EXCLUSIVE: The International Documentary Association continues to lose staff. Deadline has learned four more employees have left the embattled organization recently, including one whose resignation takes effect today. A fifth staffer is said to be planning to leave imminently.
This follows the departure in early January of four senior staff members who filed a complaint about “workplace conduct” by IDA executive director Rick Pérez, who was appointed only last May, and actions by the board which the four said constituted a “betrayal of public commitments to the documentary field.”
About 16 people remain on staff, meaning the IDA, the premier nonprofit supporting the work of nonfiction storytellers, has shed almost 40 percent of its workforce in a matter of months. That’s not counting two other staffers who tell Deadline they are looking to exit as soon as they can line up other jobs.
Among those who resigned recently is Cassidy Dimon, who served as associate director of public programs and events. In a statement shared exclusively with Deadline, she said, “Working at the IDA was a dream of mine. I am very proud of the work I did over the past nearly 4 years, but the current atmosphere at the organization, that I and many other staff members experienced as hostile and intimidating, made it untenable for me to stay.”
Among Dimon’s responsibilities was organizing the IDA Awards, the association’s signature annual event. The ceremony had been set to take place in-person in early February, but the Omicron surge forced a postponement to this Friday, when the awards will be presented virtually.
Dimon added in her statement, “In resigning, it is my hope that the leadership of IDA prioritizes staff wellbeing and upholds commitments it has made to the community of independent makers that it serves and to whom it is accountable.”
In response to the latest staff resignations, Lauren Lexton, former IDA board co-president, said, “New leadership and change in general can be hard, and especially so after the last two years of Covid. While incredibly sad, it’s not surprising to see staff leave with the people who hired them… We understand, thank them for their service and wish them well.”
Pérez took the top job at the IDA after holding senior positions with the Sundance Institute and WGBH. In assuming the ED position, he became the IDA’s first BIPOC and LGBTQ leader, overseeing a staff that included many people who also identify as BIPOC and/or LGBTQ. Sources told Deadline staff greeted the hiring of Pérez as a positive move towards inclusion in the documentary field.
Sources told Deadline they welcomed his appointment and were ready to start a new chapter in IDA’s history.
But multiple current and former staff, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about internal matters at the IDA, told Deadline that as time went by, Pérez alienated staff by what they said was his propensity to bully and demean underlings, explode at meetings, react angrily to feedback, and to use language that diminished female staff.
“Since Rick Pérez took office in May 2021, nine IDA employees have left – most without prospects,” said one source. “Of those nine, eight were women and one was non-binary. That should say something.”
IDA board treasurer Marcia Smith defended Pérez from what she suggested were grossly unjust characterizations of his comportment as ED.
“Some of the accusations that have been thrown around are diametrically opposed to what we have ourselves witnessed,” Smith told Deadline. “I have never, throughout this process, been told anything that to me, in my view – and I’ve experienced some pretty horrific work environments – that would rise to the level of the vitriol that has been thrown. And that’s troubling to me.”
No details of the formal complaint filed late last year against Pérez have been released publicly. It was lodged by the four women who later resigned on January 4: Maggie Bowman, then interim director of advocacy and programming; Jina Chung, senior director of partnerships and development; Amy Halpin, deputy director; and Poh Si Teng, director of IDA Funds and the Enterprise Program. In a statement published January 28, the board said it had retained “outside legal counsel and an independent investigator” to look into the complaint by the four women, and that the investigator “concluded that the claims were unsubstantiated. To put an end to public speculation, but without divulging the specific nature of the complaints, this result means that there were absolutely no findings to substantiate any purported discrimination or other claims.”
Following the resignation of the four senior staffers, Lexton said the board took several steps to address the restive feeling among remaining staff, among them hiring “an HR consultant to review process and enlist[ing] an expert that staff approved to focus on culture and team building. But ultimately people have to do what’s best for themselves and we don’t want anyone to stay who isn’t completely committed to the IDA and its mission.”
Staffers who resigned insist they were committed to the IDA and its mission and only left after feeling their concerns were not being addressed. Referring to the breach between the staff, and the ED and the board, one source said, “Staff has been very clear on what was needed to rebuild trust… and nothing has been implemented to repair the damage, build trust or provide staff with the guidance and measures they requested to continue to do their work in a supportive way.”
Documentary field leaders have observed the internecine strife at the IDA with considerable alarm.
