The last thing one would expect to hear or read about a film festival is racial/religious profiling, particularly an international festival which honors a different country each year. Yet, that's the scuttlebutt being reported about Worldfest. The incident occurred Satruday, April 20, before the morning master class, Indies: The New Reality. All accounts agree about how things started, which, as an attendee I can vouch for their authenticity. The stories diverge on content and motivation once we were all back in the room. The accounts include written statements from Mike Rudd and Hunter Todd (in full below). I also interviewed several other eye witnesses who wish to remain anonymous. As of this writing the woman who was profiled is deciding whether or not she wants to come forward with a statement. What I Witnessed The class was scheduled to start at 10:00 a.m. For one reason or another the class was running a few minutes late when the fire alarm sounded. For several minutes there was confusion as to whether or not we were supposed to evacuate. At first we were told it was not necessary to leave. My thought was some idiot had picked the wrong time for a fire drill, but I'm used to monthly fire drills from my time working at a K-12 school. After a few minutes we were informed we did in fact need to leave. So, we packed up our stuff and headed to the lobby. As Murphy's Law is wont to have happen, just as soon as the hundred or so attendees made it into the lobby, fifty feet from the conference room, we were allowed back in. False alarm. We grumbled in the natural first-world problem way, but no harm, no foul. Or so we thought. When we returned to the room, at this point the "we" I am referring to is myself and a friend who was attending, we took our seats and went back to chit chatting. We were a little more than halfway back in the conference room, so we did not catch the beginning of the kerfuffle. We did notice when the discussion between Rudd and Todd got heated. Todd told Rudd to sit down, at which point Rudd took out his cell phone. Todd lunged forward, grabbing Rudd's hands. Rudd pulled back, telling Todd to let go of him. The panel's host, Jon Scheide, stepped in and broke the two up. Rudd left, stopping to apologize to the lady in the burka. Todd introduced the class and then left. Mike Rudd's Full Statement (via his Facebook page)
I had a very revealing time at WorldFest Houston today with the founder and director Hunter Todd proving what an ignorant and aggressive person he really is. Before the morning seminar at WorldFest this morning, everyone was gathered in the seminar room for the lectures start when the hotel's fire alarm went off. The founder and director of WorldFest, Hunter Todd, told everyone to stay in the room before he went to a Muslim UH student and classmate of mine, and demanded to search her bag. She tried to show him her pass to prove she was supposed to be there, but he demanded to search every single pocket of her bag anyway. I'd like to add he did so with a great deal of rudeness and attitude. She complied and showed him the her bag, after this he walked off and didn't ask to search any of the dozens of other bags in the room. At this point I called a professor of mine and told him about the incident and asked if it would be appropriate for me to say something in her defense. I then went to Hunter Todd and asked him if he did in fact demand to search her bag and if so why. He told me, "because she is a Muslim and a suspicious character, now sit down." I told him I would not sit down and that this was unacceptable and racial profiling. I offered to take it outside to discuss with him and he then said, "no you're one of the people I despise the most and you're an obnoxious little bastard, now sit down or I'll have you thrown out. In response I said he should feel free to throw me out, at which point I pulled out my cell phone to call someone about the situation. At this point he lunged towards me grabbed me with both hands and tried to take my phone from me. I separated myself from him told him not to touch me and left the room to avoid further escalation. Later, I called WorldFest to file an official complaint about a racial incident involving there founder and director. I was placed on hold for several minutes when a woman named Kathleen picked up. I told her I was calling to file a complaint about a racial incident involving their founder and director and asked her what her position was at WorldFest. Ignoring this, she asked my name. I told her I would not give my name until she told me what position she held. More rudely she said "you called us now tell me your name". I told her that in this situation I would not give her my name or any info when I did not know who I was talking with. This is when she yells loudly in the the phone "TELL ME YOUR NAME RIGHT NOW!" Not willing to give into to this I told her that if that was going to be how it was I would go straight to the press and that I was hanging up. She began to yell something else at me as I hung up the phone. All of this because at an INTERNATIONAL film festival, an ignorant and aggressive man, Hunter Todd, decided it was okay to target a student for being Muslim. The saddest part of all is that the girl felt it was wrong, but that it was just the way it goes. Worse still, was that to her point not a single other person in the room of the dozens in attendance said or did anything in her defense.Hunter Todd's Full Statement (via an email he sent to me)
