On What Would Have Been the Launch of Cannes, a Celebration of 26 Film Festivals — and 26 Festival Directors | Filmmaker Magazine

&The Cannes Film Festival and Market

by Kaleem Aftab
in Festivals & Events
on May 12, 2020

Film festivals are all about a community coming together to celebrate an art form that we all love. They were one of the first group of events to cancelled when the coronavirus began to spread. The current crisis in the film industry (and across society and the economy as a whole) — the job losses and closures — made it difficult to publish my look back over my year in film festivals, as I’ve done on an annual basis for Filmmaker since 2014. (Also, I had broken my finger over Christmas so was unable to type for three weeks, which is when I usually pen these articles!) Plus, because last year I’d been to 26 film festivals, a record for me, the piece also took a long time to write.

Twenty-six film festivals is a lot. In December of last year, I promised my partner that in 2020, I would go to fewer festivals. Little did we know that my hand was going to be forced by the tragedy of a virus pandemic. Looking back, I’m so glad I went to so many in 2019, seizing the day like I was in the Dead Poets Society.

Sitting here right now, as Cannes would have begun, I believe we will be lucky to see a film festival happen in a traditional way again in the Fall — if then. For all the efforts to put festivals online, there is nothing that matches the intoxicating atmosphere and excitement of attending. That’s why I go to so many of them. I miss hearing a projector whir and seeing a film for the first time, listening to filmmakers talk about their projects, the conversations with fellow attendees, the pitching of projects, those celebrating great reviews, others commiserating. I even miss the 10-minute standing ovations made more out of courtesy rather than enthusiasm. I’ve even started doing this at home now.

So while it may seem odd to have a look back at 2019 film festival season in May, it also seems so fitting to publish today. Absence has made the heart grow fonder. Right now is a time when the role of film festivals is being analysed more than ever by festival directors, as they decide what is essential, what they have to keep, or for some, what they can replicate online. Most importantly, film festivals have to comprehend how can they stay relevant when the spectacle that is their heart is on life-support.

In my mind, there is nothing quite as exhilarating as attending a film festival. I look forward to the moment of being able to participate in more than 26 festivals in a year. (Just don’t tell my partner!).

The festival director is the public face of a film festival. They guide the program and set the agenda. But who are they? In 2019, I tried to meet as many festival directors as possible, and from time-to-time chat about the poster of the festival. I wanted to know if I could see the personality of the festival director at the event. Little did I know when I started this process in January that I would go to 26 film festivals, either as a journalist, moderating Q and A’s or giving talks on festival strategy. 

Tromsø International Film Festival 

Festival Director: Martha Otte

American Martha Otte first worked as a volunteer at the Tromsø International Film Festival in 1998. By 2005 she became festival director. 2019 was her last year as the position at Tromsø  I’ve known Martha for several years, first meeting her at the now-defunct Abu Dhabi Film Festival. We’ve bonded over films. I’ve appeared on the jury at Tromsø in the past, and this year, she asked me to do the Q&A sessions with Canadian filmmaker Philippe Lesage, following screenings of his excellent coming-of-age drama Genesis.

It takes a kooky personality to want to live in the Arctic Circle, where during the film festival, the sun never quite rises above the horizon. Despite all the darkness, the irony is that Otte is an insomniac. Luckily she’s found a profession where staying up in the dark is a necessary component.

Otte says of her philosophy to running the festival: “We are especially interested in films that are ‘off the radar’ and are not standard festival fare, which doesn’t mean experimental; it just means we want to make our own discoveries.”

I was too busy buying trinkets with Gaspar Noé and chasing the Aurora Borealis to make too many movie discoveries of my own. It’s that kind of place! The one discovery I made was Egil Håskjold Larsen’s Where Man Returned, about a lonely old white man lives in the Arctic wilderness with his dog. He listens to football and shipping news on his radio. It was a metaphor for so many conversations had at festivals this year. 

One thing that did catch my eye was the poster of the festival. It featured an image of a figure dressed in a thawb with the face drawn as the Tromso Film Festival logo. The poster was designed by Christopher Ide (AKA Doffa), of design office Tank, and he has been the go to guy for the festival for a number of years. The image was smart on so many levels. Since 2001, Tromso and Gaza have been twin cities. The festival also had a strong focus on Arab cinema with screenings of Sameh Zoabi’s satire of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict Tel Aviv on Fire, Dalia Kury’s prison recreation documentary Privacy of Wounds, and a section called Arabiyat — the Arab word for women — celebrating female filmmakers from the region and programmed in association with Morocco’s Cinematheque de Tanger.

Rotterdam International Film Festival 

Festival Director Bero Beyer

The next festival I attended was another festival where the festival director was looking to move their life away from festivals. In July, Rotterdam head honcho Bero Beyer announced that he had accepted a job as CEO of the Netherlands Film Fund, commencing in March 2020, after this years’ edition. More recently, it was announced that his replacement would be MUBI acquirer Vanja Kaludje, who had previously worked for the festival. 

2019’s edition was Beyer’s fifth in the post. He’s a confident guy. In the role, Beyer has grown the industry side of the festival and increased the focus on experiences rather than just watching films. The festival takes place when a lot of American eyes are on Sundance, but he’s keen on appealing to the 180 ethnicities found in Rotterdam. “The first thing we want to get right is that the program is representing the world and not just one side of the world,” Beyer tells me on his way to a Claire Denis seminar.

Beyer says of his philosophy to the festival, “We do what others don’t. We always go one step further. What makes us special is the stuff that is slightly crazy and on the fringe of things. People show up to watch avant-garde.”

The film festival posters are part of a campaign living under the umbrella of “Planet IFFR.” Planet IFFR is a concept formulated in 2017, where the emphasis was put on the number of people involved in the movie making process. The various staff on a set are in Rotterdam’s eyes, representive of the cultures and peoples of the world. “This year, we asked what makes us alive? It’s more than facts and truth because they are long gone, facts don’t matter – it’s emotions.” 

“In the poster campaign the faces and the words used to describe the expressions being pulled seem to conflict. There is a happy face, but the poster says angry. These seemingly oppositional emotions are reflected in the films we show. Our cinema doesn’t give you an answer – it gives you a question. The films don’t give you a feeling you have foreseen – they give you an emotion you have not anticipated it’s like a rollercoaster ride without a seatbelt.”

A case in point is Sacha Polak’s Dirty God, an international co-production that blurs fact and fiction by having Vicky Knight, who was a victim of an acid attack, play the victim of an acid attack. Yet from this starting point, a cinematic truth emerges, very different from reality. Or Present.Perfect, the Hivos Tiger Award winner, which is made up of footage of China taken from the Internet by Chicago based Chinese director Shengze Zhu.  

Beyer admits that the pluralism highlighted in the program could be better reflected in the diversity of the staff, stating, “That’s an on-going process.” And one from next year, he’ll presumably be pushing his successor to achieve.

Gothenburg Film Festival 

Festival Director: Jonas Holmberg

Gothenburg is Scandinavia’s biggest film festival, and just like Scandi Noir, it remains something of a mystery to me. It’s the one festival where I make an extra effort to watch the pitching session, where some filmmakers talk about the movies that they intend to make, and also others talk about the films that are deep into post-production. It’s intriguing as there is always something that ends up at Cannes, and not always what you expect. Usually, I hate seeing movie trailers or knowing anything about a film. Nonetheless, somehow I can listen to a Scandinavian auteur talking about their project in intricate detail, and yet see something entirely different on-screen. Is this because of what they say, or how I listen?

I did not know artistic director Jonas Holmberg before the festival. That despite the fact he’s been the head honcho at Gothenburg since 2014, when he was promoted from his position as international film programmer, and I’ve been to previous editions under his watch. His route into festival life was as a film critic. It’s interesting as that once familiar way into programming has gone into decline as dedicated film programmers appear, graduating from film schools, which have recently started hosting courses in curating and curating theory.

Holmberg seemed to be the quintessential Scandinavian when I met him. He dresses well and says all the right things. My younger self would have looked at him like the epitome of cool, but now I find him a little awkward.  He’s also good-natured. When I start by asking him about his poster, his reaction is a sincere, “How wonderful!” There’s a lot to like.

“We have a tradition of asking a local artist to design the poster,” states Holmberg. “They’re given a blank slate to design whatever they come up, and they come back to us with their design. It’s one of the most exciting days of the festival seeing what they have designed.”

It’s a very relaxed way of doing things and it has been that way since 1992. It also means that a look at the festival poster archive is like a journey to a gallery. The theme of the 2019 film festival was Apocalypse, which might explain how I came to watch a movie, Aniara, from the inside of a coffin. Jesper Waldersten was the artist chosen to create the one-sheet and created an eerie yet beautiful work in the style of horror and space movies from his childhood. Think, Alien, David Lynch and John Carpenter, then throw in a bit of Bergman, think of that image in black and white, and with a face populated by figures looking like they stepped out of Jake and Dinos Chapman’s Hell. 

The Scandi vibe was also apparent in Swede Anna Eborn’s fantastic Transnistra, a film that felt like the ’70s even though it is a breakaway state on the border of Moldavia in present day.

Berlin Film Festival 

Head of the Berlinale: Dieter Kosslick

It was Dieter Kosslick’s last stand at the Berlin Film Festival. The year before many prominent German film industry figures called for a change at the top of the Berlin Film Festival arguing that the festival had become irrelevant. The call was heeded and before the festival it was long since announced that his 18th edition would be his last. Kosslick is a unique character. His style and matter is defiantly old school, and eccentric. In his final year, Kosslick programmed a festival that was staunchly unapologetic. No bones thrown to those who criticised him. So the festival was full of challenging choices and featuring buried treasures for those who looked deep into the program. It will be interesting to see how and if that takes changes under the new guard. 

Kosslick attended an event that I organized to celebrate the life and work of publicist Richard Lormond, who had died from an illness a few months before the festival. Kosslick took time out of his busy schedule to say some kind words, and it served as a reminder that the work of a festival director at a festival is more than about selecting films and is also about social interactions. Acknowledging the work of those who help contribute to an event’s success is important as it takes many to put together a great festival.  

Later in the festival, as we sat down to talk about his legacy and the Berlinale poster, I couldn’t help but think that retirement had come at the right time for Kosslick as he was being outpaced by changing times. 

“The bear is our symbol. And for a couple of years now, Swiss artists have been doing our poster,” said Kosslick. “For a couple of years now, the bear has been cruising around going to different locations in Berlin. A lot of people have been asking who are these bears? We thought because it’s the end of my tenure, we would lift the secret of the bear. When the bear takes off his head, it’s the audience that is underneath. The bear is normal people who are on the way to the Berlinale.”

Over the past 18 years, he has worked with many agencies, and they all come up with very different designs, which is evident in the change in the style of the posters every few years. 

“This year, a discussion arose because there was a black person in one of our costumes and we talked about what would be the symbolism of having a black person in a bear costume,” admits Kosslick. “Would it look like discrimination? We wanted to show the variety of the audience that attend the Berlinale, but we have been afraid that if we used it, it would create a discrimination debate. Two people on our poster were from our staff were used as well. I don’t know all of the people personally. We thought about putting me in a costume, but in the end, we believed it was too much.”

The Berlinale like many other festivals this year signed the 50/50 by 2020 pledge to pursued gender parity. “The pledge was a political aim, but I think we are far ahead at the Berlinale,” says Kosslick. We have seven films from female directors in competition and with our staff and selection committee, there are a lot of women in prominent positions.’

Indeed, the film that stuck out most at the festival to my mind was a film screened out of competition, because it had been at Sundance, Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir.

Stockfish Film Festival 

Festival Director: Marzibil Snæfríõar Sæmundardóttir

Taking place in Reykjavik, Stockfish Film Festival is an event that wants to showcase Icelandic films to industry people to film exhibitors, programmers and distributors from around the world. Several Icelandic bodies come together to promote their wares, and it’s a great excuse to go to one of the most beautiful places in the world, with a burgeoning and exciting coffee scene. Yup, already by early March, coffee was my fuel.

The main two strands at the festival are an industry-pitching event, which has an overlap with Gothenburg and a competition programme of short films. There are also screenings of best of the fests, aimed to get the local audiences out of their warm wooden houses and into the fabulous cinema Bíó Paradís. From floor to high ceiling on one wall of the cinema are some fantastic posters designed by local artists to coincide with the release of huge movies, so it’s no surprise that Stockfish take their poster design seriously as well.

Sæmundardóttir has been the Festival Director of the Stockfish film festival since 2015. Before that, she was a writer and director. It was her love of film, and life, that led to her taking on the festival director role. A social butterfly, she brings a lightness and fun air to the event and promoting movies.

“We use a young designer and last year he came up with a version of yellow, which we liked a lot, and that has become the color of the festival,” says Sæmundardóttir. “The poster is exactly the same as last year, except for the dates!”

This attitude seems about right for a festival that knows what it wants to be and has a focussed goal. It’s a festival that has a great atmosphere, mainly because all the films take place in one cinema. They pick at most 25 films, which they consider the best of the fests, in addition to the industry events. The one thing they want everyone to watch is the local short films, which is a good way to start taking notice of local talent, and for local talent to realise that they’ll end up needing to make European co-productions if they want filmmaking to be their job. 

Bergamo Film Meeting 

Artistic Director: Angelo Signorelli

I love going to festivals that are off the beaten track. The Bergamo film meeting is one of those delightful festivals where much of the joy is in seeing classic movies on the big screen. There are new films that play, but I was more interested in seeing Jean-Pierre Léaud turn up to a screening of The 400 Blows, as part of a retrospective on his films, an exhibition of photographs from the set of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Arabian Nights and a retrospective on filmmaker and cinematographer Karpo Godina, an exponent of Yugoslavia’s “Black Wave.” In 2020 they were set to take an in-depth look at Jerzy Skolimowski. It’s a festival that loves outsiders. 

The desire to take a new look at the past is imprinted on the festival’s poster, which gives us a classic French New Wave shot of a young Léaud on the set of The 400 Blows in triplicate. Festival director Angelo Signorelli, who helped found the festival, struck me as a laid back, conscientious type. The easy-living style is one that he is happy to replicate at the festival with a communal ethos. A committee seemingly decides everything. No wonder it’s called the Film Meetings, because, in my two days in Bergamo, it felt like a shared experience, one where good coffee shops were not too far away and talking about films was as important as watching them. 

Signorelli had a similar attitude to the marketing material, “The poster is a collective choice. We liked the image a lot this year. It’s cinematographic, suggesting movement and different perspectives. The central focus is on the repeated image, which is also out of focus. In a way, it speaks about the complexity of cinema. How by looking at the cinema of the past, and the present, we see future trends. It reflects the multiplicity of the sections that the festival has.”