“This is a major crisis,” for the IDA, said Patricia Aufderheide, a scholar of documentary film and media production who earned the IDA’s Preservation and Scholarship Award in 2006. “IDA is too precious to lose. We don’t have another national membership organization like it.”
Don Young, a veteran of the documentary field and director of programs at the Center for Asian American Media, called dissension between the IDA board and the executive director on the one hand and the staff on the other “really painful to watch… I think we can agree it’s incredibly painful no matter what side of the fence you’re on.”
“People are speculating on whether IDA can last,” Young added, before saying that he believed the institution would ultimately survive.
Young and Aufderheide were among dozens of leaders in the documentary community who signed a letter to the board on January 27 that referred to the quartet of senior staffers who left the IDA as “trusted peers.” The letter also called on the board to be more open about why the women had left, and to address what their departures implied about the IDA’s commitment to its publicly-stated values.
Young told Deadline, “That lack of information has been very difficult for the field. I believe more transparency and engagement is going to help them.”
There are signs the IDA board is coming around to that view. Deadline has reviewed an email sent by the board to documentary field leaders earlier this week that said, “We are opening a series of conversations about the recent disruption at IDA and hoping that you will accept our invitation for your participation.”
The email continued, “Our core commitments and values are: to uplift the work and stories of artists, activists, and journalists around the world; to recognize diversity, both in terms of its value and its challenges in organizational settings; to learn and incorporate lessons from the struggles that come with change; to maintain a clear intention to be inclusive, welcoming and supportive of storytellers and stories that have not been part of the narratives captured to date; and to study the best way for IDA to incorporate the lessons learned from both victories and setbacks which will surely be a part of our growth and development.”
IDA sources, however, point to what they say are examples of board cronyism and a retreat from a commitment to support fundamental change to make the IDA and the documentary field as a whole more inclusive and responsive to underserved filmmakers. (Smith, the board treasurer, countered, “Nothing has changed about our commitment to the mission values of the IDA. Nothing.”).
In September 2021, Chung – one of the women who later resigned – published an article in the IDA’s Documentary magazine under the headline, “Values-based Fundraising For a More Equitable Documentary Community.” It advocated a new model of fundraising for the IDA whereby some of the money the organization received from big industry spenders would be set aside to support BIPOC filmmakers who lack resources to promote their films.
“From event sponsorship opportunities to our year-round advertising program, there are many ways in which we engage different corporate partners, many of whom yield incredible power and influence in our industry,” Chung’s article said. “How do we show up for documentary storytellers while directly benefiting from this inequitable system?”
Chung’s article was in line with a bold statement published in June 2020 by the IDA’s previous executive director, Simon Kilmurry, in the midst of the protests over the murder of George Floyd. He wrote (in a commentary that we understand IDA board members endorsed), “We will confront systemic issues and structural racism within our organization. We will confront systemic issues within our field. We will challenge the Whiteness that dominates the documentary ecosystem. We will evaluate all our work through a lens of racial justice.”
Despite that declaration of principles, IDA sources maintain they were told some members of the board reacted with consternation to Chung’s new vision of fundraising. According to these sources, Pérez told Chung the board was unhappy with her article and they alleged he yelled at her and accused her of undermining his position with the board.
“It was really ugly, the way [Pérez] treated her,” said one source.
Bowman, the former interim director of advocacy, called Chung’s article a “visionary essay that really explored the tension that can arise between the interests of independent makers (equity, inclusion and economic justice) and the interests of those who currently hold power and money in our documentary ecosystem,” adding, “When I heard that members of the board were upset with Jina’s article and that Rick was backing off on his support of it, I questioned whether or not I could continue to work at this organization.”
Lexton, the former IDA board co-president, denied the board reacted negatively to Chung’s article. “We want to be very clear: We agree with the spirit of what was written [by Chung], and the larger strategy of finding ways for our sponsors to help underwrite programs that lift up underrepresented filmmakers,” Lexton said. “The fundraising committee had not seen the article or heard any specifics about how the strategy would be deployed. The ED and the Board have a fiduciary responsibility to ask questions about programs that impact revenue. We wanted to hear more about the execution, rollout and messaging. We have to ask these questions. There was no criticism of the spirit of it or of any staff presenting it. Exactly the opposite – we were quite proud that they were tackling a big bold idea. We just wanted more specifics.”