Dear Mr. Pierson... It is interesting to read all these false versions of what actually happened at the Saturday, April 20th morning Master Class. They are totally incorrect, biased and without credibility. The following are the facts and they are irrefutable: At the beginning of the Morning Session, I was there personally to welcome the filmmakers and the $400. Scholarship recipients to the Master Class. As the class was about to start, and I was going to introduce our guest speaker, the emergency alarm went off. I immediately called our hotel contact and was assured that it was a false alarm, caused by someone pulling the fire alarm. I then advised the audience to keep their seats as there was not an emergency. Soon after that, a hotel employee - that had not received the information that I had, again requested us to leave. We then departed the room, only to be turned back within one or two minutes when the false alarm information reached the floor hotel staff. As I returned to the meeting room I noticed an individual sitting down in the front of the room, by themselves. Clad in a full Hijab, with only eye-slits. The individual was carrying a heavy dark backpack. Frankly, with this - coupled with the false alarm, I called my contact with the police and was told to ask for her ID and search the backpack. In reviewing this situation afterwards with the FBI, Constables and the Police, I was told that I did exactly what they would have done in the total interest in the safety of our 200+ guests in the room. They said this was especially important due to the recent terror attacks in Boston. The officers also told me "How did I know it was a female in the Hijab, as this is a typical terrorist ploy. I approached the individual calmly and very politely. I did not ask for her identification, but the individual did show me the VIP Gold Passes that we had issued. I then politely asked her to let me examine the back pack, and she opened two zippers, not all the pockets in the back pack. When I saw the 3-4 water bottles in the backpack, I realized why it was so heavy and sagging. I thanked the individual and welcomed the individual to the festival. At no time did this person speak with me, so I had no way to know who or what was under the full Hijab. Then I attempted to start the delayed Master Class. Almost immediately I was confronted by an obviously upset and very angry male. He refused to identify himself, started loudly ranting about "racial profiling!" ... Since the Master Class was now running quite late, I asked him to please step aside or sit down. He very strongly refused, and demanded to carry on his dispute then and there. I must state that he was rude, arrogant, pompous and quite full of himself. I then demanded that he step aside, leave the room so we could start the session, and he again forcefully refused, demanding an incident. Finally, the guest speaker did step in and made him leave the room. I was angered by his arrogance and extremely rude attitude. I did not call him a "bastard" as I had no idea of his birth heritage. I did let him know what I thought of his rude and physical attempt to stop the Master Class. I then finished the intro and left the room. I find it very interesting that the perpetrator of this incident is named "Rude" ...or is it Rudd. As I previously stated, I contacted members of the police and FBI, who assured me that I acted in the interest of the safety of our guests. It was suggested that the entire incident, with the false alarm, the Hijab clad individual and the rude confrontation, was a pre-arranged and set-up action. I am rather amazed that the rudeness and arrogance of the man what confronted me. If this is the kind of thanks we get for extending more than $4,000 worth of scholarships to your "students" then I will have to re-consider the entire program in relation to the University of Houston. Never, in the 46-year history of this International Film Festival, have I ever been so rudely treated. My sole interest was the safety of my guests. I am a military veteran and my training made me move forward in this situation to protect our guests. The Boston Marathon Massacre was last week. It was accomplished by two Muslim Terrorist according to the media. I feel that I am owed a strong apology by all of your students that participated in this event. Interestingly, they seem to be fixated on