boundaoui, a filmmaker, critiqued it for Documentary magazine.

“To see my language and the homelands of folks in my community used as backdrops for white savior tendencies is nauseating,” she wrote. “The talk is all empathy, but the energy is Indiana Jones.”

She called on festivals to allow Muslims to create “films that concern themselves not with war, but with life.”

Do you really care what color is Ms. Smaker’s epidermis given that the film portrays the four subjects talking and answering questions?  And seriously, “white savior tendencies”? In what sense is Smaker a “savior”? (Some say that interviewing anybody in a prison invalidates the film.) The response is in the piece:

“An entirely white team behind a film about Yemeni and South Arabian men,” the filmmaker Violeta Ayala wrote in a tweet.

Ms. Smaker’s film had a Yemeni-American executive producer and a Saudi co-producer.

There’s more, but this will suffice (my emphasis)

More than 230 filmmakers signed a letter denouncing the documentary. A majority had not seen it. The letter noted that over 20 years, Sundance had programmed 76 films about Muslims and the Middle East, but only 35 percent of them had been directed by Muslim or Arab filmmakers.

A parallel: most of those who rioted when Salman Rusdie published The Satanic Verses hadn’t read the book, either. You don’t go rioting, cancelling, or killing over a book or movie or film that you haven’t read or seen. When people do so, it’s clear that the offense is performative. Just read the letter from Abigail Disney!

Smaker’s cancellation: 

First, from Sundance:

Sundance officials backtracked. Tabitha Jackson, then the director of the festival, demanded to see consent forms from the detainees and Ms. Smaker’s plan to protect them once the film debuted, according to an email shown to The Times. Ms. Jackson also required an ethics review of the plans and gave Ms. Smaker four days to comply. Efforts to reach Ms. Jackson were unsuccessful.

The review concluded Ms. Smaker more than met standards of safety.

Ms. Smaker said a public relations firm recommended that she apologize. “What was I apologizing for?” she said. “For trusting my audience to make up their own mind?”

And then the inevitable:

Ms. Smaker’s film has become near untouchable, unable to reach audiences. Prominent festivals rescinded invitations, and critics in the documentary world took to social media and pressured investors, advisers and even her friends to withdraw names from the credits. She is close to broke.

“In my naïveté, I kept thinking people would get the anger out of their system and realize this film was not what they said,” Ms. Smaker said. “I’m trying to tell an authentic story that a lot of Americans might not have heard.”

. . .Ms. Disney, the former champion, wrote, “I failed, failed and absolutely failed to understand just how exhausted by and disgusted with the perpetual representation of Muslim men and women as terrorists or former terrorists or potential terrorists the Muslim people are.”

Her apology and that of Sundance shook the industry. The South by Southwest and San Francisco festivals rescinded invitations.

Jihad Turk, former imam of Los Angeles’s largest mosque, was baffled. In December, his friend Tim Disney — brother of Abigail — invited him to a screening.

“My first instinct,” he said, “was ‘Oh, not another film on jihad and Islam.’ Then I watched and it was introspective and intelligent. My hope is that there is a courageous outlet that is not intimidated by activists and their too narrow views.”
Jihad Turk (what a name!) is a brave man!

Finally,

Ms. Smaker has maxed out credit cards and, at age 42, borrowed money from her parents. This is not the Sundance debut of her dreams. “I don’t have the money or influence to fight this out,” she said, running hands back through her hair. “I’m not sure I see a way out.”

The Upshot

Yes, she was canceled to the point where, despite her clear abilities and talents, she can’t find work. Canceled by people who hadn’t seen her film. Canceled by a public who, in their zeal to appear ideologically correct, hurled accusations of “Islamophobia” and “white saviorism” without good reasons. Canceled by a gutless Abigail Disney, whose letter I can’t even bear to quote.You must read it, however: it sounds like one of those signs that the Ideologically Impure had to wear around their necks during China’s Cultural Revolution while wearing paper dunce hats. I don’t know how to help Ms. Smaker, but I suppose I should start by seeing the movie. One could write to Sundance, but that would probably be useless.

Stuff like this pours into my email inbox every day—so much of it that I can write about only a small fraction of what people tell me. And much of the stuff involves the kind of performative activism evinced by Sundance and the critics of Ms. Smaker.

Yes, the termites have dined well—so well that they’ve undermined the foundations of art, of literature, and of scholarship itself. In the end, we’ll be done in by tribalism and cowardice—exactly what happened in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Like China, and with many parallels, we’re having our own Cultural Revolution.