For the past four years, SUQ Republic has designed the poster. “They really understand the philosophy of the film meetings.”

Qumra  

Festival Director: Fatma Al Remaihi

The Doha Film Institute has been doing great work over the years, and industry gathering Qumra continues to be a success. It’s often a sign of confidence of an organisation when they are not afraid to admit to divided opinions and frank discourse. The following conversation between Festival director, Fatma Al Remaihi and DFI’s Director of Strategy and Development Hanaa Issa about the poster for this year’s event was one of my favourite moments of the year. 

Fatma: These images [on the numerous posters] represent the projects that we have, the jewels of Qumra. The principal image for the main poster and front of catalogue is from the first Qatari film in post-production and for us that is huge.

Hanaa: The circle in the poster is kind of our symbol. It reminds of the Q for Qumra and also the camera lens.

Fatma: But the question we had was, do we want to use an image that represented peace, or did we have one that was about war?

Hanaa: We had a long debate.

Fatma: We had different opinions. Do you want to tell him yours?

Hanaa: We had a debate. There was this one behind you, and in terms of artwork, it worked well with the colour and catalogue. I surveyed the office, and some of us felt that highlighting on the book of the projects and on the main catalogue an image of soldiers and war, especially of soldiers killing the farmers in Mexico, that this was perhaps the wrong message to send out to the world. We opted to go for something more peaceful. But then we had this debate around the fact that we do live in a hostile world, there is a lot of unfairness and injustice. Even though we want to highlight this, and make it part of the conversation, I thought to put an image that represented hope was more suited to who we are at Qumra, especially as our projects already contain a lot of stories about war and refugees.

Fatma: Whereas I thought that the world is a mess, and we should highlight it and not be afraid of it, we are not celebrating it, we are highlighting it. We spent the whole day with this discussion.

Hanaa: We argue all the time. We’ve known each other for a long time.

Fatma: It took the whole day this discussion. Going into work that day, I knew that we were going to have this discussion.

Hanaa: Me too, I ate a good breakfast, so I was ready to stand up for my view.

London Taiwan Film Festival UK

Festival Director: Aephie Huimi

I went to the opening day of the inaugural festival. They have a tie in with Stockfish, patly because Festival Director Aephie Huimi has strong links to Iceland and Taiwan. The opening was the UK premiere of Tsai-Ming Liang’s VR cinematic experience, The Deserted, with the director in attendance. I’d inadvertently had a hand in this happening, as I met Huimi through a producing pal friend of mine a number of times. When she revealed she was thinking of putting on a Taiwan Festival in the UK, I immediately mentioned The Deserted and said that she had to screen it. Little did I know that they would then have a retrospective of Liang’s work and he would come to London. It was a small but perfectly formed festival, which is how these looks at national cinema should be.

At first glance, I didn’t know what to make of the poster which seemed like a lot of undecipherable elements around an alien looking sea creature. Then Huimi informed me, “We wanted the poster to be as cute as possible.”

The poster designer, Ting Cheng, was also at the opening night party added, “She wanted something that would represent Taiwanese culture. I wanted something multicultural, and so we got a sea monster drinking Bubble Tea that is made up on the Taiwanese alphabet, which is full of symbols and these different shapes are representative of different cultures.”

Huimi adds, “You cannot define Taiwan in one shape, so every year, the festival will take on different forms, and that is why the sea monster is significant.”

All of a sudden, the poster took on a profound meaning that I’d not been able to see. It was a good reminder, not just of the value of art, but the importance of listening to others, and, of course, reading critics to elucidate and fill in gaps of knowledge. 

CPH: DOX 

Festival Head: Tine Fischer

“The posters for me are part of the core DNA of the festival. I’m so involved in the posters in a way that drives people mad. When we started working, we had external graphic designers, and now I hire designers so that they are employed inside the organisation and work with me for months! Each time I used agencies, I ended up being in massive conflict with them, mainly because, for me, it’s so delicate what you do with posters. When you said posters, I thought this is so fucking spot on, because it’s a nightmare each year, really a nightmare, because it’s challenging to find the balance in the posters from what I believe is the core DNA, namely a very active civic voice when it comes to political activism. You’re addressing something that people need to react to, not only will this look nice emotionally, but really react to it politically. Then it also needs to reflect an artistic profile that deals very much with non-fiction as cinema and as art. It can’t be a poster that will resemble an NGO perspective. So that balance has to be that it’s highly political and activist but also speaks with a more contemporary art, conceptual language. Then it needs to appeal to our audience, which is from young hipsters to grown-up decision makers. It’s a headache because it’s so difficult.”

“This year, I worked with the same graphic designer that I worked with for the last few years. So he works in-house for half the year, being a part of the process and understanding what the film process is about, but also what kind of films we will have. He saw climate change would be a big issue, but how do you do a poster on climate change? That’s almost impossible as all images relating to climate change have been used and overused. Then he came up with this image, with a woman’s breasts that have been sunburnt basically, but that makes it delicate to put out in public. It’s not overly clear what it’s about, but it is about someone who is not careful. We have the Morse code symbols on it to reflect a universal language, and then some images show images of climate change, there is a lifebuoy for example. There are lots of messages in that picture.”

I had started to feel like I’d seen most approaches to festival poster design, and just as I was beginning to tire of asking festival directors about it, CPH: DOX’s Tine Fischer blew me out of the water. But that will come as no surprise to anyone who has watched the festival over the years. She has taken the bull by the horns during her long tenure at the festival. She boldly changed the dates of the festival from the Fall to the Spring when she felt that the market was too crowded. The film choices have been radical, and she’s established CPH: DOX as one of the most exciting documentary festivals. 

The festival was also where I conducted one of my favourite interviews of the year, sitting down with Alex Winter. We discussed Bitcoin and The Panama Papers, as well as sexual abuse in the film industry. And of course Bill and Ted, we drank coffee together a couple of days after the announcement that he would appear in Bill And Ted 3. Of course, it was most excellent.

Panama Film Festival 

Artistic Director: Diana Sanchez

A few weeks before the Panama film festival took place Toronto International Film Festival announced that Diana Sanchez would be taking up a position in Toronto full-time. Much of Sanchez’s fantastic reputation that led to that Canada role has come from how she built up the Panama Film Festival into one of the most vibrant, forward-thinking and fun festivals in the Americas. Of course, from my side, it helped that Panama is home to Geisha Coffee, some of the best and most expensive beans on the planet. A competition-winning brew that would set you back $75 a cup in San Francisco retails for $9 in Panama. It’s still a lot to pay for a coffee, given that great blends retail at $4 here, but it’s not often that one can treat yourself daily to the champagne of the coffee world. The coffee and the festival were marvellous. This year it gave a great platform to films from Guatemala. It showcased how artists are trying to comprehend the human catastrophe caused by the years of dictatorship and, also the American support to the dictatorship. There is a similar sentiment in Panama where President George W. Bush ordered an invasion in December 1989.

In total contrast to the approach in Copenhagen, Diana Sanchez, in a somewhat more laidback manner, informed me that she didn’t get involved in the production of the poster. She is someone who knows what she likes to do and is happy to delegate the other jobs to others. She advised me to chat with Pituka Ortega, the Director and founder of the Film Festival, who was involved in the creation of the poster and appointed the new team that will be in charge of the 2020 edition.

“It’s the first time that we have worked with Cisco Merel, a Panamanian artist to create the poster,” Ortega says. “He works with geometrical shapes, and one of his masters is Venezuelan artist [Carlos] Cruz-Diez. When we spoke to him, he brought this concept to us that within these geometrical shapes that conveyed cinema. Artists are artists, and we just loved it and went with it. It’s a detachment from everything else we have done, and we loved working with an up-and-coming artist. It has opened a window for us to work with other up-and-coming artists from Panama. The unifying factor will be the logo. It represents the festival as a platform for new ideas and talent just like we are doing for a central American and Caribbean platform that we have invested so much energy and thought to, and our resources. ”

CineMAS 

Artistic Director Joe Wihl

Formerly, the United Arab Emirates was host to not one, but two great festivals. Then in 2015, the Abu Dhabi Film Festival closed after eight editions, and last year, far more surprisingly, the Dubai Film Festival closed. Fans of cinema in the UAE went from boom to bust. So it was great to see cinephiles take the matter into their own hands and launch an independent film festival at an excellent venue, Manarat Al Saadiyat (the MAS in CineMAS). It was a film festival designed by cinephiles for cinephiles that lasted a joyous four days, with master classes, workshops and screenings. The festival is a demonstration that good taste can be more valuable than finance.  

“The poster was made in Abu Dhabi by a branding agency who designed all our collateral,” Wihl told me. “We wanted a poster that connected film, cinema and the art world. We are lucky to show films that people don’t normally get to see, so we wanted it to reflect the artistic nature of the festival. The branding agency came back to us with three options, and we chose the one used because the brush strokes showed the interconnecting nature of the art world and film. We have five different colours that we used on the posters to reflect the diversity of cinema and the wide selection of films from around the world.”

Admittedly, it is hard for me not to like the festival director, since I played on the same soccer team as him for several years. He scored many goals in his time, so I wanted to go to support the festival. This festival may end up being a one-off, as rumours abound that Abu Dhabi may re-launch an international festival in 2020. But many rumours circulate here. 

Cannes 

Festival Director: Thierry Frémaux

Cannes makes a massive fanfare out of its poster. It is published before any film announcement and widely shared on social media. Arguably, this year’s poster featuring the recently departed French legend Agnes Varda was the most popular one-sheet in its history. And that is saying something! A great article by Sight and Sound’s Isabel Stevens argued: “Cannes has finally woken up to the power of the poster.” She posited that the photo-shopped reinterpretation of the iconic image of Varda standing on top of cinematographer Louis Stein when filming her first feature La Pointe Courte was created to demonstrate that Cannes is changing. Stevens argued, it “signals that the festival has, at long last, clocked that it needs to change. Does this change go deeper than a clever and overdue rebranding exercise? Only the number of female-directed films in future editions of the festival will tell.”

Sadly, not long after the poster release, the competition announcement came, and this change seemed to be an illusion with complaints circulating about the lack of female directors. The festival still snagged the best film of the year, Parasite, and one of the many joys of the film is the range of great posters that Bong Joon-Ho’s film has inspired by regional distributors around the world.

As for the likeable Frémaux, every year he proves how good he, and his team, are at their job of selecting the year’s best films. Nonetheless, using a classic image from the past shows how much he still looks back when so many people are crying out for him to look to the future. He is an enigma, just like his festival, whose policy to exclude films not guaranteed an exclusive first run in French cinemas seems more and more robust with every passing year. So far, it’s Netflix and not Cannes making changes to how they operate. 

Kultur Symposium Weimar

By June, unsurprisingly I had had my fill of film festivals, so it was a delight to be invited by the Goethe Institute to attend their second Kultur Symposium Weimar. It was an invite-only event that contained talks, performance art, films and debates.

For three days, more than 300 participants from all over the world came together at the Kultursymposium Weimar, including representatives from science, culture, politics, business, journalism and publishing. The first Kultursymposium Weimar took place in 2016 on the subject of The Sharing Game – Exchange in Culture and Society. The second edition from 19 to 21 of June 2019 was entitled Recalculating the Route. It was an incredibly inspiring event, and great to be somewhere where I did not see the same faces, and people were talking about social issues without the conversation being bound to a film. I also didn’t talk to anyone about the design of the poster for the event. Indeed from this point on in the year, my observation on the one-sheet became largely my own again. This event felt like a real marker separating the first part of the year focussing on the branding to the second part of the year, informed by trying to reconnect with the idea of looking at how film festivals relate the realities of the world and present the future. Of course, there were movies, but this event was really about new ideas and building better social groupings. 

London Indian Film Festival

Festival Director: Cary Rajinder Sawhney

The London Indian Film Festival celebrated a decade. It was a big year for Festival Director Cary Sawhney as he also collected an MBE for services to the film industry. His work is getting noticed. I dipped my toe into the festival attending a screening of The Flight, where it was my pleasure to be asked to host the Q and A with legendary Bengali Filmmaker Buddhadeb Dasgupta. It was a lovely event held at the Cine Lumiere in London. It reminded me how lucky I was to be living in London, where almost every night there is some great film festival of some sort or some fantastic filmmaker giving a talk. For the festival to reach ten years, and be more significant than ever, takes some doing.

Oh and I don’t think I looked at the poster. Sorry, Cary! And, really I need to stay in my home time more often! 

Nordic Youth Film Festival

Festival Director: Hermann Greuel

Having started the year in Tromsø, for a week when the sun never rises above the horizon, it was nice to be back in the Arctic Circle for NUFF when the sun never dips below the horizon. I mean, it’s cold whatever the time of the year one is in the Arctic, but on a clear day, when you can actually glimpse the sun it is gorgeous. At NUFF, the efforts to build a politicised film community are what brightens-up every day of this youth orientated festival.  

NUFF is an annual short film festival and film workshop for young filmmakers up to the age of 26. These talents get split into several groups under the guidance of a filmmaker. They have a week to make a short film from scratch. On the final weekend, the freshly made short films screen as part of a short films festival. The mentors included producer Racha H Larsen and filmmaker Egil Håskjold Larsen, whose film Where Man Returns opened the Tromso International Film Festival. The prolific award-winning short filmmaker Mahdi Fleifel, Anders Emblem, whose film Hurry Slowly I had missed at Tromsø International Film Festival but saw at a special here. Inuk Jørgensen from Greenland and Virtual Reality expert Marta Ordeig were also in charge of a group, and composer Rune Simonsen was producing music for the images.

I delivered a film appreciation seminar and hosted a masterclass event with Mahdi Fleifel talking about his short films, which we screened in chronological order, as well as hosting Q&A sessions with some of the talents attending the workshops It was an awesome time!

Festival director Hermann Greuel is such a great personality and so friendly. I wish that I could wipe away the years, and be young enough to be accepted as one of the participants. It’s a truly great event, and one that seemed to be practising the philosophy preached at the Weimar Kultur Symposium. The future is sunny. 

Karlovy Vary Film Festival 

Festival Director Karel Och

Karel Och is one of the great festival directors of our times. He has good taste, hosts a well-respected film festival that has great talents, juries, parties and writing courses. So what’s not to like? Well, somehow on the first night I was put into the world’s most noisy hotel, above a party that went on until 4 am every night. Add to this that the Internet in the basement house in Parasite worked better than it did at the hotel and I wasn’t a happy camper. Thankfully, the next night they moved me to the edge of town, and the smile returned to my face.