The soul-searching within the IDA triggered by the unrest after George Floyd’s death also prompted a re-evaluation of its lucrative Screening Series program, a fall event that serves as a major platform for documentaries aspiring to Oscar recognition. By universal acknowledgement, the series had always been “pay to play,” and deep-pocketed distributors paid substantial sums to get their contenders before influential IDA members. But in 2020 the staff, with support from then-IDA executive director Kilmurry, implemented a curatorial process that would vet films on merit and also carve out space for documentaries by BIPOC filmmakers.
In fall 2021, under the new curatorial guidelines, a particular documentary failed to make the cut (Deadline is not naming the film out of concern doing so would potentially prejudice awards voters against it). Two IDA board members were involved with the film – one as a producer, another as an executive producer. According to multiple sources, Pérez told staff members those board members were deeply displeased their film wasn’t programmed in the Screening Series. He ultimately directed staff to make an exception for the film and insert it into the program.
Deadline has reviewed notes compiled by staff from a meeting in early January in which Pérez addressed the exception made for the film. According to those notes, Pérez said, “I’ll take ownership of that decision… That was a political exception… I wouldn’t say it undermines equity and inclusion… Ideally, we do not want to have exceptions. But we do not live in an ideal world.”
Sources told Deadline the exception sent the wrong message to the field – that individuals in a position of power or privilege could bypass the curatorial process.
Lexton said Pérez “made the right call to be more inclusive by adding… [the extra] film” and that in doing so he did not deprive any other filmmaker of a slot in the Screening Series. She also said the board “never got specifics of how the new [curatorial] strategy would impact the screening series, but appreciate the enthusiasm and effort to move it forward. That said, we can’t run a curated program without specifics about who is curating and how.”
Smith said the conflict at the IDA is not over “substantive policy” issues, but she added, “There are differences on authority and power. And there are differences on proper process and procedure. And those things are not terribly unusual in an organization and certainly not unusual when there’s a leadership change.”
Alluding to the allegations made against the board and the ED, she said, “…I do believe there should be a very high bar for trying to take down the IDA. There should be a very high bar for calling for the head of an organization when he’s been in the chair for four months. That should be a high bar.” (Former staff denied they are trying to take down the IDA, and said in fact they devoted enormous energy to upholding its mission and values).
The controversy roiling the IDA has left some in the documentary field questioning how the nonprofit moves forward and what it stands for.
“Look, the real larger concern is about the underlying values and vision of what the IDA is going to do and what it’s going to become,” said Gordon Quinn, founding member of Kartemquin and recipient of the IDA’s 2015 Career Achievement Award. “I think that’s why so many people in the field are concerned.”
Quinn was among the signatories of the January 27 letter to the board that called for a more transparent response to the IDA upheaval.
“Most of the people who signed that letter were signing it as people who need IDA,” said Aufderheide, the American University scholar, “and desperately want IDA leadership to engage with us to demonstrate that it’s aware that it’s lost credibility, and it needs to demonstrate what it’s now doing.”
Another signatory, director Cecilia Aldarondo, is this year’s recipient of the IDA’s Emerging Documentary Filmmaker Award.
“The basic principle of transparency is one that I can get behind,” Aldarondo told Deadline. “I had heard some rumors about the staff departures and I wanted to know more. What has come to trouble me is that I don’t understand what the end game is here… I’m worried because the infrastructure for independent documentary is fragile already. Will this conflict leave us stronger or weaker as a field?”
Aldarondo also voiced concern about whether the staff and IDA board have given Pérez adequate support to help him lead the organization successfully.
“A BIPOC leader coming into a legacy white institution faces a tremendous additional burden,” she said. “And a question I have is, was he given a shot?”
Beginning several weeks ago, Deadline requested an interview with Pérez to discuss the situation at the IDA, but to date has not been granted one.
Pérez will get a chance to speak with documentary community stakeholders at the virtual meetings the board announced this week. The dates set aside for those 90-minute encounters are March 9 and March 21.
“Our conversation will open with remarks from ED Rick Pérez, and a couple of board members,” the IDA invitation reads. “Our purpose is to learn and hold space for deep listening and reflection on IDA from community members as we move forward. Your input will help to refine and focus this ongoing process.”
Editors note: The story has been updated since its publication to clarify the timeline of staff departures.
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