Update: We just received a statement from Hunter Todd about the event in which he confirms that he did search the backpack of a woman because she was wearing a hijab and says he had to do it to protect his audience. Find his entire statement at the end of this post.
Last weekend marked the end of the 46th annual WorldFest. The film festival, third oldest in North America, bills itself as a "competitive International Film Festival" and lists as part of its mission/vision statement a desire to "add to the rich cultural fabric of the city of Houston." The actions last Saturday of festival founder/CEO Hunter Todd would appear to show that every vision has its limits.
According to a widely distributed blog entry by writer Amanda Rudd, which quoted a Facebook post by the author's brother, Todd insisted on searching the bag of a Muslim student (and only her bag) when a fire alarm went off at one of the "master classes" he was introducing at the Westchase Marriott. When asked why he was searching the student's bag, Todd responded, "[B]ecause she is a Muslim and a suspicious character, now sit down."
Mike Rudd, the student who confronted Todd writes in his Facebook post:
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.
Another student at the seminar, who prefers to remain anonymous, pointed out the student in question was wearing a hijab and niqab, and added:
He demanded to search her bag, even after she had shown him her VIP Gold Pass to the festival. This young woman was also a University of Houston student, and she complied with Todd's request. She started with the back pocket, then he rudely and condescendingly said "There's another zipper." She showed him the contents of her entire backpack while I watched, stunned. Afterwards, he walked back to the front of the room without questioning or addressing anyone else in the crowded seminar.
Rudd, apparently alone among those in attendance, objected to Todd's behavior. Todd's response (according to the other student):
"You're the kind of person I hate the most - an obnoxious little bastard. Now sit down or I'll have you thrown out." Rudd answered, "All right, that's fine," and pulled out his phone to call our professor for advice. Todd freaked out, lunged at Rudd, grabbed him with both hands and tried to take his phone.
Rudd states at this point he left the room to avoid further escalation. His next step was to call WorldFest and lodge an official complaint about Todd's behavior. The phone was answered by a woman named Kathleen, but the conversation quickly went south. Again, according to Rudd:
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!"
Rudd says he hung up and started contacting members of the press about the incident. "Kathleen" may be Kathleen Haney-Todd, WorldFest's program director and wife of Hunter Todd.
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As of this writing, Todd has not responded to emails asking for a comment. WorldFest's Twitter account (@worldfest) has been silent since 10:21 AM Saturday. Curious, considering Sunday was the last day of the festival, marked by the annual Consular Regatta at the Houston Yacht Club.
As a member of the Houston film community, I'm not sure which depresses me more: that the man in charge of an allegedly "international" film festival is capable of an act of such obvious xenophobia and religious profiling, or that out of a class of over 50 people, only one person stood up to challenge him.
Update: When we first heard back from Hunter Todd, he complained that we hadn't given WorldFest sufficient coverage this year and questioned why we would highlight something like this. He also said he would get back to us with a statement later in the day. This is his latest statement to us:
We are running a film festival, not constantly checking Email and FaceBook... we have a very small staff and are totally involved in producing a fine film festival... what are you attempting to do, destroy me and/or the film festival?
This entire episode is insane... After a false evacuation alarm... and the appearance of a single individual Hijab (eye slit only) clad individual without any friends, sitting up front in the room... I was only concerned for the safety of our many guests.. she was carrying a large dark backpack that was heavy and fully loaded... upon a brief inspection, it turned out to be 3-4 water bottles... I was extremely polite and thanked her after the 60-second interchange... there was nothing else to it. This entire issue has been created by the Rudd individual.
Mr. Rudd either has some perverse agenda or is highly misguided. He refused to talk with me later outside the seminar room... he seemed to want to have it out - right there and right then. He refused two request to step aside, rudely confronting me with angry accusations and outburst. I was only trying to start the delayed seminar.
I was referring to your lack of interest in the film festival, until something unpleasant comes along. I will long remember how you have treated me and the festival. Mr. Rudd is being quite disingenuous. He has never mentioned the complete circumstances.