Apart from that blip, I saw many unique films. HBO put on a great party. I’d seen so many films at Cannes, that I wasn’t as side-tracked by catching up with Cannes movies as I have been on past visits to Karlovy Vary film festival. It’s a great place to get a taste of films from Eastern Europe and the Middle East. There was an excellent retrospective taking a look at the works of Egyptian maestro Youssef Chahine films. Even though I haven’t been for a few years, the festival seems familiar. Even the poster for the festival is the same design, this year the colours were changed to be black and white. So why is it, that I always leave Karlovy Vary with a but…

Every time I get home I think I’ll give Karlovy Vary a skip next time. But that’s usually because every second year clashes with a big soccer tournament. The festival will be happy that in 2022, the world cup is moving to the winter because of the hot Doha summer, that will probably be the year I’m not invited! The festival has a great press dinner, and at the main festival centre, there is a bar where everyone congregates. However, the festival still manages to get it wrong because it separates the industry, press and guests from each other. There feels like several festivals going on at the same time, which is a shame as really Karlovy Vary should be about breaking down those barriers between the different parts of the film community rather than reinforcing them. 

Locarno Film Festival 

Festival Director: Lili Hinstin

Locarno feels like a bit of a blur. It was the first year that Lili Hinstin was in the Festival hot seat. Her philosophy seems to be that evolution and not revolution was the best way to get her feet under the table. On my first night by the magnificent lake, I met her at an official dinner attended by Palme D’Or winner Bong Joon-Ho and also hosted were those programmers and filmmakers who put together the excellent Black Light retrospective. On the Industry side, the push to support filmmakers from around the world, especially from those areas without traditional support for independent cinema remains strong.

The poster also evolves slightly every year, but it noticeable evolved that little bit more this year, the main indicator of changes. What I like about Locarno is the use of the yellow and black leopard spots, which are always such a unique identifier. It’s also fun. There have been some inventive variations on the leopard theme, especially the kiss poster from the 59th edition in 2006, which remains one of my all-time festival favourites. This year, there was a bold reinterpretation that saw far more playful brush strokes, creating a more abstract version of the leopard, but one that seemed more playful, child-friendly and looking to the future. With it being Lili’s first year, it was understandably difficult to find time to catch her for a conversation on the direction of the festival, which I’m looking forward to doing in 2020

Locarno is a festival that has so much going for it, from the magnificent screenings in the Piazza Grande of more commercially minded films to the selection of more challenging fare in competition and elsewhere. Yet, as with so many other festivals, it has suffered from sales agents no longer using the film festivals as their primary location to source and sell movies. It will be interesting to see how Karlovy Vary and Locarno tackle the hurdles ahead, especially on the side of promoting cinema rather than movies. Festivals such as Locarno and Karlovy Vary have begun addressing this issue by being more supportive of a broader range of critical voices. Still, there must be more effort to make audiences feel part of the movie industry and encourage spectators to make bolder choices, not just at film festivals, but on a Friday night date.

Venice Film Festival 

Festival Director: Alberto Barbera

In the last couple of years, it’s been a surprise that the Venice Film Festival hasn’t just found a space to put the Netflix logo in the middle of the poster, given the preponderance of films from the streamer. I get it. Venice has been the primary beneficiary of the stance taken by Cannes on streaming platforms failure to heed cinematic windows, and they have reaped the red carpet rewards, with more stars in attendance and more media interest. It’s undeniable that Alberto Barbera has done a great job in making Venice a place to launch films, especially award contenders. Although it’s likely that for the second year in succession, unless Marriage Story does pull off an unlikely Best Film Oscar victory, that for the second year, the Oscar winner will not have debuted on the Lido. There is also a well-voiced and, quite frankly well-placed, concern about the dominance of English language films in the Venice competition. Again, the media and the trades desire to push films as Oscar contenders, that will result in them receiving advertising money from studios looking to win awards, is also part of the game. So it’s not in anyone’s interest to complain too much. It’s another example of how capitalism can limit choice, even in art.

Consequently, some great movies that could have done with the status push that can come with appearing in competition on the Lido get somewhat lost in the sidebar sections. I would like to see Venice be a bit bolder in its official selection. But if it’s glam you want, Barbera is your man. He is incredibly slick, has a big fun personality and could have been a character in La Dolce Vita. He is Italian Hollywood.

Even the choice of poster, which I love, reflects this debate. It’s a painted image of a couple being filmed kissing on the front of a boat. It’s a hint towards Titanic more than the refugee crisis, or the debate about how locals have turned against cruise ships, and the worry about climate change. The poster designed by Italian illustrator Lorenzo Mattotti (he’s also created the 2000 edition Cannes poster) emphasizes the water that makes Venice so unique, and the painted image connects the film festival to La Biennale, of which it is part. I liked the poster, and yes, I liked the festival. 

Toronto Film Festival 2020

Artistic Director and Co-Head: Cameron Bailey

I must admit it’s only now that I’m writing this that I’m looking properly at the one-sheet of the Toronto International Film Festival for the first time. The fall film festival season doesn’t allow for much navel-gazing. It’s the moment every year that I forget the sage advice from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off about life moving pretty fast and the need to take stock and look around once in a while. At Toronto, there is no such opportunity to stop. After the curated programmes of Venice and Telluride is the splurge of films in Canada.  The festival ends with the announcement of the winner of the Toronto audience award. Then we are all supposed to guess what will win the Oscars for the next few months. Of the Oscar frontrunners, only 1917 and The Irishman, which debuted shortly after at the New York Film Festival had not screened at this stag. It’s a shame that there is this enormous focus on what goes on in Hollywood in February because great stuff that happens in Toronto gets overlooked as a consequence.

One of which is the mentoring of film critics from underrepresented demographics. So at TIFF, I had the great honor of mentoring Valerie Complex at the festival. It was great to be able to meet up and hang with a young writer, who had exciting and differing viewpoints about films. She’s also making significant headway into the field of criticism, and has a prevalent Twitter account should you want to employ her. Together, we watched Anna Winocour’s space training epic Proxima, which we were still debating the next day. It was a film that grew on both of us, with Complex being the first to admit that the film was better than she initially thought. The joy of movies and not writing immediate tweets and reviews. As with many things in Toronto, it did feel like the critic mentoring scheme was another thing added, and need some refinement and more support from the festival, but it’s a great start for the initiative that I hope will grow. It came as no surprise to me that this initiative was taking place at a festival where Cameron Bailey is the head honcho. Despite all the talk around inclusion, white male critics still have so much more opportunity than women and people of color. And it’s no surprise that Bailey has overseen this initiative given his background. He’s a top programmer, and it won’t be long before his evolution at TIFF becomes a revolution. Of the big fall festivals, Toronto is the one making the most significant effort to bring about change not just to film, but also society.

But back to that poster, it’s a bit abstract and difficult to tell what it wants to be. Maybe I did see it during TIFF, everywhere, I just didn’t realise that it was the visual identity that was supposed to be representing the festival. Having said that, it kind of fits with some of my sentiments about a festival where a lot of films, seem to be put together abstractly, and where it doesn’t quite come together as a whole.

El Gouna Film Festival 

Festival Director: Ihtishal Al Timimi

I have a good rapport with Festival Director Ihtishal Al Timimi from his time at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival. Heading to Egypt meant that I had to miss San Sebastian, one of my favourite film festivals of the year, every year. I’m still crying, even if it was well worth the change of water and sun location. El Gouna is one of those friendly festivals, with a real hub where everyone mingles and chats about the movies that they have, or haven’t been watching. Its focus is on films from the Middle East and North Africa, and all of the key players from the region turn up, make plans and plot for the future. It comes a few weeks before Cairo and has a far more curated programme in which most films had a lot going for it. It was one of those festivals with not much to do in a resort late at night, so it was easy to mingle with filmmakers and festival programmers.

The poster is striking, albeit one more in keeping with it a perfume fragrance rather than a film festival. It shows a lady in a red dress walking across a stage from left to right, with the backdrop resembling a film reel. It wants to be modern but can’t help but feel retro. Much like this festival, the poser is a throwback to a bygone era, and that’s not always a bad thing. I’m hoping the festival moves dates to avoid a clash with San Sebastian in the future.

Zurich Film Festival 

Artistic Director: Karl Spoerri

Straight from El Gouna, I crashed into the Zurich Film Festival. This festival, with its green carpets, has been growing in stature every year. It’s the sister festival to San Sebastian and benefits from filmmakers coming straight from the Basque region to Switzerland. Zurich has improved a lot in recent years, but the selection has yet to catch fire. The big Swiss festival, Locarno, has a much more progressive and diverse programme. This year was a watershed for Zurich in many ways as it was the final year that co-founders Nadja Schildknecht (managing director) and Karl Spoerri (artistic director) were at the helm. They will be board members and advisors to the festival from here on in. Some months before the festival started, Zurich announced that leading film journalist Christian Jungen, the chief cultural editor at the German-language Swiss newspaper NZZ am Sonntag, had joined the Zurich Film Festival and would take over as Artistic Director in 2020. The appointment shows that good taste and a long career observing the film industry is still a way into festival curating (despite my earlier observation), especially for celebrations of cinema looking to be bolder in their selection.

One of the changes that can immediately be made, that would highlight a bit more risk-taking, is the creation of more captivating movie posters. I hope Jungen changes this up too. The Zurich Film Festival has a strong logo presence, but the desire to have a visual identity that appears on tickets, festival cars and stationery has led to the uninspiring and corporate logo dominating the festival poster. Where is the fun? The use of the logo on the poster is more bland corporate identity than art. Let’s face it, the formula for many film festivals is the same, you have films, industry talks and events with a bit of glamour on the carpet, it’s the other stuff that stokes the audience imagination that creates buzz. That starts with a good poster.

London Film Festival 

Festival Director Tricia Tuttle

The London Film Festival also went for the abstract approach to designing their visual identity. At first glance, it feels even more abstract than that in Toronto and less cohesive with it’s merging triangles and colours. The British Film Institute said when launching the poster: “Delivered in collaboration with creative agency DBLG, the design continues to develop iconography that was inspired by the beautiful NFT sign on our building at BFI Southbank, which was created in 1957 by Norman Engleback, and harks back to some of our classic Festival artwork from the 60s.” Hmm. If you say so! I’ve been to the BFI Southbank building countless times, and I’m at a loss about the beautiful NFT sign! 

London is my hometown film festival, so I guess that makes me harder on it, in the way that happens in families. It was the first year that Tricia Tuttle was officially in charge as festival head. The year before she was acting head, so 2019 wasn’t her first festival in the hot seat. Her promotion seemed to be an anointment rather than an appointment. I was surprised that there was not a more significant fanfare about the failure to open up the application process, but not too surprised. Tricia is very personable and is well-qualified for the role and probably would have got the job anyway. Also, it’s hard to imagine many clamoring for a position that involves programming a festival around talent that is coming to London for BAFTA screenings so that they can campaign for award season votes. London feels like a hostage to the awards season. 

That being said the clamoring for votes is terrific timing for the festival as it means it gets a host of talent to attend the festival because it’s the early stage of the awards campaigning when producers and studios are still unsure of what will emerge as the frontrunners. Consequently, it struggles to be a festival of discovery or even a festival of festivals, despite the introduction in recent years of competition segments. The surprising omission of Nadav Lapid’s Synonyms meant that this was the first time that I can remember that none of the Berlin, Cannes, or Venice Best Film winners played at the festival. (Someone will no doubt fact check this and prove me wrong!) 

As with any festival that has this many films and star names, the attention gets placed on the usual suspects. While film festivals are the life-blood of smaller independent films, it is harder than ever for them to emerge and break out into the mainstream. It’s a chicken and egg situation. London does try to make this push, but the sheer size and scale of the operation, and the need to get audiences through the door means it usually fails. How hard it is for films to get noticed is the struggle of our times, and it’s even harder persuading a distributor to release it after a festival appearance, which sounds odd given that more movies are coming out each week than ever before. London is just another festival that seems to favor the studios rather than the independents, as it’s easier to get bums on seats and ticket sales for blockbusters, even if the goal is to highlight smaller films and BFI funded films. However, I realize I know I’m more aware of the issues of the festival in regards to the distribution scene in the United Kingdom, as I’m much more often in contact with the local sales agents, distributors and exhibitors, which could be highlighting the problem. I’m sure the same story is being told elsewhere, but it is one that comes into sharp focus for me in London.

Lumière Film Festival 

Festival Director: Thierry Frémaux

When not presiding over Cannes, Thierry Frémaux is the director of the Institut Lumière, in Lyon. The museum and the festival are located within the grounds of the Lumière family house, around the site that the Lumière brothers shot one of their earliest works, Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon. It’s often called the first motion picture ever made. The Institut Lumière was founded in 1982, and charged with promotion and preservation of film. Acclaimed French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier is President and Frémaux is its director. It’s a job that Frémaux clearly loves. One of my best experiences in a cinema was watching Frémaux live-present Lumière! A film he directed in 2016, made up of clips and reels of early French cinema. The witty and engaging commentary that he delivers as the reels play is extraordinary and full of passion.

A decade ago, Frémaux decided to launch the Lumière Film Festival, which focuses on the history of cinema with a line-up dedicated to restored prints and retrospectives. There are some new films, presented when one of the many luminaries who come through the festival give a masterclass. Top talent comes, because of the connection to Cannes. The masterclasses are extensive, intriguing and unique, some of the best of the year. Go on their website and listen to the podcasts if you have not done so already, you will not be disappointed. It’s impossible not to have a fabulous time when spent watching the works of Lina Wertmüller, treasures from pre-code Hollywood, and re-mastered classics including 5 Fingers by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Phillipe Garrel’s Liberty at Night.

The Festival poster is in keeping with the cinematic history theme. It’s a poster of Francis Ford Coppola directing on the set of Rumble Fish. It’s in black and white, of course, and chosen to celebrate the fact that Coppola was in town to pick up the festival’s big honour, Prix Lumière. Coppola had a great time. My particular highlight was seeing him introduce The Cotton Club. A couple of days later at The Godfather Trilogy all-nighter, I was struck by how The Cotton Club and The Godfather movies use entertainment as a mask for nefarious activities. It is a great film festival, and a joy to see cinema through the eyes of Frèmaux, in a way that is impossible at Cannes. Bravo!

