Controversy At IDA Bursts Into Open After Four Senior Staff Exit Leading Documentary Organization

EXCLUSIVE: Four senior staffers who resigned in protest from the International Documentary Association are responding to a public statement from the IDA board dismissing their concerns about how the nonprofit organization is being run under new executive director Rick Pérez.

The board published a letter on the IDA website on Friday acknowledging “a number of documentary community members have expressed concern about recent changes at the IDA – particularly the resignations of four staff members.”

The board wrote that it hired “outside legal counsel and an independent investigator” to look into complaints from the four staffers – Maggie Bowman, Jina Chung, Amy Halpin and Poh Si Teng – about workplace conduct by Pérez.

“To protect the individuals’ privacy, we can’t address the specifics of the complaints in this letter…,” the board said, “however we can share that this investigator concluded that the claims were unsubstantiated.” The letter reiterated, “…[T]his result means that there were absolutely no findings to substantiate any purported discrimination or other claims.”

The board took issue with the staffers for announcing their resignations “before the conclusions of the investigation were communicated. We are saddened that they decided to leave before an open and collaborative conversation could be had among staff, our new executive director Rick Pérez, and the Board.”

But in a statement exclusively obtained by Deadline, Bowman (the IDA’s former interim director of advocacy and programming), Chung (former senior director of partnerships and development), Halpin (former deputy director) and Teng (former director of IDA Funds and the Enterprise Program) said they had reached out repeatedly to the board, beginning last summer.

“From July through October 2021, we made several attempts to raise concerns with the Executive Director and several Board members about workplace conduct and organizational actions that did not align with IDA’s stated values,” their statement read. “Our attempts to engage in dialogue were unsuccessful.”

Their statement sharply criticized the board’s investigation.

“The process and investigation that followed over the next nearly two months [after October 2021] left us isolated, further diminished, and increasingly concerned about the future of the organization and colleagues on staff,” they wrote. “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 in the first place. 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.”

The controversy has been roiling the documentary field for weeks. But it came to a head this week after the IDA posted job openings for the positions vacated by the ex-staffers. Deadline has reviewed an email sent to the board on Thursday that was signed by dozens of prominent figures in the documentary field including Gordon Quinn, Jim LeBrecht, Brett Story, Charlotte Cook, Joanna Natasegara, Nancy Schwarztman, Nicole Tsien and P.J. Raval. It read, in part, “We respectfully suggest that a virtual meeting take place before the March 4th IDA Documentary Awards ceremony and that [IDA] members, filmmakers with fiscal sponsorship, and grantees, among others from the documentary community, are included.”

The email called the women who resigned “trusted peers whose work on behalf of the documentary field should be celebrated,” and called silence about their departures “unacceptable.”

The statement from the board breaks that silence. But there was no indication that boardmembers — a distinguished group that includes Vinnie Malhotra, Caroline Libresco, Grace Lee, James Costa and Bonni Cohen —  would agree to convene a forum to address the resignations or the substance of the staffers’ complaints.

The board did observe, “It is also important to note that change, at any organization, can be difficult and it’s not uncommon for shifts to occur when new leadership steps in, for any number of reasons. Rick Pérez has the potential to be a stellar executive director of IDA. He brings with him programmatic and field leadership experience from a range of impressive positions at Sundance Institute and WGBH, and through the decades-long endurance of being an independent documentary filmmaker – the core constituency of the IDA. Rick is also the first person of color who is also openly LGBTQ to lead the organization. We hired him to carry out the IDA mission by engaging hard questions and hearing the full range of concerns and contradictions facing our field.”

Pérez, who took over as the IDA’s executive director last May, succeeding Simon Kilmurry, wrote his own statement published on the organization’s website. He described himself as “deeply disappointed” by the staffers’ departures and “disappointed that in resigning they relinquished an opportunity to respectfully engage in a constructive dialogue with me, the IDA’s Executive Director, to resolve their concerns.”

He also noted, “My reputation and track record of collaborating with and advocating for documentary filmmakers in the US and abroad runs deep and is easily verifiable,” and went on to observe, “Change in leadership, especially during a societal crisis like the Covid pandemic, and in the aftermath of a year of racial reckoning, has presented a unique set of hurdles. It should be no surprise that the resistance and the resultant tensions around change that play out in broader society, also manifest within nonprofit organizations.

“My being IDA’s first Latinx leader and a member of the LGBTQ community doesn’t excuse me or the organization from scrutiny. I know I may have to prove myself to those who don’t know me yet,” he added. “I welcome that and look forward to showing my passion, commitment and dedication to building a vibrant equitable, and democratized documentary ecosystem.”

The IDA was founded 40 years ago by documentarian Linda Buzzell, “as an intimate community of like-minded film professionals, eager to expand the impact, scope and reach of the documentary genre.”

In the statement exclusive to Deadline, Bowman, Chung, Halpin, and Teng voiced support for the organization’s remaining employees.

“We leave behind a staff that has demonstrated a deep commitment to the work and values of IDA’s mission,” they said. “We sincerely hope that the field will support this dedicated staff in continuing to advocate for the changes necessary for an accountable and transparent IDA for our field and a healthy, safe work environment for its staff.”

The women said they have consulted legal counsel but do not intend to file a lawsuit related to their departures from the IDA.

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