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Mutiny and Mystery: What’s Behind the Crisis at the International Documentary Association

IDA executive director Rick Pérez struggles to lead after a mass exodus. The board backs him, but leading documentarians say his "silence is unacceptable."

IDA Executive Director Rick Perez

IDA

Tonight is the biggest event of the year for the International Documentary Association. It will honor the best in nonfiction film at the IDA Documentary Awards in Los Angeles, where “Summer of Soul” leads with four nominations and winners are closely watched as Oscar precursors. On Monday, the organization’s leaders will return to business as usual: Managing a 40-year-old nonprofit that’s been hamstrung by crisis.

Eight months after the IDA board tapped Rick Pérez as its new executive director, four senior staffers resigned en masse. A fifth left in February; two junior staffers followed suit. All are women or non-binary. This leaves the IDA with five vacant director-level positions on a six-person leadership team.

The four former senior staffers — deputy director Amy Halpin, senior director of development and partnerships Jina Chung, interim director of programming and advocacy Maggie Bowman, and funds and enterprise program director Poh Si Teng — posted on Medium shortly after their resignations.

“Our concerns about workplace conduct and what we perceived as the Board’s and the Executive Director’s betrayal of public commitments to the field are what caused us to reach out to the Board [with the complaint] in the first place,” they wrote. “The Board’s handling of our complaint and its unwillingness to engage in a dialogue about our clearly stated sets of concerns ultimately caused us to resign collectively in early January.”

Perhaps what’s worse: The organization has created its own crisis of confidence. No one will discuss the specifics of the complaint or provide a clear answer for why there were so many resignations.

The remaining staff is rudderless, stunned, and left to wonder who will leave next. Also grappling with a lack of trust are dozens of members of the tight-knit documentary community, who have let the IDA know in no uncertain terms that they demand answers.

At a time when the IDA should navigate how an explosive commercial interest in nonfiction can coexist with the IDA’s mission to champion “a thriving and inclusive documentary culture,” the organization finds itself consumed with how to define Pérez’s authority and the acceptable ways for him to defend it.

“The spirit of collaboration”

In November 2020, IDA executive director Simon Kilmurry announced that he intended to step down and the search for a new leader would begin. The search committee identified Pérez: Handpicked by the IDA board for his values of racial equity, his hire broke the IDA’s 40-year streak of white executive directors. He is a documentarian whose 2014 film “Cesar’s Last Fast” screened in competition at the Sundance Film Festival. His immigrant parents were active in the Chicano Movement and his father was once a migrant farmworker. Most recently, Perez was an executive in the Los Angeles office of nonprofit broadcaster GBH.

Shortly after Perez joined the IDA, conflicts began to simmer between him and the IDA’s four senior staffers: Halpin, Chung, Bowman, and Teng. He joined IDA under disconnected and isolated circumstances: Pandemic lockdowns had everyone working from home and communicating over Zoom, phone, and email. One of the women who resigned never met Perez in person at all.

Pérez describes himself as a passionate and lively leader committed to equity; his tendency to interrupt, he said, stems from ADD symptoms. Staffers who spoke to IndieWire say they saw a manager with a top-down style who diminished them and was prone to lose his temper.

Former and current IDA staff also told IndieWire that Perez isolated himself from staff in favor of aligning with the 14-person IDA board. Its members include veteran independent filmmakers Grace Lee and Bonni Cohen and former Sundance programmer Caroline Libresco, as well as representatives of Hollywood’s most powerful companies: William Morris Endeavor partner Amir Shahkhalili, Walt Disney executive director Fonda Berosini, and Showtime executive VP Vinnie Malhotra.

There were disagreements between Perez and staff about implementing a progressive fundraising plan. The staff also looked on in horror at Pérez’s decision to add a board member’s film to the IDA Documentary Screening Series after it was passed over by a programming committee, a move that sources described as undermining equity commitments the organization had worked on over the past two years.

The International Documentary Association’s 2021 screening of “Rebel Hearts”

In an interview with IndieWire this week, Pérez described his job as one he had been working toward his whole career. “My approach going into it was in the spirit of collaboration and leading an organization, a historically white-led organization, into a new era,” he said.