Red Sea Industry Workshop

Red Sea Festival Director: Mahmoud Sabbagh

The decision to allow cinemas to open in Saudi Arabia after a 30-year ban has brought a vast new audience and film market hungry for cinema. Saudi Arabia, with a population of around 70 million, is full of cinephiles. The cinemas that have been opening have been booked out. There have also been several Saudi films that have started to appear at film festivals. Haifaa Al Mansour’s The Perfect Candidate vied for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. The observational comedy Barakah Meets Barakah by Mahmoud Sabbagh is one of the most popular films from the region on Netflix. It is Sabbagh, a pioneer as a director, who is leading the drive to set up the Red Sea Film Festival, and also the Red Sea Lodge, an incubator for regional filmmakers that’s been set-up in collaboration with the Torino Film Lab. Two of the projects will win a production grant of $500,000. Next year, the Red Sea Film Festival will have its inaugural edition in March.

I jumped at the chance of going to the Old Town in Jeddah for the weekend to meet the filmmakers from the 12 projects selected for incubation. The filmmakers seemed invigorated at workshops where leading industry experts were discussing and dissecting their scripts for just over a week. I watched enthralled as one workshop leader used toys to highlight character journeys and some structural problems. Egyptian filmmaker Marwan Hamed delivered a masterclass, where he discussed his career, including the adaptation of The Yacoubian Building. I was most impressed by the attendance, where the local community sat enthralled throughout and came armed with interesting and intelligent questions. It was a surprisingly more engaged audience than I had seen at other Middle East Film Festival over the years. Cairo usually being the best. 

There was no poster as such, although on the literature that was released, often the writing would come over a photographic image of the Unesco heritage site in Old Town Jeddah. It will be interesting to see what happens in March when the first edition launches. Will the festival be seen as Saudi filmmakers celebrating film for the first time in three decades or will it be clouded and judged by a geo-political narrative? Much will be in the eyes of the beholder.

Films From the South 

Festival Director: Lasse Skagen

I found myself in Norway again, this time in Oslo for Films From the South Film Festival, where I delivered a master class at the Sørfund Pitching Forum on “Festival and Press strategy” to Norwegian producers, international directors and producers. At Sørfund Pitching Forum six selected filmmakers from Latin America, Africa and Asia pitch their films that they hope will be backed by the Norwegian film fund in 2020. One of the great advantages of this fund is that you don’t have to invest the money in Norway, but you need to woo a local producer, who will then be your Norwegian co-production partner. The standard of filmmakers is extraordinary. Two of the filmmakers pitching at the event had won Lion of the Future awards, for best first film at the Venice Film Festival.

So I didn’t attend a film at the Films from the South Festival. This was a festival that for me was about helping filmmakers further their career. In Oslo, I was the one in control of the show, or more accurately the Powerpoint presentation. It’s great to talk to filmmakers directly in this way. The aim of the talk is to give them an idea of a strategy that might attract the media to their films, including which festivals they might get the best results at, and when or where they will need to employ publicists, find sales agents, or just do it on their own. It always amazes me that independent filmmakers have to be both architects and realtors, they plan, create and when they have finished their film, they then realise that it’s up to them to sell their films. Even if they have a great team behind them, or working with them, often festivals can be a confusing and demoralising place for a filmmaker. 

I looked through the Films from the South catalogue, and it was an impressive list of films that were screening, and Sørfund can be proud of the success the films they’ve funded have had, especially last year. The screenings highlight how there are so many great filmmakers around the world, and how much stimulating and fascinating work gets created each year. On the minus side, it’s demoralising to see so many amazing films get ignored. As for Lasse Skagen, who is also the Artistic Director at the Oslo Festival Agency, and has been at the Oslo Films from the South Foundation since 1997, our paths didn’t cross, but I admire his work. I was in contact with the SORFOND team. As for the poster for the festival, I have only just looked at it now, and have to say I like it. A rainbow of paint is segmented to show the sun high in the sky casting a shadow down to the sea, a clear distinction of the world between the North and the South. Although some may balk at my interpretation as it can also be looked at as a representation of privilege. 

Ajyal 2019 

Festival Director: Fatma Al Remaihi

If you have made it this far, I salute you. You must be as exhausted as I was by the start of December. For my last festival of the year, I was back in Doha at the Ajyal Film Festival. This time it didn’t seem like Fatma Al Remaihi and Hanaa Issa argued very much about the poster, as it was in the spirit of the posters from previous edition, featuring an explosion of colourful splintered geometric shapes creating a circle with no borders. The use of the white background, a change from the previously used black background, made it pop out even more.

It’s been a few years since I’d been to this festival, and I have to say I was very impressed with how much better it is now, then from it’s baby years. Ajyal’s excellent goal is to foster a love of cinema in children and young adults. There are 96 films screened from 39 countries, with the juries for these films made up of these young spectators, split up into various age groups. Each age group were given 4 to 6 movies to watch and judge. There were also workshops for the 400 jurors from 41 nationalities, including 40 international jurors. 

I delivered a quick talk on how to watch movies and criticize them. What was surprising was how little help they needed, and that they were open to the fact that film criticism can come in many forms these days, not just print, but also with memes, video streaming and just chatting to your friends over a milkshake. It was the perfect end to an exhausting year, and as I finally finish writing this up, I realise that I went to a hell of a lot of events last year, and it’s impressive how non-repetitive and unique each festival is.

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Metropolitan Onuphry: “Consistency During Fasting Is More Important Than a Measure of Abstinence” | A Russian Orthodox Church Website

During Lent, one should try to exercise abstinence from certain types of food and encourage oneself to pray more than usual, said His Beatitude Metropolitan Onuphry of Kiev and All Ukraine in his homily at the evening service on March 1, 2020, the Information and Education Department of the Ukranian Orthodox Church reports.

“The Lord gave us fasting not so that we kill ourselves with fasting, but for us to kill our passions. The sinful “oncology” that we have is destroyed by fasting. And if a person fasts in a correct way and does not go to extremes, then they begin to feel better … and receive benefits for their soul,” said the Primate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

The metropolitan recalled that each person should fast according to his or her state of health. During a fast, he noted, consistency and diligence are more important than a strict measure of abstinence.

“There are such extremes during Lent that, as they say, some day a person eats so much that he cannot breathe, and the other day he eats so little that he cannot breathe. Extremes shake both the spiritual and bodily forces of a man. Consistency here is even more important than a measure of abstinence. … Even a small measure of fasting, observed with consistency, is beneficial for the soul,” said His Beatitude Metropolitan Onuphry.

“May the Lord help us during Great Lent to work to the best of our abilities, to abstain from certain types of food, to force ourselves to pray more. We should not wait when we want to pray, but we should push ourselves to go to church more and participate in a public church prayer, to do good, and to humble ourselves before people. It will be a feat that cleanses a person of spiritual and bodily defects and makes us worthy to see the light of the Resurrection of Christ,” concluded the Primate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

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Andrea Hayden Twins’ strength and conditioning coach | Minnesota Twins

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FORT MYERS, Fla. — Andrea Hayden isn’t too accustomed to having Twins players upset with her. But she was thrilled about it.

Several players had seen Hayden featured in a television segment that highlighted her as the first female strength and conditioning coach in Major League Baseball, and they approached her in the weight room, aghast that they hadn’t already been aware of Hayden’s place in league history.

“How did we not know?” they asked her.

“I wear that as a badge because you’re not supposed to know,” Hayden said. “‘Good. I’m doing my job, because you shouldn’t be aware. You need to focus on what we’re doing and where we’re headed as an organization.'”

Hayden officially became a member of the Twins’ coaching staff last November, when strength and conditioning director Ian Kadish promoted her to assistant coach following a year-long fellowship during the 2019 season. Nobody was really aware of it at the time, but that made her not only the first female strength and conditioning coach in MLB history, but also the first full-time female member of a Major League staff.

It was only later on that Kadish and Hayden got curious and looked through the MLB staff directory to see if there was anyone else. There wasn’t. (Gabe Kapler and the San Francisco Giants have since hired Alyssa Nakken to their Major League staff.)

“OK, cool,” Hayden told Kadish. “Let’s move on. We have work to do.”

That workmanlike attitude defines how both Hayden and the Twins’ organization have approached this move. Kadish offered her the job because he saw her personality as a great fit on his staff and he felt a strong connection to her working philosophy. Kadish considers Hayden to be more of an expert than himself in Olympic lifts and has given her a lead role in the Twins’ performance-testing initiatives.

Hayden is here to contribute her knowledge to the championship push of a 101-win team, and that’s a responsibility she takes very seriously.

“She’s got a great personality, she’s got great knowledge in her field, and she’s adapted to the Major League clubhouse, it feels like effortlessly,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “It didn’t take very long for a lot of our players to come forward and say that they really enjoyed working with her, and it was a pretty straightforward, pretty easy decision for us to want to have her here and have her here full-time and do her thing, which is great.”

Hayden laughs as she reflects on what her life was like just one year ago, when she was very happy in her role as an athletic performance coach at Lindenwood University, near her hometown of St. Louis. Even without considering her budding Major League career, she’s the first to admit that her professional career has been anything but traditional.

Her interest in the field stemmed in part from her own experiences of looking for any competitive advantage when she played basketball, softball and soccer when she was young. (“I’m five-two-and-a-half with shoes on,” she says with a laugh.) Academics didn’t come easily to her, so she started her career as an 18-year-old as a physical trainer and managed some gyms around the St. Louis area until she “got burnt out of training soccer moms.”

That gave her important, hands-on experience with developing people skills and sharing her knowledge with a wide variety of people. When she found that she needed the scientific background to bring out her full potential in the field, she went to college at age 24 and emerged with degrees in exercise science and human performance. Her career has since seen stops at EXOS, the University of Louisville, USA Hockey and Team China Women’s Hockey.

“I think it’s just a love of what the weight room means and the power that it can have in the culture that is kind of driven out of that, where we work hard and we see the benefits of it on the field,” Hayden said. “And not to say that that’s everything, but it is something really powerful.”

One day last February, a former colleague, Aaron Rhodes, told her on the phone that a friend had an opportunity in baseball. He asked her to call and just to listen to what the friend had to offer. That friend was Kadish, and he and Hayden immediately had a strong connection as the pair discussed an opportunity with the Major League team.

Except, well, Hayden thought she was missing something.

“I remember being like, a third of the way into our conversation, he hadn’t brought up one time that I was a girl,” Hayden remembers. “And I’m like, ‘Does he not know?'”

“So, do you have any more questions?” Kadish asked at the end of the call.

“Yeah, like, I’m female,” Hayden recalls. “Where do you see that as being an issue or a problem?”

She remembers Kadish laughing.

“Look. Your job is the same as my job,” Kadish told her. “The only way it’s going to be difficult is if you do it differently than I do it. I’m not viewing it at all any differently than what I have to do.”

“He never once flinched at it,” Hayden said. “It never was an option. Like, it never was a disadvantage because of being a female. He only saw it as an advantage.”

Five days later, Hayden was in her car, driving down to Spring Training in Fort Myers. She left a full-time job with benefits and her hometown behind when she left Lindenwood for the fellowship with Kadish and the Twins.

“A personal motto is ‘courage over comfort,’ and choosing the things that maybe are unknown and scary and taking that leap,” Hayden said. “It’s always paid off. And I’m really fortunate that it has.”

It’s a reflection of Hayden’s personality and the seriousness with which she takes her role on a winning team that she’s never really looked to carry herself as any sort of figurehead — and there’s nothing about her day-to-day life that really makes her feel the need to do so. She calls the players her “brothers” and gives and takes friendly jabs with the best of them as she works the weight room.

She jokes that the only difference is that all of her team shirts are in men’s sizes.

“She wants to be low-key,” Kadish said. “She wants to lay low and do her job to the best of her ability and let her work speak for itself. I commend her for that in every aspect. I have no problem blowing her tires up and bumping her up, because she deserves it.”

“I think my success in my career, it’s secondary to [the players] and our success as a team, and I feel that I’m part of them,” Hayden said. “So I’d never want to make myself feel as if I have an individual platform. I have a platform with the Twins. And I really take that seriously. So every win, every loss, I wear that.”

Whether fairly or not, she knows the expectations for her — at least, looking from the outside in — might be higher than they would be for others in her position. She is aware that her success and how she carries herself in this position could open or close the door for other women to follow.

With that in mind, Hayden also said she feels that Kadish, Baldelli, the Twins’ organization and her network also deserve the acknowledgment for putting her in this position and giving her the well-deserved opportunity.

“I attribute a lot of it to a really powerful network of people,” Hayden said. “I’m so humbled that they put their name on me. I say I wear a jersey with a lot of people’s names on my back that have taken a risk on me, whether that was when I was 18 or currently in the big leagues. People have taken a risk to allow me to do what I love, and so I take that really seriously.”

Still, she’s careful to acknowledge the fact that other women around the industry may not have the strong base of support and understanding to facilitate such an easy transition into the industry. Hayden understands that there could be uphill battles and double standards for others in her position.

But that’s not the path she’s forged in the Twins’ organization. And for that, she remains encouraged — and grateful.

“It’s a direction that is obviously needed in the game, and one that nobody sits and stops, and really, it’s what times have evolved into, for the better,” said veteran starter Rich Hill.

“My story has just been awesome,” Hayden said. “And it’s so good and so supportive and being with all these dudes is awesome, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. So that’s honestly the best part.”

Do-Hyoung Park covers the Twins for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @dohyoungpark and on Instagram at dohyoung.park.

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Death Threats On Our Director Satanic, Can Plunge Nigeria Into Religious War, MURIC Warns

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*insists Muslims in South West sidelined on Amotekun

By AUSTIN OWOICHO, Abuja

South West States Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC) chairmen have called for the immediate arrest of some persons for allegedly issuing out death threats to it’s Director, Professor Ishaq Akintola, saying it Satanic and could engulf Nigeria in a religious crisis.

They expressed this in a statement jointly signed by the six chairmen Ekiti (Murician Qasim Salahudeen), Ogun (Murician Tajudeen Jimoh), Oyo (Murician Salahudeen Abdul Wasiu), Osun (Murician Marufdeen Odedeji), Ondo (Murician Abdul Ganiyu Maroof) and Lagos (Murician Shefiu Ayorinde) and made available to AUTHENTIC News Daily on Tuesday January 28, 2020.

“A twitter handler directed a death threat to the director and founder of our Islamic human rights organization, Professor Ishaq Akintola, about a week ago. 

“He wrote a chilling comment on Professor Akintola’s picture and posted it. 

“The post was, in turn, screenshot from the Whatshap status of a contact who identified herself as Tosin Elizabeth a.k.a ‘Hidee’ with telephone number 08163964812.

