Letter from Abigail Disney on film Jihad Rehab
To my colleagues in the documentary community:
On February 23, I addressed a personal email to a group of Muslim and MENA filmmakers that had expressed concern about a film I executive-produced, Jihad Rehab. I sent it privately because apologies are not a performance and that when harm is done, it is, first and foremost, important to apologize with sincerity.
On February 25 a representative of the group contacted me and asked me to publish the contents of the letter because they and others felt that it served as a model for how to address a moment of deep cultural division and pain such as the one we find ourselves in today.
I may not be in total agreement with every criticism of the film but that does not obviate my responsibility to earnestly own the damage I had a hand in.
I call upon my colleagues now, whether you are gatekeepers, funders, curators, heads of institutions, agents, buyers, critics, or other filmmakers to rethink how we all behave when we are called out for our failures and shortcomings. We need to recognize that we are all on the same side if what we are fighting for is a better, more human public square. This is not a war and an apology is not a failure.
If we choose to wield cultural power, we are consequently obliged to act with humility and a willingness to learn when we use our power—with or without intent–to create pain for the people we otherwise say we care about.
First and foremost, I am truly sorry. A film I executive produced, Jihad Rehab, has landed like a truckload of hate on people whom I sincerely love and respect. I know that it could not matter less how it was intended to land, it created deep and unnecessary pain and for that, I take responsibility and apologize.
I am committed to going forward better. I am very committed to not creating any more pain, if only by accident or in ignorance.
The responses to have been painful, significant, bewildering, and deeply stressful for each of us in different ways. Adding to the weight of two years of pandemic trauma, a nation that seems to be melting down around us, and bone-deep exhaustion and anger over centuries of racist patterns, systems, assumptions, and practices was never my intention but that has certainly been the outcome. And perhaps the most painful piece of the puzzle is that I have hurt those whom I have always meant to support.
My mistakes are myriad so I will not be able to claim them all in a single list, but I will try. I am sure there is more I still do not see. I do hope if that is so, someone will trust me enough to tell me what they are.
- I took everything at face value every step of the way, even though I knew there had to have been more to the security question than should have been satisfied by the representations of a single party. I should have found another perspective that could have strengthened my analysis of how safe the protagonists might be once the film was released. I did not put the protagonists first. I regret that enormously.
- I should have pushed back on the idea that the protagonists consented to appear in the film. A person cannot freely consent to anything in a carceral system, particularly one in a notoriously violent dictatorship.
- I did not carefully enough vet the tone and the language used to represent the four protagonists, leaving the impression that even though they had never been charged with or tried for any crime, the presumption of their guilt was never in question, and that has left the horrific human rights violation and stain on our national honor that is Guantanamo unchallenged.
- Given the gravity of the issues involved, I did not insist on a full fact-checking process to ensure that the highest standards of accuracy were being met.
- 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. That was a failure of empathy and respect on my part—and therefore the gravest of failures.
I am so sorry for all these failures.
A sincere apology is incomplete without an actionable plan for a better way to go forward. I am soul-searching and examining my own processes, assumptions, and shortcomings so that I can do less harm. The issues this community is asking me and others to address are deep and complicated. They would therefore be better addressed by a thoughtful and deliberate process, one that takes place over time, is inclusive, and respects the fact that anything worth doing is hard and takes resources.
Here are some ideas I wanted to share for your consideration:
- I want to host mediated conversation involving all stakeholders to air grievances, express thoughts and feelings, unopposed by reflex defensiveness, and to hear where I have failed and what I have not seen.
- More conversations can take place over the course of months or even years, if necessary, since deep change is never fast.
- I intend to work with some of our key institutions so that they might also take on their own roles in making the mistakes that were made.
These conversations could include but not be limited to an examination and discussion of:
- The processes that lead to unsatisfying results.
- The lifting of voices without tokenism or condescension.
- The content that hasn’t yet been supported that would lift the dialogue and build stronger social bonds between and among various groups both marginalized and not.
What I hope could emerge from these conversations would be more community input on inappropriate content, better procedures, and systems around access to resources, lifting marginalized voices, and a plan for the future of our field that is both accommodating of new commercial and nonprofit realities as well as respectful of perspectives that come from the margins. I welcome all your thoughts and feedback on any of this.
I have sent this to you directly as a letter rather than making a public statement because I thought my sincerity might seem more genuine to you this way, rather than the other. You are free to share it as widely as you wish and especially with those most deeply impacted, there is no attempt to hide anything here.
With respect and love and high hopes for real change,
CEO & Co-Founder
Effective Date: December 20, 2021.
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