25 thoughts on “Sundance and others cancel a talented filmmaker for “Islamophobia” and “white saviorism”

  1. It’s very notable that the article is written by Michael Powell.

    Powell is among the dwindling number of journalists who is not on the “moral clarity” and wokeness train. He used to be among the Times’s sports reporter.

    Powell wrote a few months ago about Lia Thomas (the trans swimmer) straightforwardly and caused a meltdown. I think you already know what I mean.

    I link to a collection of his writings and you can see from the titles that he is likely hated by many of his Times peers:

    https://muckrack.com/powellnyt/articles

  2. Here’s an archived copy for those unable to access the original.

    A shocking decision by Sundance:

    Sundance officials backtracked. Tabitha Jackson, then the director of the festival, demanded to see consent forms from the detainees and Ms. Smaker’s plan to protect them once the film debuted, according to an email shown to The Times. Ms. Jackson also required an ethics review of the plans and gave Ms. Smaker four days to comply.

    Totally unreasonable.
    http://web.archive.org/web/20220925163838/https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/25/us/sundance-jihad-rehab-meg-smaker.html

  3. Many Chinese in exile (such as Ai Weiwei, the dissident artist) have compared the tyranny of The Great Awokening to the events during China’s Cultural Revolution, particularly with youthful fanatics and moralizing zealots being able to wield so much cultural power, and in our country increasingly funded and supported by the entertainment industry and by “woke” corporations.

  4. A soon as ideology becomes the arbiter of what is acceptable art, it ceases to be art. It becomes just another form of agitprop. It is astonishing that our experience with that way of thinking in the blood-soaked 20th century has left no impression on people today. I feel we are condemned to be living though the same mistakes.

  5. My closest friend is a documentary film editor and a few years ago we were discussing a petition that was circulating trying to stop Ken Burns from making his documentary about Muhammad Ali for the same exact reasons: as Burns was not of the same tribe/racial group as his subject, he should not be allowed to tell a story about a member of that group. (And, as is usual with these things, the language was so overheated you would think that by even considering it, Burns was committing a hate crime.)
    When I expressed to my friend both my shock that anyone working in the arts or culture would actively try to censor an artist and bully them into abandoning a project, as well as my total opposition to the segregation of the imagination, he instantly reflexively angrily responded: “I guess that means you’re against affirmative action too.”
    I only raise this to make the point that for most modern liberals (which really includes just about everyone in arts, culture, books, media etc) they have been conditioned to believe that any and all claims made by anyone considered a member of an Oppressed group are ipso facto valid, if not sacrosanct, and only evil bigots disagree.
    The basic Crit Theory belief system (every event and interaction involves an Oppressed and Oppressor and the job of every Good person is to “call out” these manifestations of evil) is the new sacred worldview of our cultural class, and just like their revolutionary forebears they will demonize and sacrifice every other value to their holy belief system, and they will leave a great deal of wreckage in their wake.

    1. Yet, if a nonwhite person made a documentary about a “white” subject, then no one would say that they can’t because they aren’t white.

      This “tribalism” only seems to work in one direction…

  6. This incident is but another example of why society is collapsing and the Center can’t hold. That is, some people of influence in the Center of the political spectrum (from moderately left to moderately right) feel compelled to capitulate to the radicals out of fear of being labelled not true liberals or not true conservatives. There has been a recent similar incident where James Sweet, president of the American Historical Association (the most prestigious historical professional organization), wrote a sickening, groveling response in response to criticism by the mob of an article he posted on the AHA’s website. Beyond doubt, he and Disney are running neck-and-neck in the race to win the title of groveler of the year. The Sweet incident has garnered a lot of discussion in the historical profession. Below is a link of an article posted at Quillette, in which University of Maryland history professor, Jeffrey Herf, blasts Sweet. As Herf puts it: The AHA needs leadership that will defend the autonomy and freedom of historical scholarship from an intolerant Left within the academy as well as the anti-intellectual and censorious Right outside it.”

    https://quillette.com/2022/09/13/never-apologize-for-trying-to-tell-the-truth/

    On the left, I think I understand why this is happening. People that think of themselves as liberals, but not radicals, are so obsessed with defending and aiding those they perceive as the “oppressed” that they will go so far as to jettison the truth in whatever form its presented if they think it offends or somehow damages someway those that their hearts truly bleed for. The Smaker and Sweet incidents make me ashamed to call myself a liberal.