“The death threat was issued under the caption, ‘THIS COBRA NEEDS TO BE KILLED’ and the exact words used were:

“There is one big COBRA we must kill, before it kills all of us with its venom. This MURIC man, Professor Ishaq Akintola, must be tamed, else he will succeed in destroying Yorubaland with venom from his religious stupidity. He sees, he talks and behaves like a big radical Taliban. He’s an agent of disunity, and must be called to order before it is too late.”

“We, the chairmen of the Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC) branches from the South West, specifically from Ekiti (Murician Qasim Salahudeen), Ogun (Murician Tajudeen Jimoh), Oyo (Murician Salahudeen Abdul Wasiu), Osun (Murician Marufdeen Odedeji), Ondo (Murician Abdul Ganiyu Maroof) and Lagos (Murician Shefiu Ayorinde) hereby totally and categorically condemn the death threat issued against Professor Ishaq Akintola, the director of our organization,” it said.

They said that the death threat is Satanic and provocative. 

“It is capable of causing religious crisis not only in the South West but in Nigeria as a whole. Apart from revealing a desire to assassinate our director, it is also an incitement of the Yoruba people against the founder and director of our organisation. We insist that no harm must come to Professor Ishaq Lakin Akintola.

“It is clear from the words used in the death threat that the brain behind the satanic message is a Yoruba person who feels aggrieved by MURIC’s stand on the Amotekun security outfit which the governors of the South West have proposed. 

“For the avoidance of doubt, MURIC did not oppose the establishment of a security unit in Yorubaland so long as it is for better security. MURIC only opposed the way Muslims in the region have been sidelined in the arrangement. We reject the idea of collecting birth certificate from churches or letters of recommendation from pastors.

“Is that why our leader must be killed? Is that why Akintola became your first target? Is there no freedom of speech in this country? Are we not in a democracy? Is this how you want to treat Muslims after establishing Amotekun? We are certain that your intention is to turn Amotekun to a terror machine. You want to train assassins for eliminating Muslim leaders one by one.

“Yoruba Muslims have the right to speak freely. We are in the land of our ancestors. We are not foreigners. Nobody can expel us from the land of Oduduwa. We will continue to exercise our fundamental human rights without fear while we remain peaceful and law abiding. We are willing to live peacefully with our neighbours whether they are Christians, traditionalists or atheists. 

“The Nigerian Constitution accommodates all faiths. We are even ready to join the new security outfits in our different states once the religious bias is removed and the legal technicalities are resolved. But no true Muslim will give his or her blessing to a security organization which begins by showing anti-Muslim bias and targeting our Muslim brothers in the North.

“For the sake of clarity, we affirm that MURIC is a peace-loving organization and our motto is ‘Dialogue, Not Violence’. Incidentally, our leader, Professor Akintola, is also a peace-loving man.

“He has never engaged in violence or supported any violent group. He has always condemned Boko Haram and promoted peaceful coexistence among the adherents of different faiths. Akintola is also an anti-corruption jihadist.

“The implications of attacking the director of MURIC will have far-reaching effect because MURIC is not about one man. Its membership spreads beyond the South West to the North. Those who have been used to persecuting the Muslims while the same oppressors shout to high heaven without anybody challenging them now see him as a threat because he has challenged the status quo and changed the narrative.

“Already, there is tension among the Muslims over the threat to Akintola and the Nigerian Council for Shariah (South West zone) issued a statement on the threat on Sunday, 27th January, 2020. Therefore, anybody planning to attack such a man is planning to plunge Nigeria into another crisis.

“We wish to warn those behind the death threat against Akintola to know what they are up against. Think well before you act. Akintola is the voice of the voiceless Muslims in Nigeria and he is recognized as such throughout the length and breadth of the country. You cannot attack such a person and get away with it so easily. Don’t cause trouble in Nigeria.

“This January 2020 alone, Akintola emerged as Number 4 Most Important Muslim in Nigeria for year 2019. This was the outcome of a public ranking conducted by a Nigerian newspaper. Also in 2019, our director and founder was turbaned the ‘Lion of Islam’ (Kinniun Adinni) by the League of Imams, Ikotun, Lagos State. We all know what it means for hundreds of Imams to unanimously agree to give such a title to an Islamic scholar. We do not need to remind those threatening to kill our director that the lion is the king of all animals, including the leopard (amotekun). What do you think will happen if the leopard attempts to launch an attack on the lion?

“In conclusion, we hereby call upon the Inspector General of Police and the Director General of the Department of State Security (DSS) to unmask, apprehend and prosecute those who threatened Professor Ishaq Akintola and to provide adequate protection for him. Professor Akintola is a tax payer and deserves to be well protected. 

“We believe that the security agencies will understand the enormity of the issue and realise that it is a matter of national interest. We affirm that Allah is the best protector and the Most Merciful (Glorious Qur’an 12:64). We also restate our full confidence in the ability of the Nigerian security agencies to get to the bottom of the matter, particularly with the lead provided above as the person on whose status the threat was screenshot (Tosin Elizabeth a.k.a ‘Hidee’, telephone number 08163964812).”

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Maryam Sanda to Appeal Death Sentence

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•Justice was served, says co-convener of BBOG

Alex Enumah and Udora Orizu in Abuja

Mrs. Maryam Sanda, who was on Monday sentenced to death by hanging for killing her husband, will appeal the judgment, a member of his legal team has told THISDAY.
Justice Yusuf Halilu of the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) had given her the maximum sentence for killing her husband, Mr. Bilyaminu Bello.

However, some women and civil rights activists have condemned the death penalty, describing it as unacceptable.
But another activist and co-convener of #BringBackOurGirls (BBOG) movement, Mrs. Aisha Yesufu, welcomed the death penalty, saying that it was not only an adequate punishment but also that justice had been served in the case.

The federal government had arraigned her on a two-count charge bordering on murder.
In the judgment delivered, the trial judge held that there was circumstantial evidence coupled with the defendant’s testimony and statement to the police that she “fatally” stabbed her husband to death in Abuja on November 19, 2017.
The judge while stating that the offence for which the defendant was convicted was based on Section 221 of the Penal Code imposed the maximum sentence.

“It has been said that thou shall not kill. Whoever kills in cold blood shall die in cold blood,” the judge said, adding: “Maryam Sanda should reap what she has sown. It is blood for blood.”
However, reacting to the judgment yesterday, one of the lawyers, who spoke off the record, said they would go on appeal against the judgment.

“She has a constitutional right of appeal and definitely she has to exercise it,” he said, adding: “We will definitely appeal the judgment.”
Sanda killed her husband on November 19, 2017, through multiple stabbing.
She was arraigned alongside three other persons, including her mother and brother.
However, the others were discharged because the prosecution was unable to link them to the charges.
The late Bello is a son of a former national chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Alhaji Haliru Bello.

Activists Condemn Death Penalty

Some women and civil rights activists have condemned the death penalty given to Sanda, describing it as unacceptable.
In a WhatsApp conversation with THISDAY, an activist and Director of Women Advocates Research and Documentation Centre, Mrs. Abiola Akiyode-Afolabi, condemned the court’s ruling.

Though she agreed that anyone found guilty of such conduct should be punished, she said death penalty was condemnable.
She said: “It’s a very unfortunate situation, killing of a spouse whether a man or woman is condemnable and anyone found guilty of such conduct should be punished, as deterrence.

The society should have zero tolerance to gender-based violence. “However, death penalty is condemnable. I think maximum sentence in this instance is not the option given the background of the offence. The society should shift from the culture of death penalty; it is no longer acceptable, it has not served the purpose it was meant in the society.”

Corroborating Akiyode-Afolabi’s comment, human rights lawyer and Director of Citizens Advocacy for Social and Economic Rights (CASER), Mr. Frank Tietie, said Sanda should not have been given the maximum punishment.

Tietie in a phone conversation with THISDAY hinged his claim on the possibility of defendant being mentally unstable during the time the crime was committed and the defence team not doing enough to explore all the possible defences available to the woman.
He added that Nigeria must move beyond being a retentionist country in these modern times and realise that death penalty does not solve problems.

According to him, “Mental incapacity is something that should have been brought to the court and with the use of expert witness to prove that she’s not mentally capable of organising herself in such a state of frustration.

“Firstly, for someone to want to kill her husband is an expression of abnormality; it’s not quite natural. I suspect that her mental health was something to be questioned, which should have been brought before the court. If to argue that the woman did not do it, it’s a different thing but to say that she did it, her mind set was not in control of her mental faculty as at the time she did it because of the marital trauma she must have been exposed to which was prolonged and eventually led to pent-up anger and she was also left unattended to by relatives and friends.”

He expressed optimism that Sanda has a window for appeal both at the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court.
He said: “It’s my hope that some new pieces of evidence will be introduced.

“Even by law, death penalty is barbaric; Oscar Pistorius wasn’t given maximum sentence not to talk about this kind of culpable homicide that was done based on crime of passion. What led her to committing those crimes should have been brought to the court.”
But activist and co-convener of #BringBackOurGirls, Yesufu, believed that justice was served.

She, however, tasked the judiciary to also apply the same energy in ensuring that everyone gets justice regardless of one’s status or gender.

She said: “For me basically the case is simple. Maryam Sanda was found guilty of killing her husband and of course justice has been served. My take out from this is that if the Nigerian judiciary system can be very strict in ensuring that people get justice, a lot of things that happen in Nigeria, we wouldn’t see them happening.

“People won’t have any reason to take the laws into their hands and feel that they can do anything and get away with it. No matter who you are, you have to pay for your crimes no matter your gender, age or status. It’s all a tragic ending for the families involved but it’s what it is, justice has been served.”

The post Maryam Sanda to Appeal Death Sentence appeared first on THISDAYLIVE.

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Fake Church Brutally Kill Pregnant Woman, 5 Children For Refusing To Repent Of Their Sins

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All

In what was described as a spiritual exercise to make people repent of their sins, a pregnant woman, her five children, and one other person have been brutally killed in Panama.

10 lay preachers were said to have picked up the victims, who hail from the Ngabe Bugle indigenous group, tortured, beat, burned and hacked with machetes to make them “repent for their sins”.

Three of the villagers who managed to escape reported to the police, who on getting there were able to rescue 14 others, who had been tied up and beaten with wooden clubs and Bibles at the improvised church called The New Light Of God.

Some of the investigators at the scene said they found a naked woman inside the building, along with machetes, knives and a goat that had been ritually sacrificed.

The further noted that the presence of Two pregnant women and several children who had been severely injured.

Prosecutor Rafael Baloyes said: “They were performing a ritual inside the structure. In that ritual, there were people being held against their will, being mistreated.

“All of these rites were aimed at killing them if they did not repent their sins.”

The police said a mile away, they discovered the bodies of one adult and six children in a grave

They further disclosed that one of the suspects is the grand father to the children.

“They searched this family out to hold a ritual and they massacred them, mistreated them, killed practically the whole family,” Mr. Baloyes said.

Local leaders described the sect as “satanic” and have called for it to be eradicated immediately.

According to them, the New Light Of God movement started only three months ago, and on Saturday, a member of the sect’s said he has received a message from God which told him that its either everyone repents or they die.

Police have arrested ten members of the church on suspicion of being responsible for the killings.

See photos of the place:

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Catholic Church puts seal on abolition of Osu caste in Igboland

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Auxiliary Bishop of Awka Diocese,Most Rev Jonas-Benso Okoye, with priests, some members of Ora-Eri town union executive and the Royal Ezenri cabinet members after the thanksgiving Mass

By Vincent Ujumadu

THE Catholic Church in Anambra State has put a final seal on the abolition of the Osu Caste system in Igbo land with a thanksgiving service celebrated at the ancient town of Ora-Eri in Aguata local government area of Anambra State.

EKWEREMADU: We can’t achieve Biafra attacking Igbo leaders – MASSOB

Recall that the traditional ceremony abolishing the over 500 years old obnoxious system was performed by the Okpala Eri XIII, Anthony Okafor,     on 14th  September last year during which those hitherto referred to as Osu and the freeborn embraced each other and decided to put the past behind.

At that ceremony, the traditional ruler of Ora-Eri, His Royal Highness, Ezenri Emmanuel Nriagu warned that henceforth, anybody who referred to another person as Osu would be seriously dealt with. To drive home the importance of last year’s ceremony, the Ora-Eri community last week invited the church to make Christian pronouncement banning the system in the entire Igbo land.

The Auxiliary Bishop of Awka Diocese, Most Reverend Jonas- Benson Okoye was at the head of the celebration, with five other priests in attendance. Bishop Okoye was particularly happy with Ora-Eri community for collaborating with the church in the abolition of Osu system in the town, explaining that the thanksgiving church service was to conclude the exercise that began last year.

Reverend Monsignor Jerome Madueke, who delivered the homily at the church service, traced the origin of Osu in Igbo land, recalling that some people, out of cheer wickedness, were dedicated to idols for no justifiable reason.

He said: “These (Osu) people lived upright life. They were respected because of the idols that owned them. Nowadays, people are busy destroying the physical structures (idols) which were symbols of worship of our forefathers, but still retaining them in their minds and spirit, fearing them and attributing all their woes to them.

“But since Jesus came that we may have life and have it in full, everybody is equal before God and all gifts come from God and to be used for the good of others, especially the less privileged.

“It is regrettable that we worship God and idols together because of our lack of faith. Our ancestors should be pardoned because they worshiped idols out of ignorance. Let us therefore appreciate that Jesus came and abolished distinction between free born and slaves.

“Unless we allow God to come into our minds, in behaviours and relationship with others, the issue of Osu may still linger. I want to observe that in addition to the formal abolition of Osu system, there is still great work to do and I pray that by the grace of God, we can achieve much more.”

. He thanked Ora -Eri people for living up to Christ’s injunctions by taking the bold step to abolish Osu in the community.

The traditional ruler of the town, HRH Ezenri Emmanuel Nriagu commended the Bishop for celebrating the church service and the parish priest Rev Fr Nwakelu Andrew for his unalloyed support during the preparation of the abolition ceremony, as well as the indigenous priests and the entire people of the community for their support. He also affirmed that his cabinet was ready to confer any title on any deserving indigene of the town irrespective of his background.

Eze Nriagu warned that henceforth anybody in his domain who discriminated against others on the basis of Osu caste system would face the full weight of traditional hammer, describing the Osu system as retrogressive. According to him, the people of Ora-Eri were happy to put behind the system that reduced fellow human beings to second class citizens for centuries.

