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Hot Docs boss says ‘perfect storm’ preceded staff exodus weeks from festival launch



Hot Docs’ president Marie Nelson says a “perfect storm” led to Canada’s largest documentary film festival’s artistic director and 10 of its programmers quitting just before it was set to announce its 2024 lineup.

Nelson cited multiple hurdles that strained creative, financial and staffing efforts to pull together a 31st edition, while filmmakers slated to screen at the event acknowledged myriad pressures on the arts.

But in a joint statement released Tuesday, programmers said the organization turned into a “toxic workplace” after it failed to respect protocol and dismissed or diminished team members’ voices.

“We were expected to work in an ever-changing, chaotic, unprofessional and discriminatory environment,” they said in the statement.

“Programming team members approached HR, senior management, the president and then the board in good faith to share our concerns.”

Hot Docs also said Hussain Currimbhoy had stepped down as artistic director on March 20 “due to personal reasons.” He had been in the role for just four months. The statement added that festival director Heather Haynes will lead programming in preparation for this year’s festival.

In an interview Tuesday, Nelson refused to comment on allegations of a toxic workplace, but cited a variety of reasons for the staff departures.

“When you come into an organization and you’re tackling the financial challenges of the pandemic, and you couple that with creative and staffing challenges, and then you add into that mix the geopolitical debates that are happening about the right role for organizations like film festivals, it’s been a very challenging time,” she said.

At the press conference to announce the festival’s lineup, Nelson said she prioritized change rather than taking care of her people.

“There is every desire that I would turn the corner next week and have more of our programmers decide to come back and join us. We understand the value of the programmers to this festival,” she said.

Nelson elaborated afterwards that she focused on “external goals” like solving Hot Docs’ financial situation and neglected the needs of people on the team.

“Sometimes you don’t spend as much time really understanding the guts of your organization and what the folks on your team need and what they’re looking for and what they’re experiencing.”

The departed programmers — who included senior staffers Myrocia Watamaniuk and Angie Driscoll, who had both been with Hot Docs for more than 20 years — said they were committed to finding a solution.

But the programmers said Hot Docs leadership didn’t want to be public about problems within the organization.

The departed programmers said they “fully support” the films in this year’s lineup, set to run April 25 to May 5.

It opens with the Luther Vandross portrait, “Luther: Never Too Much,” from director Dawn Porter.

“The arts are really under a lot of pressure and my heart goes out to everyone being affected by it,” Porter said in response to the Hot Docs departures.

“This festival is such an anchor. It’s not only beloved, but it’s essential. So we’re all really hopeful that this is going to not only be able to survive, but to thrive in the difficult times ahead.”

Toronto director Brett Story, whose film “Union” will be featured in Hot Docs’ Shorts program, said it’s important to support the festival’s workers.

“We need to listen to workers when they’re talking about workplace challenges. We should all, as a community be rallying around people to ask, ‘What are the conditions of the workplace?'” said Story, whose film is about employees at an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island fighting to unionize.

“What I take away from this news of tumult is that this festival needs more support from the city, more support from the province and it needs to be empowered to create better conditions for its workers. And I hope that that will happen.”

Earlier this month, Nelson announced Hot Docs was in dire financial straits, and said this year’s edition of the festival could be the last.

“We need the financial support so that we can deal with the operational shortfalls that are creating an instability and making it such that we’re not sure that we’ll have another festival beyond this year,” Nelson said on Tuesday.

Nelson added that the thought of Hot Docs shutting down is “frightening.”

“This is about our voice on the world stage and preserving that and fighting for its existence at a time when it’s sincerely under threat.”

This is the first year Nelson is leading the festival, after being tapped for the top job last April. Previously, she was a senior vice-president at ABC News/Disney.

Director Larry Weinstein, whose film “Beethoven’s Nine,” exploring Beethoven’s final completed symphony, will make its world premiere at Hot Docs, said it’s sad to see there’s pain internally at the festival.

“I feel like Hot Docs is a microcosm for the entire planet right now. There’s pain and out of the pain I hope comes some healing and something better.”

Also announced Tuesday, the Canadian Spectrum Competition will feature the world premieres of “A French Youth,” about two young North African bull racers in the south of France; and “Curl Power,” which follows five high school friends seeking to become Canadian National Curling Champions.

The International Competition will include “The Weavers’ Songs,” about the importance of weaving in San Pedro Amuzgos, Oaxaca; and “Standing Above the Clouds,” which tells the story of three Native Hawaiian families defending Mauna Kea, their sacred mountain.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 26, 2024. 

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