    1. The reception of the curiously-named Woman King is related to the sad tale of Professor Sweet’s unfortunate and abject apology, as so many of the “wokerati” seem eager to praise an utterly ahistorical film about Dahomey, the power of which derived from raiding, warfare, and slave-trading, and in which the abolition of slavery was regarded as disastrous.

      1. Holy cow! I’d never heard of Dahomey until “Woman King” started showing up in the media recently.

        But looking into its history, you will quickly find that the apparently admired (?) kingdom was vicious and warlike, an enthusiastic slave seller and sacrificer of human beings. The society developed along these lines all by itself, without any influence from colonialism.

        And lo! Britain (!) in the 1840s was forced to impose a naval blockade on Dahomey and a different coastal West African kingdom to force these “noble” indigenous people to give up their habit of violent slave raiding.

        A quick quote from a paper, “The Politics of Commercial Transition: Factional Conflict in Dahomey in the Context of Ending of the Atlantic Slave Trade” from the Journal of African History:

        “Human sacrifice in Dahomey was practised mainly at the ‘Annual Customs’, the principal public ceremony of the monarchy, at which victims were offered to the deceased kings of the Dahomian dynasty. Those killed on these occasions were principally captives taken in Dahomey’s wars, whose sacrifice served to celebrate Dahomian military prowess. Human sacrifice and the export slave trade were thus closely inter-connected, both being linked to Dahomian militarism, the former constituting part of its ideological superstructure and the latter an important aspect of its material foundation. If ending Dahomey’s involvement in the slave trade would necessarily imply undermining Dahomian militarism, any attempt at the latter would in turn necessarily put in question the institution of human sacrifice.”

        And now this movie, “Woman King,” that completely ignores that? Wow.

    2. Needless to say, Disney and Professor Sweet are very far from the only contestants in the race to be named groveler of the year. There are hundreds, more all the time, competing for this sought-after rank.

  7. “Arab and Muslim filmmakers and their white supporters accused Ms. Smaker of Islamophobia and American propaganda. Some suggested her race was disqualifying, a white woman who presumed to tell the story of Arab men.”

    I look forward to their stating for the record whether a Muslim woman – especially one from Saudi Arabia – or a Jewish or Hindu woman for that matter – is worthy to tell the story.

  8. Reminds me a little of the The Ox-Bow Incident. I read it for the first time in high school. There are small minded and heartless people among us. Lynching seemed like a part of our culture to me.

    1. Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s novel is outstanding, as is the movie upon which it was based. Clark wrote a lot of books and stories, but is best-known for “Ox-Bow” and “The Track of the Cat.”

      I also highly recommend the truly haunting, very short story “The Last Phonograph,” which can be found in “Timeless Stories for Today and Tomorrow,” edited by Ray Bradbury in the 1950s.

  9. Isn’t this the sort of thing that GoFundMe was designed to help with?

    I don’t know how to set it up. (It would seem to require a communication with Ms. Smaker to figure out how to get the funds to her, yes?)

    But if someone here does know how, you can count on my donation.

    1. OK, I figured out how to set up a GoFundMe. But it says that a U.S. SSN and bank account are required. Since this is very personal stuff, it would seem that the first requirement would be to get her blessing for the project. Can anyone provide contact info?

  10. “This is a movie for intelligent people looking to have their preconceived notions challenged.”

    You could argue that the more unsteady the preconceived notions are the more unthinking and emotional the response to protect them.

  11. I fully agree that the film should not have been pulled from Sundance, it’s yet another worrying example of the growing illiberalism of the Western “left”.

    However, it’s not just the self-appointed Woke guardians who have problems with the documentary. Here is an open letter written by former of inmates of Guantanamo where they raise issues with the film:

    https://www.cage.ngo/from-former-guantanamo-prisoners-to-jihad-rehab

    Notably, “one of the men [featured in the documentary] explicitly stated that he had told the filmmaker he didn’t want to be featured in the film”, that the film relays information obtained through torture, that the film presents what the detainees were accused of as fact, despite their being no due process to determine their alleged guilt and that since the detainees were being held unlawfully they were in no position the contest the charges levelled against them.

    None of this changes the fact that the film shouldn’t have been cancelled and that the apologetics for the cancellation are abhorrent. However I believe it does raise issues regarding the willingness of the film’s participants and it’s characterisation of being “non-politicized”, even if there’s an absense of overt rhetoric.

  12. Just a follow-up in case people weren’t aware: Smaker was on the Sam Harris podcast a week or two ago and now her gofundme is up to $630000+ (!)

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