Pérez is the IDA’s first person of color to serve as executive director, but of the four women at the center of the conflict with Pérez two are Asian. Teng grew up in Malaysia as an ethnic and religious minority; Chung is a second-generation Korean-American.

“You know, I can’t say I did anything wrong”

IDA has grappled with equity issues in the past. The 2019 IDA Award nomination of Netflix docuseries “Living Undocumented” sparked criticism from inside and outside the organization. The series spotlighted undocumented immigrants living in the U.S, but its producers opted not to hire any undocumented filmmakers. In a Medium post, the Undocumented Filmmakers Collective said the project highlighted how the industry systemically excludes filmmakers because of their immigration status, while cashing in on their stories.

at the 33rd Annual IDA Documentary Awards at Paramount Theatre on December 9, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.

The 33rd Annual IDA Documentary Awards at Paramount Theatre on December 9, 2017 in Los Angeles, California

Getty Images for International Documentary Association

After the killing of George Floyd in 2020, Kilmurry responded to the racial reckoning with a statement outlining broad changes that he wanted to bring to the IDA, including supporting organizations and filmmakers that amplify Black voices, confronting systemic and structural racism within the IDA, challenging “the Whiteness that dominates the documentary ecosystem” and advocating for “the needs of all marginalized storytellers. There can be no just future without their stories.” Some IDA staffers questioned whether those good intentions — written by a white male executive — would result in real change.

In July 2021, Chung announced significant changes to the IDA’s increasingly popular pay-to-play Screening Series. (Full disclosure: IndieWire has been a media partner on the series.)  Rather than take the films first-come, first serve — a system that gave an edge to distributors with the deepest pockets and quickest publicists — the IDA committee would review films based on “awards viability, commitment to diversity, and artistic quality” and ensure that the series included a diverse group of filmmakers and distributors.

They would also provide five event-fee waivers for underrepresented filmmakers. Current and former staffers say they viewed the screening series changes as a way to make good on the equity pledges Kilmurry made.

After locking programming for the 2021-2022 season, a board member’s film was not included; they asked Perez to program the film. When he discussed the matter with Halpin and Chung, they said they encouraged him to defend the process. Instead, Pérez programmed the film.

Pérez saw the decision as one that was his to make as executive director; staff saw it as undermining commitments that had been loudly articulated to the industry.

The conflicts between Pérez and his staff came to a head last fall, when the four directors submitted a complaint to the board about his workplace conduct. IDA did not have an HR department and the board responded by hiring an independent consultant to investigate; several months passed and no board members responded personally to the complainants. IndieWire spoke with several of the women and they expressed feeling vulnerable, isolated, and unheard. (The organization has since hired an HR consultant and Pérez says he plans to create a discrete HR department.)

The women tendered their resignations shortly before the board communicated their findings: There was nothing actionable, it said, beyond a need to set up communications training for Pérez. He needed more time to learn the job.

The way the board and Pérez see it, the four staffers offered a choice: He goes, or they go. “We believed there was an ultimatum that was given to us,” a board spokesperson said.

Asked to reflect on the conflict in light of the board’s decision to implement communications training, Pérez said that while he’s always willing to grow and learn, he saw few takeaways from the experience in terms of his own behavior.

“You know, I can’t say I did anything wrong,” Pérez said. “I perhaps could have asked them, ‘What is your decision-making policy?’ … ‘How do you imagine the division of authority among the staff? What authority should the directors have? What authorities should the ED have?'”

He believed the veteran employees operated within an ill-defined workplace structure, a relic from Kilmurry’s tenure that didn’t leave enough space for him. He singled out Halpin as “inflexible.”

“The reality is they had no clear-defined system,” he said. “They all had concepts of the authority they wanted that were in conflict to the job I was hired to do by the board, to whom I report.”

The women vehemently dispute that characterization, saying that “we were a high-functioning highly collaborative team who had worked and accomplished a lot together for many years.”