“With the ceremony we have performed in this community, those formerly described as Osu will start taking traditional titles and intermarry with others.

“Those who were hitherto referred to as Osu in this community have been bestowed with all rights and privileges enjoyed by the freeborn. They are good people and many of them are intelligent and beautiful and everybody stands to gain by putting behind this obnoxious system.”

The Royal Father thanked the Bishop for celebrating the church service and assured that his people would never go back to the dark era.

Chief Anthony Okafor, who presided over the abolition ceremony at the community square last year said he had been campaigning for the abolition for several years, expressing joy that his effort had finally paid off.

Okafor said: “When I took the title of Okpara in 1990, I took it upon myself that Osu Caste system must be abolished. It was not easy at the beginning.

“In the past four years, I chose to be sampling people’s opinion on the matter and it was during that period that I found out that many people in our community also wanted the system abolished, but did not know how to go about it.

“We later renewed the campaign and happy enough, the leadership of Ora -Eri Development Union and our traditional ruler were in support.”

In his speech, the President General of Ora-Eri Development Union, Mr. Okey Atueyi said the community had taken a bold decision and commended everybody in the area for their support in putting the discriminatory system behind. “You can see how happy the people are,” he said.

Anambra police confirm stealing of 5-year-old boy during church service

The Parish priest of Ora-Eri, Rev Fr Andrew Nwakelu expressed appreciation to the people of Ora-Eri for participating in the historic church celebration and enjoined them to remain with the new spirit.

The post Catholic Church puts seal on abolition of Osu caste in Igboland appeared first on Vanguard News.

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Death, Diarrhea and Late Night Sackings: The Inside Story of an Unfolding Staff Nightmare at UBA and Dangote

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Last November, thousands of Lagosians including hundreds of UBA Bank employees attended what was billed as the ‘party of the year’ at the Lekki Special Events Centre on Admiralty Way.

The UBA RedTV Rave had everyone from Wizkid to Olamide to Jidenna to Burna Boy thrilling the festive crowd as UBA chairman Tony Elumelu and CEO Kennedy Uzoka mingled with the artists and guests.

On the surface, this was the best of times, as a bank that was clearly in rude health celebrated a successful year with thousands of employees, friends and family. The bank had also recently concluded a recruitment exercise that would add nearly 4,000 new employees to its staff strength, so the year ahead looked to be a promising one for most employees present. 

Unknown to them, while senior executives danced with Wizkid in the VIP area, one of the most brutal staff layoffs in Nigerian banking history was just around the corner. They partied well into the night and then showed up for work the following week as usual. A week went by. Two weeks. Four weeks. Then right at the start of the new year – a shocker.

Closed at 5.30PM, Terminated at 10.30PM

Ifunanya (name has been changed) was asked to wait behind at work on Friday January 3. As a 12-year UBA veteran including a long stint in her role as a Branch Operations Manager at a branch in Ojodu, Lagos, this was not an unusual request to receive. She was even used to working weekends so that the ATMs could remain functional and she could troubleshoot other onsite customer-facing issues. This time however, was different. 

Along with other staff members at the branch, she was asked to wait for a board meeting. By 10.30PM, the assembled staff were informed that their services were no longer required. They were then told verbally to write out their resignation letters on the spot and leave voluntarily or be forced out. At this point, her security pass was taken, and along with the other affected staff, her profile was unceremoniously deactivated from the bank’s internal system. She was reminded to drop her work ID on the way out, and thus ended a 12-year association with the bank.

When a relative of hers reached out to tell the story, he was keen to make the point that she was not an agency employee, but a full UBA employee on a monthly salary of N153,000. He could not understand why the bank would treat her that way. I heard similar stories from two other sources who insisted that they were coerced into resigning after being told that their services were no longer required right at the start of the new year.

Shocking and callous as these stories may have sounded, one of the first things you are taught in any professional journalism program is to always balance the story. So I sought an alternate account of what transpired, with the goal of putting the picture together to tell a complete story. There were conflicting accounts of the events of January 3 flying around, with some accounts describing a recruitment and promotion exercise without mentioning any firings, while others reported a purported “restructuring” at UBA, which is a well-known euphemism for “mass sack.”

I managed to establish contact with a current senior employee at UBA who asked to remain anonymous because he is not authorised to speak about such matters. This was his account of what happened at UBA bank at the start of this year:

“Usually when anyone joins UBA with a Bachelor’s degree, they are put on a GT1 level (N80,000). After one year, they are promoted to GT2 (N100,000), then after another year ET1 (N140,000) which is where a lot of people get stuck on. If you are lucky, you get to ET2 (N165,000). So what UBA did was to meld those 4 levels into one (ET) so any one who was on GT1 and GT2 gets automatically promoted to ET2. Those that were on ET1 and ET2 got promoted to SET (Senior Executive Trainee). 

So it was a promotion of sorts, but honestly it was long overdue because compared to other banks, N80,000 for entry level staff is quite low. About the layoffs: I only know 4 people personally who got affected. The people affected were on manager grades and worked at the head office, they all reportedly got 6 months arrears.”

According to this source, he was not personally aware of the fate of any branch staff or what he termed ‘OND staff.’ He did however say that in his opinion, the bank handled the situation poorly and that Nigeria does need stronger labour laws to protect young graduates fresh out of school from exploitation for cheap labor at the hands of corporates like UBA. He also mentioned that he knows current UBA staff have not had a salary increase in ten years – a remarkable situation for workers in a country whose currency has declined 195 percent over the same period.

As it later emerged, more than 2,000 staff were affected by the shocking late-night cull at UBA. It also became increasingly clear that the firings had nothing to do with a harsh operating environment or decreased profitability. The bank which had brought together Nigeria’s most expensive music stars to perform at its end of year shindig was anything but struggling – it actually hired more people than if fired. What the sackings did though, was clear out a number of people in roles that the bank considered obsolete, particularly within branch operations.

It can definitely be argued that such restructuring is inevitable in the face of rapidly changing technology, which is hardly a terrible thing. What is also true however, is that the bank that paid huge sums of money to bring Burna Boy and Jidenna to an annual vanity event that adds nothing to its bottom line could also afford to retrain its redundant staff to fit into new roles –  instead of just sacking them and instantly bringing in thousands of readymade replacements.

Yet again, the actions of a Nigerian corporate made the point that Nigerian labour law, in addition to be being poorly enforced is also woefully inadequate and unfit for purpose. If after 12 years of useful service to a bank, Ifunanya could be dumped out onto the street without even a few hours of notice – and no regulatory action was forthcoming – then clearly, Nigerian employees working for Nigerian companies have a problem on their hands.

As much as the UBA situation made that point, nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to unearth about another Nigerian corporate behemoth.

Diarrhea in India, Death in Ibeju-Lekki: The Unbelievable Story of Dangote Refinery

While senior executives at UBA House were going over the finer points of their plan to log 2,000 employees out of their work systems and force them to resign on the spot, a different level of labour exploitation was entering its fourth year about 73KM east of the Marina. There, at the site of the Dangote Refinery at the Free Trade Zone in Ibeju-Lekki, Lagos, the refinery was taking delivery of the world’s largest crude oil refining tower.

While this was predictably being celebrated across local and foreign media as the start of a glorious new chapter in Nigeria’s industrial history, I was speaking to a whistleblower with close and detailed knowledge of the project. What he had to say about the refinery project, the Indian project managers, the company’s internal culture and its much-publicised trainee program left me absolutely floored. Naturally I reached out to Dangote Group for a comment, but at press time I have received no response or acknowledgment.

My source, whom I shall call “Mukhtar” worked in and around the refinery project between 2016 and 2018, and what I found most distressing amidst everything he said was the revelation that deaths due to onsite accidents are not just known to happen at the refinery site, but are effectively covered up by Dangote. This he said, is because the people who die are mostly site labourers who are hired through staffing agencies instead of directly. When they die, it becomes the staffing company’s problem and the Dangote brand distances itself from it – even though the site owner is legally responsible for all safety-related incidents onsite.

Something else that struck me was that he implied that – contrary to all its public posturing – the company actually has no intention of using Nigerian engineers to run the refinery anytime soon. The trainee program that sent dozens of Engineering graduates for a one-year training program in India? “Strictly PR,” he said.

Accidents
The first batch of Dangote Refinery trainees head off to India in March 2016

For full effect, I have decided to reproduce the full and unredacted transcript of our conversation instead of using quotes and reported speech. Here is the conversation below:

ME: When we started this conversation, you mentioned that Dangote Refinery is exempt from Nigerian labour laws. What were you referencing?

Mukhtar: Because the refinery is in the FTZ, it is not subject to certain laws like local content laws. As such, even mundane jobs are given to non-Nigerian companies. Even the refinery’s fence wall was handled by a Chinese company. This didn’t stop long stretches of the fence from collapsing sometime in 2017. The FTZ affects Labour laws too. The company is not really under any obligation to employ Nigerians. They do so mostly for PR. All key decision makers are Indians (say 98%).

ME: There have been several horror stories about Indian-run businesses in Nigeria. Was this one of them?

Mukhtar: Yes, the Indians are quite racist. Some even demand to be referred to as “master”. To be fair, when this is reported, the HR unit makes a show of cautioning them. But I dont think anyone has ever been dismissed for it or seriously punished. Most of workers who meet their death on site are labourers. So their names might be known to many staff. I’ll see what I can get. It happens. It’s kept under wraps but it happens.

ME: Now you mentioned onsite deaths earlier. I want to know all about this. Why haven’t we heard anything about this?

Mukhtar: The refinery site is not really the best place to work. Mortality rate on site is quite high. People falling from heights or getting crushed by heavy vehicles/machines is quite common. These numbers are not reported because most staff are contract staff (or outsourced) so the company gets to wash its hands off such cases. But safety on site is the ultimate responsibility of the owner of the project. The construction site has a board that is supposed to display the safety statistics but it is never displays the truth. According to that board, there has never been a fatality on site. But in reality, I think 2018 had about 5 fatalities between January and March. If I were to guess, I’d say there have been over 25 fatalities since construction started in 2016/17.

ME: Now you said earlier that the trainee program was a washout and a disappointment. Fill me in on that.

Mukhtar: I was one of the first batch of engineers sent to India for training in 2016. In my opinion, the whole scheme was either poorly thought out or the company was somehow compelled to do it, and did so for PR. Our salaries were being paid into our accounts in Nigeria, so we were using our debit cards to access our Nigerian accounts for expenses over there) Around July 2016 when the naira went from around 160 per dollar to nearly double that number, our spending power was effectively halved.

ME: I also remember that there was a forex shortage crisis in 2016 and Nigerian bank cards stopped working outside the country.

Mukhtar: So when the banks eventually stopped all cards from functioning abroad, we were stranded. The company resorted to selling us dollars or rupees at the black market rate.They deducted the money from our salaries. We had accommodation (two adults per room) and feeding (Indian food which many of us did not like). Some of had to buy intercontinental dishes regularly, because Indian food is really not nice if you’re not into many smelly spices. It was crazy. Meanwhile we were told categorically that we would have Nigerian food and Nigerian cooks. It was a blatant lie by the Indian HR director.

Also, no arrangement was made for our medical care. Those who fell ill had to treat themselves from their pockets. During the currency crisis, those who fell ill had to rely on the rest of us to put together our spare change to pay for their treatment. The company promised to refund medical expenses, but this shouldn’t have been the situation in the first place.

ME: Tell me about the training program. What was the course content and the experience like? Was it what you were expecting?

Mukhtar: The training itself was a mess too. We were supposed to be trained to operate the refinery (at the time, it was said that it will be completed by mid 2017), but we were sent to a design company. These (designing a refinery and operating it) are two very, very different things. The trainers did not want us there in the first place. It was not a part of their initial contract with Dangote. Plus, they didn’t know what to teach us because designers are not operators. They were confused, several times, they asked us what we wanted to learn. But we could not know what we wanted to learn cos we knew nothing about the entire business. In the end, they reluctantly settled for teaching us design (skills we were/are unlikely to use cos the refinery was already 90% designed). 

ME: If you say that the refinery was “already 90% designed,” and you were learning design in India, that sounds like your presence was superfluous. Was the company really serious about sending you to learn skills to run a refinery?

Mukhtar: Indians will run the refinery. It will take many many many years before that refinery will be populated by just Nigerians. It was strictly PR. Anyways, the training with that design company was suddenly terminated on December 31st. Apparently, Dangote had not paid them a dime for all the months were were being taught design. They didn’t want to send us back to Nigeria so they moved us to the Dangote office in India. The office housed the Indian engineers (around 150 – 200 in number) who were supervising the design work being done by the design company. Now, it is interesting that these guys were working and earning as expatriates within their own country.

But realising that the “training” was a blunder, the company sent back some engineers to train in an actual refinery. So what was supposed to be a 1 year training became 2 years.

ME: Since returning to Nigeria, is there anything else you have noticed about the project that worries or disturbs you?

Mukhtar: Yes. So we have only the refinery at the FTZ, but the company gets to import things meant for other branches of the company duty-free. As a matter of fact, with the Dangote jetty in place and a customs office right there, the company no longer needs to clear stuff at Apapa. Dangote empire effectively has its own customs and port, because we cannot assume that the custom officers stationed at Dangote’s jetty/FTZ are extremely meticulous in checking what comes in and goes out. Personally, I find this disturbing. No non-military entity should be able to import stuff that easily into any country. This is bigger than just skipping custom duty payment.

–Ends–

Between bank staff being fired at 10.30PM and refinery site labourers being killed by workplace accidents without accountability, the sheer grimness of the picture facing Nigerian workers comes into stark relief. It is afterall, an employer’s market, with several thousand qualified people jostling for every job opening, which creates the possibility and incentive to treat staff like battery animals.

Whether the Labour Ministry is willing or able to do anything about such blatant labour exploitation is anybody’s guess. Nigeria’s government is increasingly weak and unable to impose its will on the country even territorially. In the event that the government did take interest, there is a valid fear that it would go to the other extreme and adopt a lazy anti-business Hugo Chavez approach, as it so often does. The real solution if there is to be one, must come from Nigerian labour having a stronger bargaining position through an improved economy. Anything else as it stands, is little more than a sticking plaster.

As Mukhtar mentioned, even inside the ridiculous situation of being financially stranded in a foreign country at the behest of an irresponsible and insincere Nigerian corporate, the vast majority of the group chose to suffer in silence. They did so because spending a year abroad learning useless information, suffering deprivation and experiencing diarrhea after being forced to eat unfamiliar food was still preferable to whatever alternative was at home.

Ultimately, that is the biggest problem facing Nigerian labour. 

