An Oscar-winning filmmaker responded to accusations that his short copied a 2016 film about police brutality: 'The concept of the time loop film device is not new'

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·5 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Two Distant Strangers
"Two Distant Strangers" was directed by Travon Free Martin and Desmond Roe. Netflix
  • A director suggested an Oscar-winning short film copied the idea from her 2016 film.

  • Cynthia Kao made a viral TikTok showing how she thinks "Two Distant Strangers" was similar to her short film "Groundhog Day for a Black Man."

  • She pointed out how her film was shared with NowThis and how the news outlet was a co-producer on the award-winning short.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Filmmaker Travon Free addressed accusations that his Oscar-winning short film "Two Distant Strangers" copied a 2016 short film about police brutality in an op-ed, writing that the concept of a time loop is "not new."

In a TikTok posted by director Cynthia Kao, the director talked about her four-minute short film titled "Groundhog Day for a Black Man," released in December 2016, in which a Black man relives the same day and "tries to survive a police interaction," Kao said. The short film has just over 3.6 million views as of May 4.

The 2020 short film "Two Distant Strangers," written by Free and directed by Free and Martin Desmond Roe, is about a Black man who becomes "stuck in a time loop that forces him to relive a deadly run-in with a cop," according to the film's description on Netflix.

The short film won Best Short Film at the 2021 Academy Awards last month.

Following the killing of George Floyd on Memorial Day 2020, Kao said in the video that an unnamed producer from video news outlet NowThis reached out to her asking her for permission to report excerpts of the video in a report.

"We had recently seen your short film titled Groundhog Day for a Black Man and found it very powerful," the email read, as seen in Kao's TikTok. "We would like to amplify it and share the message with our audience."

"Could we use the video in a video report? We would of course credit you on screen and give full credit to the production team listed in the YouTube description in the credits at the end of the video," the email continued. "We are happy to link any social media pages as well."

"This hit me when I saw in the opening credits, 'in association with NowThis,'" she said, putting a screenshot of the chyron in her TikTok.

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


Thank you for the messages and tags. 🙏

♬ original sound - Cynthia Kao

Kao's TikTok garnered 2.8 million views, prompting her supporters to demand Kao be credited if her work inspired "Two Distant Strangers" and calls for further explanation from NowThis for its role in co-producing the Oscar-winning short.

In a statement to The Daily Beast, NowThis said: "Two Distant Strangers was independently conceived and in final production for months before NowThis became involved in the film so any connection is out of the question."

"NowThis is committed to highlighting injustices including racism and police brutality," the statement continued. "It's unfortunate that the repeated nature of these experiences are a reality for Black Americans."

Actor Burl Moseley from "Groundhog Day for a Black Man" told The Beast that he thinks NowThis should give Kao an explanation.

"If it is a coincidence, it is spectacular," he said. "I don't want to come to any assumptions or anything like that. But they sent our directors an email, asking if they could share the short, which they did. Then they made their own short that was incredibly similar. It leaves me with some questions."

On Wednesday, a representative for the filmmakers for "Two Distant Strangers" pointed Insider to an op-ed written by filmmaker Travon Free published by The Washington Post addressing the controversy.

In the Wednesday op-ed, titled "Opinion: Police killings of Black people are 'Groundhog Day' in America. It's no surprise that more than one artist noticed," Free addressed Kao's suggestion that his film had been copied from hers.

"Her evidence was the involvement of NowThis, a digital news outlet that provided marketing services to our film and who also amplified her work on social media. This claim is baseless," Free wrote in the op-ed. "NowThis did not join our project until after filming was complete and had no creative influence on the project."

"More than that, it is absurd that Kao would accuse me of stealing her story when my film is based on my own trauma," Free continued.

He added that the using the story device of a time loop, especially in the context of a Black man's death by a police officer, is not new, mentioning other works such as 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."

"But I had no knowledge of any of these works when I wrote my script; it was only later, as production and development of our film gathered momentum, that I discovered them," Free wrote. "I was excited and interested by each. But it never occurred to me that anyone would claim ownership of the "Groundhog Day" device."

Read the original article on Insider