In a joint statement to IndieWire, Bowman, Chung, Halpin, and Teng said: “When Rick joined the organization, we were all excited about a new era of leadership at IDA. We reject any characterization that Rick joined an organization that was ineffective, inequitable, and mired in mismanagement. The IDA has, over the past several years, continued to advocate for independent filmmakers, particularly filmmakers of color; engaged in ongoing self-examination of how our work can either uphold or challenge the status quo of the documentary ecosystem; and worked to be a countervailing force for independent filmmakers in the face of the commercial interests that have taken a great interest in the documentary genre in recent years.”

“Silence is unacceptable”

Amidst all the accusations, the central mystery remains: Exactly what was in the women’s complaint to the IDA board? On that note, all sides refused to fully detail the allegations. Pérez said he’s never actually read the complaint. He could only infer its contents based on questions asked of him by the investigator.

All sides point to a conflict surrounding an article that Chung published in the September 2021 issue of IDA’s Documentary Magazine. She wrote about experiencing “cognitive dissonance” while reconciling the IDA’s 2020 public statement about racial justice while working within a fundraising model that relies heavily on the industry’s most powerful companies and wealthy individual donors. She wrote about the ways the IDA was addressing that through an in-progress micro-grant program and implementing more equity-focused practices across the IDA.

The women told IndieWire that Pérez didn’t embrace Chung’s ideas. He disagrees.

“I believe in all those principles she wrote about,” Pérez said. “What was difficult was her refusal to [consider], ‘How do we roll this out more thoughtfully? How do we actually try to get the board buy in?’ Because at that point, her thing was, ‘Shut the board out.’ [She] would not let them in.”

The women dispute that characterization.

“As senior staff, we had a history of engaging with the board, sharing progress of our work with them, and discussing complex issues related to how to best pursue the organization’s mission and safeguard its financial well-being,” they wrote in a statement. “This happened during full board meetings, board committee meetings, meetings including the board president, and most recently in a staff-wide presentation to the board in September 2021. Any suggestion that we refused to engage with the board is a misrepresentation of the facts.”

That secrecy surrounding the mass resignations remains an immense source of unease. Current IDA staffers’ effort to get answers have been met by assertions from leaders that they must trust that the board acted in their best interests — a tall order for a group of documentarians accustomed to challenging authority and questioning official narratives.

The same is true for those for outside the organization. In late January, Pérez posted a call for IDA job applicants, including Teng’s former position, on a Sundance-National Endowment of the Arts listserv. It did not receive a warm response: Leaders of prominent organizations responded with concern, with some saying they would not promote the positions until the IDA explained what happened.

“Directors – 4 of them – don’t leave an organization at the same time every day. It’s clear something went down,” one producer posted on the listserv. “It’s frankly offensive to be asked to help fill jobs that were vacated under what are clearly troubling circumstances, without the benefit of some sort of explanation.”

That consternation extended to 77 members of the documentary community, including Field of Vision co-founders Charlotte Cook and Laura Poitras and Oscar-nominated “Crip Camp” director Jim LeBrecht, who sent an email to the IDA board January 27 requesting clarification about the women’s resignations.

“Silence is unacceptable,” they wrote. “As IDA members, documentary filmmakers, field colleagues, and journalists, we have an obligation to ask questions.”

Pérez discounted this as a coordinated effort to undermine his leadership. “I can probably get 150 filmmakers to say, ‘Rick’s a stand-up guy,’ he said. “I think that letter just reflects a specific intentional organization campaign and not the sentiments of my standing in the field among the tens if not hundreds of filmmakers I’ve helped all over the world.”

The board and Pérez each composed a public response to the documentarians’ letter, but provided no specifics. “We can acknowledge that the IDA received employee complaints and want to assure our colleagues that the Board of Directors handled them with the serious attention they deserved,” the board wrote. Wrote Perez, “I am deeply disappointed that they chose to leave. I cannot provide insight into why they made their decisions.”

IndieWire has learned that Pérez and the board sent an invitation to members of the documentary community to “open a series of conversations about the recent disruption at the IDA… Our goal is to clarify, re-affirm, and learn from the experience.” Overseeing the sessions, the first of which is scheduled for March 9, is Angela E. Oh, an attorney mediator best known for her role as spokesperson for the Korean American community after the 1992 Los Angeles riots. On Thursday, leadership invited the IDA staff to send two representatives to that first session.

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