2 Sundance Staffers Resign in Response to Flap Over ‘Jihad Rehab’ Documentary

Brenda Coughlin and Karim Ahmad quit during the film festival after Meg Smaker’s documentary was slammed as Islamaphobic

"The UnRedacted" (fka Jihad Rehab") (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Two Sundance Institute employees have resigned in response to the hot-button documentary “Jihad Rehab” that played at last month’s Sundance Film Festival, a Sundance representative confirmed.

Brenda Coughlin, director of Impact, Engagement and Advocacy with the Sundance Institute, and Karim Ahmad, director of the Outreach & Inclusion Program, both resigned following the festival in the wake of criticism that “Jihad Rehab” is Islamophobic and promotes jingoism and other stereotypes. And some associated with the movie have sought to distance themselves from their involvement via social media.

As first reported by IndieWire, Coughlin and Ahmad were each tagged on an email sent to the festival’s directors in which a group of Muslim filmmakers voiced their concerns over the documentary. However, neither participated in a Zoom follow-up meeting that staffers had with the authors of the letter to address their concerns.

“We would like to extend our gratitude to both Brenda Coughlin and Karim Ahmad for their contributions to Sundance Institute. As an organization, the Sundance Institute has always been about supporting artists. We’re grateful for everything the Impact, Engagement, and Advocacy and Outreach & Inclusion teams have done under Brenda and Karim’s leadership over the years to drive the Institute towards being more inclusive, accessible, and supportive of the diverse Sundance community,” a rep for Sundance said in a statement. “We deeply value the work of our teams in these areas from advancing our efforts to support storytelling by and for people who have been historically marginalized to continuing our field-building initiatives. We have so much more to do and we will continuously strive to be better. For now, we thank Brenda and Karim for sharing their guidance, expertise, and leadership during their time at Sundance and know they will continue to do meaningful work for artists and in the field in the future.”

Coughlin and Ahmad could not be reached for comment. Reps for Sundance did not immediately respond to TheWrap for requests for comment.

Both Coughlin and Ahmed are expected to stay on with the Sundance Institute through the end of the month.

“Jihad Rehab” centers on former Islamic radicals who undergo rehabilitation in a Saudi center meant to help them move back into mainstream society. It specifically follows three men who were detained at Guantanamo Bay in the U.S. for as many as 15 years before being sent to the Saudi rehabilitation center, and they now participate in art therapy and learn “interpersonal relations” as part of training for reintegration into society.

Director Meg Smaker, who was criticized for telling the story as a white, non-Muslim woman and for referring to the men in the film as “terrorists,” defended her movie to TheWrap in the wake of the backlash, saying that it “seeks to challenge audiences’ stereotypes” and hopes to “gives their lives value that they haven’t seemed to have before in our national narrative.” She said that the decision to call the subjects “terrorists” and pair their interviews with “rap sheets” was meant to invert the meaning of the word.

“We knew that a swath of the audience in America would probably still believe these men in Guantanamo were ‘evil doers,’” she previously told TheWrap. “That has been, unfortunately, a viewpoint for two decades now. This film seeks to challenge those stereotypes. American society has labeled these men this way and the film is intended as their chance to give their side.”

However, some Muslim critics noted that the use of the word “Jihad” in the film’s title misappropriates the term despite its wider meaning in Islam. In the film, employees at the rehabilitation center speak candidly about Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and his record of human-rights abuse, and there were particular safety concerns for Saudis who participated in the festival’s virtual format this year.

Smaker did not immediately respond for a request for additional comment.