publicity and not the facts. I have now explained to you the real story of what actually happened. If such an alarming sequence of events happens again, I would do the same thing, totally in the interest of the safety and well-being of our guests. If someone walked in with a "Joker" mask totally covering their face, except for their eyes, I would have done the same thing. I am deeply insulted by being referred to as "Very Old" and perhaps this is age profiling. Most sincerely, Hunter ToddLet's set the name calling aside, because it is childish and a red herring at best, and get to the real issue. Is what Hunter Todd did right? According to Todd, and backed by authorities, stopping the woman in the burka was perfectly legitimate. According to Rudd, Todds action was racial, or more specifically religious, profiling and against the woman's civil liberties. If it wasnt profiling why was no one else in attendance searched? For me the answer is no. What Hunter Todd did, even in the name of protecting the people in attendance, was not right. He did not protect me by searching her. Actually, I would argue that what he did hurt me. By furthering the paranoia we are living in he has tacitly made the world a more fascist place. What happened in Boston was a terrible tragedy, but level of fear the news has created surrounding this event is no excuse to start a witch hunt. I remember seeing the woman in the burka at one of the earlier classes, either Thursday or Friday. She very well might have been at both. Not once did I feel threatened by her presence. She came in, sat down, and listened to the moderators. There was no suspicious behavior. Not even the cartoon tell-tale sign of shifty eyes looking back and forth. Granted, I wasn't watching her, but then again I'm not a detective and this wasn't an episode of Scooby Doo. This whole thing became incredibly sad when I read the part of Todd's response in which he suggests the whole thing was a pre-arranged and set-up action by some meddling kids. (Hmmm, maybe this is an episode of Scooby Doo.) What purpose would it serve? Just some jack-ass scheme to destroy the credibility of his film festival? That's even more ridiculous than thinking blowing up the people attending the seminar would be a worth-while effort. I spoke with Rudd about the possibility that this was all a stunt and he told me this was not the case. Of course he did, and, of course, Rudd could be lying. Maybe he did pull the alarm. Maybe this was a stunt with no other reason than to cause trouble. This was the one thing which was easy to determine whether true or false. I asked the facility if they fire alarm had been pulled. It had not. This raises the question, what is Todd's motivation? What does he stand to gain? I honestly believe his intentions were to protect the safety of the guests. I believe he, like many Americans, have bought into the culture of fear that is propagated in the news. Everything is doom and gloom, twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. I quit watching the news years ago because all it does is hammer the viewers with how bad our world, our country, our state, our city, or our neighborhood is at all times. It doesn't take long for this fear mongering to get its hooks in a person, to ratchet up their paranoia until it is out of control. It's easy to get caught up in the hype. It's easy to go off half cocked. It's easy to make mistakes, even if trying to do the right thing. Finally, what is my motivation in writing this? Aren't I just continuing the doom and gloom reporting I bemoaned? As a writer I naturally want people to read my articles. Yet, Im not writing this solely to get page views. I am deeply saddened by this whole affair. Worldfest is a wonderful boon, a point of great pride for Houstonians, as well as all the filmmakers from all over the world which Worldfest spotlights. It's disheartening to see it tarnished by something so thoughtless, however well intended. I didn't write this to condemn Hunter Todd. I didn't write this to ruin Worldfest. Quite the opposite, actually. I wrote this because I think that however bad this situation is, there's a lesson to learn. I think Benjamin Franklin said it best with, They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety. We have to be vigilant to dangers from both those who would attack us physically and those who attack our liberties. Its a seemingly impossible task, but its absolutely necessary. If we continue to allow ourselves to be influenced this way, and we continue to do it to ourselves, they terrorist will have won. They will have won without having to do anything. Lastly, I can't say for sure but I'm willing to bet that there's even a way to make things good. It's very simple, but incredibly hard to do. Apologize. It's amazing what a simple, sincere apology will do. I havent a clue if it will happen, but I do have hope. What's your take on this issue? Leave a comment below.