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Williams needed “rock bottom” F1 2019 but can’t let it happen again – F1 – Autosport

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Claire Williams says the Williams Formula 1 team had to hit “rock bottom” to find a way out of its 2019 nadir, but insists it “can’t happen again”.

Williams endured its worst season in F1, and only scored one point from the 21 races run – with Robert Kubica’s 10th-place finish in the German Grand Prix only coming after the Alfa Romeos were hit with post-race time penalties.

The team’s year was beset with problems from the off, beginning pre-season testing late due to a build issue with its car.

Speaking to Autosport about the team’s troubled year, deputy team principal Williams said: “It can’t happen again.

“You’ve got to sometimes hit rock bottom to know what your issues are because otherwise you just… sometimes you just go through these situations and you can get to where you need to get to by the skin of your teeth.

“But you actually need to understand what’s going on in your system to make sure that you’re not just getting somewhere by the skin of your teeth and you’ve got to have a plan and a proper process.”

After the car’s delayed arrival at testing, Williams said a “very thorough” investigation of all areas of the team was carried out in order to understand exactly what happened, which she branded “an incredibly useful exercise”.

“You can put plasters on stuff, but unless you actually wish to fix them and unless you can get to the root causes for problems, those problems are probably going to resurface and come and bite you again,” she explained.

“What we did after testing was implement this very thorough after-action review across every single process that was involved and accountable for that outcome.

“It was an incredibly useful exercise, because it exposed all the weaknesses that we had and allowed us to put fixes in place.

“And I would say that the team responded really well to that because it can be quite difficult for people to be very open and honest in those situations, but we encouraged honesty within it.

“In any situation like that it can always be difficult for people to put their hands up and be honest and open.

“But our team was incredibly receptive to the process that we asked them to go through, which allowed us to put in place a load of plans in order to address the areas of weakness that were causing the issues in the first place.”

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Christ Embassy Church probe in UK: The Full report | P.M. News

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Pastor Chris Oyakhilome: heads the Christ Embassy Church in UK

Christ Embassy Church, owned by Pastor Chris Oyakhilome and registered in the UK in 1996 as a charity came under probe of the Charity Commission in 2013, following complaints about the use of charitable funds on large connected party payments.

Truly, investigators discovered numerous failings in its management. They established that a number of informal grants and payments were made, including over £1.2 million* to a broadcasting company, Loveworld Television Ministry, which was wholly owned by a trustee of the charity.

Also, for six years the charity had allowed Loveworld free use of a £1.8 million property it had purchased, and was subsidising a proportion of the company’s utility bills. The inquiry found a lack of formal contracts or appropriate record keeping, and a lack of evidence of proper decision-making or of conflicts of interest being appropriately managed.

Financial management at the charity was also found to be poor. The trustees claimed 9 bank accounts held funds belonging to Christ Embassy Nigeria, and that 3 UK properties belonged to Christ Embassy Nigeria, however the inquiry concluded that all of these in fact belonged to the charity.

Oyakhilome’s ex-wife Anita Ebodaghe: was on the charity board at the time

The inquiry considered that there was serious misconduct and/or mismanagement in the administration of the charity, and took action to remove two of the trustees of the charity, however the individuals resigned before the sanction was applied. The Commission has since been granted new powers to address this loophole, which it secured under the Charities (Protection and Social Investment) Act 2016.

As a result of the inquiry, a new board of trustees was set up to strengthen the administration and management of the charity.

Amy Spiller head of the investigation team spoke on how the investigation was able to dissect the complex web of entities connected with the Christ Embassy Church:

“This was a complex inquiry that unveiled numerous failings by those running Christ Embassy over a number of years, which exposed the charity to undue risk. I am pleased that these issues have been resolved and that the new board of trustees has shown a clear commitment to move the charity forward responsibly.

“Those running a charity should always be guided by their charitable purpose. Trustees have an important responsibility to ensure that they act in the best interests of their charity at all times, and take care to safeguard their charity’s assets. Our guidance around governance arrangements is there to help trustees ensure they do just that.

“Charities are trusted in a way that is unique, and people often put a lot of faith in religious charities. It is therefore vital that trustees, particularly those with a large following, do all that they can to inspire public trust”.

Christ Embassy operates over 90 churches in the UK, providing religious services to over 5000 people, and has a substantial international following.

Here is the full report released 14 November, 2019 as culled from www.gov.uk

The Charity
Christ Embassy (the charity) was registered on 19 November 1996. It is governed by a Declaration of Trust dated 23 October 1996.

The charity’s entry can be found on the register of charities.

Charity Structure
The charity was established in South London in 1996. The charity’s Headquarters is located at the Loveworld Conference Centre (commonly referred to as the “Christ Embassy International Office”), in Folkestone, Kent and is supported by three sub offices situated in Bermondsey, Croydon and Hendon. The sub-offices operate in excess of ninety churches throughout the country, providing religious services to in excess of five thousand beneficiaries.

The charity has a trading subsidiary company called Christ Embassy Limited (Company Registration No. 05862298) which became a subsidiary in 2012. The trading subsidiary shares the charity’s UK headquarter premises. The trading business involves the production, sale and distribution of religious books and media products.

The charity’s reported income in the year ending 31 December 2013 was £14,055,229 and its expenditure was £15,923,977.

Trustees
During the Commission’s engagement with the charity (since 2012) there have been numerous trustees in office. The table below only lists the trustees who were in office for a part of the inquiry.

Trustee From To
A (Reverend Christian Oyakhilome) 23 October 1996 17 May 2014
B (Reverend Anita Oyakhilome) 6 April 1999 2 June 2015
C (Pastor Obioma Chiemeka) 6 October 2009 13 October 2015
D (Pastor Nkemakonam Odiakah) 6 October 2009 15 February 2016
E (Pastor Ifeoma Onubogu) 6 October 2009 12 February 2016
F (Pastor Uche Onubogu) 17 May 2014 26 January 2015
G (Pastor Tony Obi) 17 May 2014 16 October 2015
H (Reverend Raymond Okocha) 17 May 2014 8 August 2017

Trustee A resided in Nigeria and was the founder and international leader of the charity. His wife, trustee B, resided in the UK and was leader of the UK based charity.

Trustees B, D and F were also paid employees of the charity during periods of their trusteeships, which was permitted by their governing document in particular circumstances.

Following the appointment of an Interim Manager and full governance review, a new board of trustees (the new board of trustees) was appointed on 12 April 2016 who are now responsible for the administration and management of the charity going forward. Significant progress has been made to address the governance and improve oversight and control by the new board of trustees.

Issues under Investigation

On 29 July 2013, the Commission opened a statutory inquiry (the Inquiry) into the charity under section 46 of the Charities Act 2011 (the Act).

The Inquiry closed with the publication of this report.

The scope of the Inquiry was to examine a number of issues including:

*the transactions between the charity and “partner organisations” that include grants made to a number of unidentified entities and Loveworld Television Ministry, Healing School, International School of Ministry, Christ Embassy France, Christ Embassy Canada, IPCC Conference and Rhapsody of Realities

*the administration, governance and management of the charity by the trustees with specific regard to connected party transactions in respect of payments to Loveworld Limited and the management of conflicts of interest

*the financial controls and management of the charity

*whether or not the trustees had complied with and fulfilled their duties and responsibilities as trustees under charity law

Findings
Transactions between the Charity & “partner organisations”
The Inquiry team examined the accounts of the charity, for the period 2009-2011 which showed that the charity had paid substantial grants to organisations classified as “partner organisations”.

During 2009-2011, the charity’s accounts show grants amounting to £1,281,666 were paid to Loveworld Television Ministry; £118,995 to Healing School, £186,616 to International School of Ministry, £10,000 to Christ Embassy Canada, £10,566 to Christ Embassy France, £37,216 to IPPC Conference and £77,266 to Rhapsody of Realities.

The trustees provided the Commission with a copy of their grant making policy, and admitted to the Inquiry that “Prior to the involvement of the Charity Commission the grant making practice consisted of a discussion by the Trustees at a Trustee meeting regarding who should receive grant”.

Following his appointment on 6 August 2014, the Interim Manager (the IM) examined the charity’s records and found no evidence of compliance with the Grant Making Policy. Documents examined, by the IM, demonstrated a lack of records and receipts to account for grants made and there appeared to be little consideration given to whether the receiving parties had expended grants appropriately and for intended purposes, as was required by the policy.

This demonstrates failure to comply with its grant making policy and inadequate recording of decision making by the trustees which is misconduct and/or mismanagement in the administration of the charity.

Administration, governance and management of Charity by trustees-specific regard to connected party transactions in respect of payment to Loveworld Limited (also known as Loveworld Television Ministry – registered number 4691981) and management of conflict of interest
The inquiry had serious concerns regarding the trustees’ decision making relating to the charity’s relationship with Loveworld Limited.

It was established that Trustee C, was the sole shareholder of Loveworld Limited since its incorporation in March 2003. Trustee C had also been trustee of the charity between October 2009 and October 2015. The primary objective of the Loveworld Limited was to advance Christian programming in the UK and to provide entertaining and educational programmes for the diverse demographics of the UK, which it did by carrying out both radio and television broadcasting services.

The trustees informed the Inquiry, payments made by the charity to Loveworld Limited were not grants/donations as indicated in their accounts but represented payments for broadcasting services provided by the company to the charity. On 28 March 2013, the trustees were asked to provide all documentation held by the charity or its trustees that recorded the decisions made in respect of the payments by the charity to Loveworld Limited. On 19 September 2013, the trustees provided only two sets of minutes of trustee meetings (minutes of trustees meeting dated 6 January and 6 April 2012) that appeared relevant to the issue. However, neither set of minutes included any decision or resolution to make payments to a company of which one trustee was sole shareholder.

The trustees did not have any formal contracts in place, or indeed rationale for using Loveworld Limited as opposed to any other broadcaster. Additionally the IM, during his inspection of books and records found no evidence to suggest that any of the trustees considered whether the costs charged by Loveworld Limited were better value than the costs charged by any other service provider. The trustees have failed to take, or have failed to record, any proper decisions as to why such payments are in the best interests of the Charity.

The IM confirmed that as early as 2009, the Audit Report highlighted to trustees that transactions with organisations and companies controlled by trustees were required to be disclosed in the financial statements as related party transactions. Auditors also recommended that trustees seek professional advice on whether these payments were permitted under their governing document, discuss and decide whether the payments were in the best interests of the charity and minute those discussions, ensuring that any conflicted parties withdraw from the meeting during discussions. The IM’s investigation into these matters found that this advice had not been followed and in particular there was no evidence that the trustees had sought legal advice.

The IM’s scrutiny of charity records and documents demonstrated that the trustees had failed to comply with the terms of the charity’s governing document and that they failed to comply with the requirements of section 185 of the Act in paying for services by a company owned by a trustee.

Additionally, the Inquiry identified that the charity had purchased a property in March 2006, costing £1.8 million and allowed Loveworld Limited free use of the property from 2006 until September 2012. The trustees informed the Inquiry that Loveworld Limited had only occupied a “small part of the premises”, on an informal basis, with the charity using the premises themselves until February 2014. They informed the Inquiry that the arrangement had been formalised since 2012 and the company was charged £75,000 per year for use of the property. The Inquiry considers that this level of rent indicates that Loveworld Limited occupied a substantial proportion of the building.

The trustees failed to demonstrate that rent for occupation of the premises was a properly assessed market rent which would cover the charity’s overheads. The trustees stated, that the yearly rental income covered all mortgage costs incurred by the charity, however later stated that the charity’s annual mortgage payment was higher than this.

It was unclear to the Inquiry how the permitted, free use of the premises to Loveworld Limited between 2006 -2012 was in the best interests of the charity and was properly authorised.

This indicates that the trustees failed to act in the charity’s best interests or with reasonable care and skill in terms of their decision-making and in the negotiation of the arrangements with Loveworld Limited and in not seeking appropriate advice regarding formalising occupation of premises by the company. In addition, the fact that the charity was also subsidising a proportion of the company’s utility bills indicates a lack of reasonable care and skill and a failure to use the charity’s resources responsibly. These actions were not in the charity’s best interest or in furtherance of its objects and were misconduct and/or mismanagement in the administration of the charity.

Ventaja Limited
An audit conducted by the IM on appointment also identified purchases in excess of £30,000 by the charity from Ventaja Limited – trustees’ reports and financial statements for year ending 31 December 2013: the charity declared £44,925 of purchases made from Ventaja Limited for decorating and the construction of a stage. The company was wholly owned by Trustee G. The payments were made while, Trustee G was church pastor and zonal pastor (prior to being appointed trustee in May 2014). His wife was also director of the company, church pastor and a salaried employee of the charity. The IM found evidence indicating that Trustee G had employed the services of Ventaja Limited to provide services to the charity but it was unclear from the charity’s records what considerations were made regarding potential conflicts of interest. It is unclear to the Commission that the decision making trustees, in position at the time payments were made, were acting only in the interests of the charity.

The trustees failed to provide any records to evidence that conflicts of interest had been identified or correctly managed prior to the opening of the Inquiry. Although the trustees provided the inquiry with a copy of their new “Conflicts of Interest Policy” in their 2013 response, they did not have any policy which covered the conflict which arose as a result of Trustee G, being a church pastor and trustee, authorising payments from his church to his company and therefore effectively paying his own company. The trustees failed to demonstrate that they had recognised or properly managed conflicts of interest. Consequently the Inquiry found this was misconduct and mismanagement in the administration of the charity.

Financial control & management of the Charity
When interviewed by the Inquiry in October 2013, the trustees explained the structure and administration of the charity to the Commission. The structure involved Chapters (also known as churches) within the charity which were spread across the UK with the use of over 100 premises. The IM found that cash collection and payment recording processes were not uniform across the charity, with a number of basic key controls (for example timely bank reconciliations or maintenance of the SAGE records ) found to be lacking.

Bank Accounts/Assets
The inquiry identified nine active bank accounts that the trustees identified as holding funds belonging to Christ Embassy Nigeria (Christ Embassy Nigeria is a separate company to the charity). The inquiry found no evidence to suggest that any of the banking institutions were aware that they were holding funds controlled by Christ Embassy Nigeria. In addition, the accounts were not named in such a way as would indicate the funds are controlled from Nigeria: for example, two of the active accounts are named Christ Embassy East London.

The inquiry, not being satisfied that the funds held in these accounts were owned by Christ Embassy Nigeria, exercised legal powers and issued orders dated 8 august 2014, under section 76(3)(d) of the Act, freezing six of these nine bank accounts, protecting funds to a value of £615,420.

