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Small filmmaker cries foul

Cynthia Kao claimed that the Oscar-winning short film “Two Distant Strangers” resembles her video from 2016.

By Soren Blomquist Eggerling, Staff Writer

The award-winning film "Two Distant Strangers" uses a time loop to portray police brutality. (Photo Courtesy of Netflix)

“Two Distant Strangers” won the Oscar for best short film this year, garnering praise and criticism for an original look at police brutality. But for Cynthia Kao, the film’s similarities to her short “Groundhog Day For A Black Man” are uncanny, at best.

Kao’s viral TikTok compares the two films, and currently has over 4.1 million views. While the TikTok appears to imply something improper occurred, Kao stated that “I don’t know what happened and I’m not making any assumptions.”

However, Kao pointed out that both films are about Black men stuck in a Groundhog Day-style loop attempting to survive police interactions that inevitably end with them being shot and killed. She pointed out that NowThis — a social media news organization with a left-leaning bent and penchant for dominating Facebook and Instagram feeds — platformed her video after George Floyd’s murder. This detail was notable because NowThis served as a co-producer on “Two Distant Strangers.”

“This hit me when I saw in the opening credits [read] ‘in association with NowThis,’” said Kao in the TikTok.

The crux of Kao’s observation rests on the involvement of NowThis in both projects and the similarities of the films, both being centered on police violence in a continuous loop, a concept popularized in the 1993 Bill Murray film “Groundhog Day.” However, some say that the concept is not original.

“Kao is not even the only other person to have the idea of using [a time loop] to examine the repeated deaths of Black men at the hands of the police. In fact, she is not even the first,” said Travon Free, writer and co-director of “Two Distant Strangers,” in an article from The Washington Post.

Free pointed to a 2015 essay by Luvvie Ajayi Jones as the earliest reference of a time loop that addresses police brutality that he knew. Jones — a speaker, author and podcaster — talked about the harm of the endless loop of videos depicting police killing Black people in her piece.

Free claimed that he did not know of any prior similar work before creating his short “I did not need to see them. I lived them.” The Oscar-winning director attributes the main source of inspiration for “Strangers” to a botched police raid that he was involved in 10 years ago, a claim bolstered by an identical death scenario in his film.

NowThis responded to Kao’s video, claiming “Two Distant Strangers” was independently conceived and in the final phase of production months before they became involved in the film, adding that any connection was coincidental. Free also mentioned that NowThis “provided marketing services” and “had no creative influence on the project.”

Kao’s viral TikTok has gathered both sympathy and criticism. As an Asian-American, a number of people believe it is not her place to tell the story of an officer killing a Black man.

Comments on her TikTok included “you felt comfortable writing a story about black trauma in the first place??” and “You shouldn’t be making black trauma art anyway babe.” Kao responded to the latter comment, saying, “I hear you.”

Kao has since held off on posting TikToks. She did a brief interview with Vice, where she revealed that she had demonetized her short on YouTube and acknowledged that the killing of an innocent Black man may not have been her story to tell.

The Valley Star reached out to Kao for an interview but she declined to comment.

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