'Two Distant Strangers' Director Responds to Claim He Copied 2016 Film: 'The Time Loop Film Device Is Not New'

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Travon Free is setting the record straight. The director of the Oscar-winning short film Two Distant Strangers addressed recent allegations that his work copied another short film about police brutality in an op-ed for The Washington Post

On April 30, filmmaker Cynthia Kao posted a video to TikTok in which she drew connections between her four-minute short film titled Groundhog Day for a Black Man and Free's project. Kao explained that her film, which was released in December 2016, follows a Black man who relives the same day and "tries to survive a police interaction." 

Kao says that a producer from video news outlet NowThis reached out asking for her permission to use pieces of the video in a report after the killing of George Floyd in 2020. In an email seen in Kao's TikTok, the producer said they found the short "very powerful" and wanted to "amplify it and share the message with our audience."

The email noted they would give Kao credit onscreen and give full credit to the production team listed in the film's credits. "We are happy to link any social media pages as well," it said.

Kao says that any connections only "hit" her when she saw the Two Distant Strangers' credits, which include a chyron that says "in association with NowThis." 

"I don't know what happened and I'm not making any assumptions," Kao said, concluding her video.

@cynthiakao

Thank you for the messages and tags. 🙏

♬ original sound - Cynthia Kao

Free's 30-minute movie, which is streaming on Netflix, tells the story of a young Black man (played by rapper Joey Bada$$) who is forced to relive the day he's killed by a white police officer. He uses several different tactics to change his fate and avoid the seemingly pointless wrath of a man who's supposed to protect him.

In Free's op-ed, titled "Police killings of Black people are 'Groundhog Day' in America. It’s no surprise that more than one artist noticed," Free addressed Kao making the connection between the two films because of the involvement of NowThis. Explaining that NowThis provided marketing services for the film, the director called the claims "baseless," clarifying that the outlet didn't join the project until "after filming was complete and had no creative influence."

Free went on to call the accusation "absurd," writing that the film is based on personal trauma as a Black man who has had terrifying interactions with the police. He recalled a situation "almost 10 years ago" when the police came into his home to serve a warrant but were in the wrong house. 

"My experience was that of so many Black people in this country. But I was fortunate," he wrote. "While I didn’t know how to process my feelings of terror and rage at the time, after the murder of George Floyd, I decided to make my own protest in the best way I knew how: as a filmmaker."

He clarified that Two Distant Strangers, which Free wrote alone and directed with Martin Desmond Roe, was inspired by the 1993 film Groundhog Day. He also pointed out that neither he nor Kao is the first to use time loops as a story device, "especially in the context of a Black man's death by a police officer." He mentioned the feature film The Obituary of Tunde Johnson, an episode of The Twilight Zone called "Replay" and a 2015 essay titled "About Images of Black Death and the Groundhog Day of Police Brutality,” by Luvvie Ajayi Jones.

More recently, in 2019, Netflix released the film See You Yesterday, directed by Stefon Bristol. It follows two best friends who use time travel over and over again to save one of their brothers after he's killed by police.  

Free concluded his op-ed writing that when he realized how many projects had a similar concept to his film, "it was clear that we were tapping into a deep part of the zeitgeist." 

"Surely, it’s obvious how each of these teams arrived at this idea independently? I mean, let’s be honest — it is not a stretch to see the constant images of Black men killed by police as the same terrible day repeated without end," he wrote. "So I pushed on with my tiny independent film, because I wanted to share my version of this story. My piece of the tragedy of what it means to be Black in America."

He added, "And that is why I cannot allow anyone to move the focus away from the primal roar at the heart of my film: that the police in America must stop killing people and they must stop killing them now. The goal of Two Distant Strangers was to scream that message from the rooftops. And it still is." 

Kao has not responded to Free's op-ed. 

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