"It's More Complicated Than That"
On December 7th, Indiewire critic Eric Kohn published an article titled “Critic's Notebook: Was Caveh Zahedi "Blacklisted" By Thom Powers? It's More Complicated Than That.” In his article, Kohn publicly acknowledges that he was contacted by Thom Powers prior to writing his review of my film when it premiered at SXSW and that Powers’ allegations against my film became a key but unacknowledged part of his “review.”
What Eric Kohn does not mention, however, is that when I contacted him to dispute the title of his piece -"Zahedi Puts Lives at Danger and Faces a Fatwa for THE SHEIK AND I. Immoral or Essential? Try both," - I told him that his title makes it sound like a fact that the film actually puts lives in danger rather than a question to be contemplated. Whether or not my film could actually result in harm because of its content is a valid question and one that my film intentionally poses. But it's not a statement that is "true" as stated in the title, and it is therefore a misleading title.
Kohn explained to me that he had chosen that title because he felt he needed to respond to Powers’ private allegations against my film. But in so doing, Kohn allowed Powers to frame the terms of the debate, which is exactly what Powers wanted. Instead of responding to the film on its own terms, Kohn allowed himself to become an unwitting mouthpiece for Powers’ views about my film.
Kohn's recent article does allude to this problem, but omits mentioning that I asked for a retraction and that he offered, instead, to let me write my own rebuttal for Indiewire’s "Point of View" section. Fair enough. So I wrote a piece about Powers’ behind-the-scenes attempts to blacklist my film by reaching out not only to programmers but also to journalists. All of these journalists, including Kohn, expressed reluctance to have Powers’ contacting of them become public knowledge. This was never stated directly but the sense I got was that they were worried about pissing him off.
In my article, I outed Powers on his ethically questionable non-disclosure of his relationship to Rasha Salti, his TIFF colleague who appears in my film. Kohn read my article and assured me that Indiewire would publish it. When it wasn’t published as planned, he explained that it would be published the following day. This went on for several days until he finally informed me that Indiewire had decided not to publish my article after all. The reason he gave was that it focused too heavily on Powers’ attempts to blacklist my film and Indiewire didn't want to "take sides."
When I mentioned this to Eugene Hernandez and Brian Brooks (former Indiewire editors), they both expressed surprise. Brooks pointed out that a "Point of View” section is not intended to be Indiewire's point of view but someone else's. He added that if Indiewire didn’t want to take sides, they could simply offer Powers a similar opportunity to respond in their "Point of View" section.
Film Comment tried to write something about this but none of the people who told me they had been contacted by Thom Powers during SXSW was willing to admit this to Film Comment. And yet, Kohn finally admitted to this nine months later. Why didn't he admit it at the time?
Frustrated by my inability to get the independent film press to write about Powers’ attempts to blacklist my film, I decided to make a short film instead and simply post the film on YouTube. That film, I WAS BLACKLISTED BY THOM POWERS, included a scene with Eric Kohn and generated enough buzz that nine months after refusing to publish my article about Powers' attempts to blacklist my film, Kohn finally felt compelled to address the issue by publishing his own article about the “blacklisting” question.
In his article, he quotes a recent phone conversation with Thom Powers after which he concludes: “The tenuous notion that he [Thom Powers] has abused his authority holds as much water as Powers' original suggestion that festivals not show the film.” What Kohn fails to mention is that he came to this “conclusion” without ever bothering to reach out to hear my side of the story.
Scott Macaulay, the editor of Filmmaker magazine (who was also contacted by Powers), published a piece about the “blacklist” the same day as Kohn. For his article, Macaulay contacted both Powers and myself and he quotes us both. It seems to me that, according to common sense standards of journalism, Kohn should have done the same thing. When Kohn wrote about the dispute involving Powers' conduct but only spoke to Powers before “concluding” that Powers’ abuse of his authority is a “tenuous” notion, it reinforces the one-sidedness of Powers' initial attack on the film without carefully scrutinizing its accuracy.
In response, I emailed Kohn to ask if Indiewire, given the controversy generated, would finally allow me to write a response for their "Point of View" section. His answer was: "'We've discussed this internally and decided that we've already sufficiently addressed the issue on our site."
I hold Eric Kohn in the highest esteem. He has a razor-sharp mind and is a superlative writer. He wrote a positive review of my film and defended it against Powers’ accusations. Even his recent article attempts to be fair and is critical of Powers. But I fail to see any justification for the approach taken here, in which Powers' side of the story is given credence without any opportunity for the other person in the debate to respond.
I realize that what I'm saying isn't likely to endear me to either Mr. Kohn or Indiewire. Independent filmmakers rarely speak out against such lapses of professionalism precisely because no struggling filmmaker wants to offend an influential film critic, for fear of a negative review of one's next movie or, worse, no review at all. But until we, as filmmakers, speak out publicly against those in positions of power who abuse that power, however subtly, the system is not going to change. Checks and balances are what keep a system honest, but where are the checks and balances in the independent film world? I don’t see any.
The point I’m trying to make is that it's not only film programmers like Thom Powers who wield undue power and influence in the independent film community. It's also the independent film media who have their own secret alliances and hidden agendas. The truth is that film critics are dependent on the good will of film programmers (and vice versa). But the consequence of this mutual dependence is a morally compromised situation in which there are real disincentives for a film critic to publicly criticize the actions of a film programmer on whom he or she depends.
People make mistakes and that’s okay. We’re only human. But people should be accountable for the mistakes they make and they should acknowledge them. This includes Thom Powers. And it also includes Eric Kohn. That's how less-than-optimal practices change. That’s how we make the world a better place.