In the absence of clear evidence to support the trustees’ position, the Inquiry concluded that funds held in the accounts belonged to the charity and these accounts remained frozen until the order was revoked on 24 August 2016. The Inquiry being satisfied that the new board of trustees had assumed control of the charity’s property discharged the freezing order on 24 August 2016.

This demonstrates the trustees’ failure to deal with the bank accounts appropriately and their lack of understanding of financial management and the importance of clearly identifying the charity’s property and/or assets held on behalf of another entity and is mismanagement and/or misconduct in the administration and governance of the charity by the trustees.

Tax related issues
The IM informed the Inquiry that the trustees’ failed to submit the charity’s 2010-11 and 2012-13 Self-Assessment Tax returns on time to HMRC thereby incurring penalties for late submissions. In addition, the IM found that the trustees had failed to comply with information Notices issued by HMRC thus incurring further penalties.

The trustees’ non-compliance and failure to submit the charity’s Self-Assessment forms within statutory deadlines resulted in scrutiny by HMRC creating a risk to the charity’s assets in regard to financial penalties incurred and is further evidence of trustees failing in their duty to protect and manage resources responsibly.

Gift Aid is available on donations made by UK tax payers such that the charity can reclaim the tax already paid on the donation by the donor. This means the charity can receive an extra 25p for every £1 donated. It is the trustees’ responsibility to ensure that the charity has effective systems and internal controls in place to ensure complete and accurate returns are made, reducing the risk of amounts being reclaimed by HMRC and ensuring that the charity receives the Gift Aid promptly and with confidence.

The IM established that the charity had failed to maintain:

*sufficient records or processes to show that expenditure by employees had not been an employee benefit and therefore subject to tax
*sufficient records to show that charity vehicles were being used solely for charitable purposes and not used by trustees/employees for private use
*sufficient records to support the charity’s claim to Gift Aid and to demonstrate the expenditure was in fact charitable

The IM dealt with these inquiries and agreed a settlement with HMRC. During discussions with HMRC, the IM made payments on account of £250,000 in order to minimise interest/penalty charges.

The IM informed the Inquiry, in excess of £1.4m of expenditure was disallowed by HMRC and became subject to tax.

The IM reached final settlement over these matters prior to his discharge.

The trustees’ failure to maintain sufficient records and processes to account for expenditure resulted in scrutiny by HMRC creating a risk of criminal proceedings and loss to the charity’s assets in regard to tax liabilities and is further evidence of trustees failing in their duty to protect and manage resources responsibly.


Whether complied and fulfilled duties and responsibilities as trustees under charity law

The Inquiry found a number of breaches of their legal duties by the trustees as evidenced in the previous sections of this report. Additionally the Inquiry found evidence that the trustees exposed the charity, its assets and/or its beneficiaries to harm or undue risk for example:

Property Related matters
The charity is unincorporated, and as such does not have legal personality and cannot hold property in its own name. Instead property must be held on behalf of the charity by nominated individuals (known as holding trustees, and often in practice one or more of the charity’s trustees). From time to time these individuals will change for example due to retirement or death, and the legal ownership of the property will need to be transferred to the new trustees to ensure that the Land Registry records are accurate.

The charity’s main asset other than cash was its ownership of a number of properties. The Inquiry identified 3 UK properties that were not disclosed to the Commission in the trustees’ first responses or during the October 2013 meeting. The trustees asserted that despite the legal title of the properties being vested in the name of two of the charity’s trustees, the properties “were acquired on behalf of, and held in trust for, Christ Embassy Nigeria”.

The Inquiry noted that the Land Registry entries in respect of the 3 properties made no reference to the beneficial owner being Christ Embassy Nigeria and documentation supplied by the trustees provided no evidence to support their assertions. None of the Land Registry proprietorship registers differed in any material way from those of the properties originally disclosed to the Commission as belonging to the charity. These matters were explored further by the IM. His investigations confirmed that the properties were held legally and beneficially by the charity and that there was no trust in place suggesting they were held on behalf Christ Embassy Nigeria.

The Inquiry obtained evidence that the trustees’ failed to ensure land registry details for charity properties were amended once trustees resigned. This was raised a number of times by Auditors in their reports from 2009 onwards and as a result the trustees failed in their duties and responsibilities as trustees to act in the charity’s best interests.

Insurance
The Inquiry found that the trustees failed to secure adequate insurance to protect charity assets and protect against claims for accidental damage to property/or compensation for accidental injury to third parties. The IM was made aware of an outstanding claim in February 2015, brought by a member of the congregation who was injured at a charity premises in 2012. The IM sought to identify whether any relevant insurant was in place. The trustees confirmed that there was no relevant insurance cover and following legal advice obtained by the IM, he settled the claim, in order to avoid lengthy and costly litigation.

The failings of trustees to act appropriately left the charity open to financial and reputational risk and losses, as well as to risk of litigation.

Planning & Building
The trustees failed to ensure that a property purchased by the charity had the necessary planning permission for use as a place of worship – D1 use as Non-Residential institutions, which include a place of worship and church hall. The previous owner had applied for permission to use the property as a place of worship, in 2003 but the planning application had been refused by the local authority. The charity appealed the decision unsuccessfully. Enforcement action was commenced by Southwark Council (18 April 2011). This was also unsuccessfully appealed by the charity. The continued unauthorised use of the premises as a place of worship by the charity, exposed it to enforcement action by the Council. The IM team liaised with the Council to permit a planned exit from the premised which was vacated in January 2015.

The existence of the enforcement notice is a criminal matter. Any breach of the enforcement notice and continued unauthorised use of the premises as a place of worship exposed the charity to prosecution by Southwark Council. Legal advice obtained by the IM confirmed that the breach could have led to criminal sanctions being imposed against the charity and potentially exposed the charity to confiscation proceedings under the Proceeds of Crime Act.

This demonstrates the trustees’ lack of understanding regarding planning law and regulations which exposed the charity to substantial financial risk as well as legal costs.

Conclusions
The Inquiry concluded that there was serious misconduct and/or mismanagement in the charity’s administration. The former trustees, at the relevant times had not complied with or fulfilled their duties as trustees under charity law. They failed to:

*exercise reasonable care and skill in the execution of their roles and as a result exposed the charity to risk and financial loss
*ensure sufficient financial controls and procedures to protect the charity’s property file their annual accounting information, in accordance with their statutory obligations, on time
*ensure that conflicts of interest were effectively managed comply with the terms of the charity’s governing document in relation to remuneration of trustees
*obtain professional advice during their decision making process and to properly record their decision-making
*comply with planning law and regulations and adhere to enforcement notices, causing the charity substantial financial loss
*address the need for Health & Safety compliance and the lack of adequate property insurance exposed the charity to considerable losses which could have been avoided or minimized with proper management and prompt action

In light of the findings and evidence of misconduct and/or mismanagement, the Inquiry exercised its legal powers under section 79(2)(a) of the Act to remove two of the trustees of the charity.

However the trustees subject to regulatory action resigned prior to the Commission being able to complete the process. Section 79(5) and 82 of The Charities (Protection and Social Investment ) Act 2016 has closed this loophole, thereby allowing the Commission to proceed to remove a charity trustee who has resigned following the Commission having given notice to the charity trustees of its intention to make a removal order. The law has since been amended so that resignations following the Commission issuing a notice of intention to remove a trustee would not prohibit the trustee’s removal and consequent disqualification from action as a trustee in the future.

Regulatory Action Taken
During the course of the Inquiry the Commission exercised its legal powers (Sections 47, 52 and 54 Charities Act 2011), provided by the Act, to issue various orders and directions for the purposes of information gathering from local authorities, private individuals and companies, including financial institutions.

The Inquiry directed trustees to a meeting on 18 October 2013 to discuss regulatory concerns and seek further explanation from the trustees. The charity’s books and records were also inspected on 13/14 November 2013.

The Inquiry, being satisfied in accordance with section 76(1) of the Act, that there had been misconduct and / or mismanagement in the administration of the charity and that it was necessary or desirable to act for the protection of the property of the charity, used a number of regulatory powers, under the following sections of the Act:

*section 76(3)(d) orders (8 August 2014), directing the banks not to part with the charity’s property without the Commission’s prior written consent, protecting £615,420 of the charity’s funds

*section 76(3)(g) appointing an Interim Manager on 6 August 2014 (appointment to take effect from 11 August 2014) and then under 337(6) varying the order (25 January 2016) to authorise the
*Interim Manager to appoint a new board of trustees
section 337(6) discharging (18 November 2014) the order not to part by further order, once the

*Interim Manager assumed control of the charity’s property

The former trustees exercised their right to appeal (8 August 2014) to the First-tier Tribunal, General Regulatory Chamber (Charity) against the order appointing the Interim Manager. The appeal was withdrawn on 20 January 2015 with the charity’s legal representatives, notifying the Commission that the trustees were “now willing to accept that the statutory threshold under section 76 of the Act was met in the present case”.

Appointment of an interim manager
The Inquiry appointed an interim manager, Rod Weston of Mazars LLP, (the IM) on 6 August 2014 under section 76(3)(g) of the Act to take over the management and administration of the charity to the exclusion of trustees. The trustees were not excluded from performing the religious and/or spiritual functions connected with their roles as Pastors within the charity.

The scope of the IM’s appointment included:

*taking control of the management and administration of the charity to the exclusion of trustees and taking steps to secure and protect charity property

*reviewing the governance and administration of the charity and taking remedial action in the best interests of the charity

*reviewing the charity’s financial controls, systems and reporting procedures, safeguarding funds and ensuring proper expenditure controls and governance
consider whether any of the decision making trustees were personally liable for any breach of duty/loss of the charity, taking remedial action to regularise any breaches of duty in the best interest of the charity

The costs of the IM’s appointment, including legal advice and fees that would have been necessary and incurred by any trustee, amounted to £1,244,983.50 excluding VAT. The costs of the IM’s appointment were met out of the charity’s funds and are itemised as follows:

*fees directly related to work as IM – £390,358.40
*professional fees – £854,625.10 (relating to work conducted by 3rd parties on behalf of the IM)
*In addition £208,000 of work was undertaken by the IM on a pro bono basis.

As part of his appointment, the IM completed a full governance and infrastructure review of the charity and its activities. His initial findings, on 9 October 2014, corroborated the Commission’s regulatory concerns relating to the charity, reporting that “the board of trustees appears to be fragmented” and “appear to have little appreciation of their roles, duties and obligations as Trustees”. He identified a number of Health and Safety risks and concerns as well as legal issues relating to property matters which had failed to be dealt with by the trustees and which posed financial risks to the charity. The IM’s investigations found failings in the charity’s governance, leadership and management structures and personnel, including identifying that the charity had insufficient financial controls and procedures.

Remedial actions were taken to regularise the charity’s governance to ensure it was fit for purpose. This encompassed the following:

*establishing a central record of all properties leased and/or rented by the charity to ensure that the terms of leases were being met appropriately and suitable exit plans were in place where leases were due to expire
*establishing an accurate record of assets (ownership of a number of properties, motor vehicles and a range of fixed assets ) owned by the charity, gaining control of the charity’s property portfolio and cash reserves – the IM reduced the number of bank accounts in operation from approximately 40 to 8 and in September 2015 took control of just under £12,000,000

*introduction and implementation of financial controls, systems and reporting procedures, regularising the management of income and expenditure

*Health and Safety audits and fire risk assessments were carried out; training provided to staff and implementation of suitable Health & Safety policies and procedures
extensive liaison with HMRC resulting in settlement of the charity’s tax liabilities
recruitment of new board of trustees

*induction and training of new trustees

Restitution
On 18 November 2015, the IM considered professional advice and the particular circumstances of this case and decided that restitution (by way of civil claims against former trustees for breaches of duties and losses to the charity was not in the best interests of the charity.

Following the appointment of a new Board of Trustees on 12 April 2016, significant progress has been made to address the governance and improve oversight and control by the new trustees, as a result of which the IM was discharged on 12 April 2016.

Issues for the wider sector
Financial Controls & Accounting Records
Proper financial controls are a necessary feature of any well-run organisation. Because of the special characteristics of the charitable sector, they play an essential part in helping to show potential donors and beneficiaries that a charity’s property is safeguarded, and that its management is efficient.

Trustees are equally responsible for the overall management and administration of the charity. Every charity’s accounting records must be sufficient to show and explain its transactions and disclose with reasonable accuracy its financial position. Trustees should ensure that financial controls are not only adequate but provide sufficient information to satisfy the trustees that the controls are being observed. If, due to the nature of the charity, its work, location and /or set up the trustees delegate supervision of financial arrangements to one or a small number of trustees or employees, they need to ensure that there are arrangements in place for proper reporting back to the whole trustee body. In this way, system failures or issues can be identified at an early stage.

Therefore, in order to show that they are complying with their legal duties, trustees must keep records and an adequate audit trail to show that the Charity’s money has been properly spent on furthering the Charity’s purposes for the benefit of the public.

Conflicts of Interest Policy
Charity trustees should ensure that they have a conflicts of interest policy in place to ensure that they are fully aware of their responsibilities and that any conflicts that do arise are appropriately managed.

Where a charity trustee has a conflict of interest they should follow the basic checklist set out in the Commission publication Conflicts of interest: a guide for charity trustees (CC29) and where necessary or appropriate take professional advice.

The law states that trustees cannot receive any benefit from their charity in return for any service they provide to it or enter into any self-dealing transactions unless they have the legal authority to do so. This may come from the charity’s governing document or, if there is no such provision in the governing document, the Commission or the Courts. Further information is available from Trustee expenses and payments (CC11).

Charity Property
Charity trustees have a general duty to manage their charity’s resources responsibly, reasonably and honestly. This means not exposing their charity’s assets, beneficiaries or reputation to undue risk. It is about exercising sound judgement and then taking decisions that a reasonable body of trustees would do.

Trustees must put appropriate policies, procedures and safeguards in place and take all reasonable steps to ensure that these are followed.

If a charity owns land or buildings, trustees need to know on a continuing basis what condition it is in, that it is being properly used, and that adequate insurance is in place. The essential trustee: what you need to know, what you need to do (CC3) makes clear that decisions about charity land and property are important. If the charity owns or rents land or buildings, the trustees need to:

*make sure the property is recorded as belonging to the charity
know on what terms it is held
*ensure it is properly maintained and being correctly used
*make sure the charity has sufficient insurance

A charity’s governing document or the general law can provide a ‘power to insure’. If the governing document imposes a positive duty to insure, if trustees then fail to insure property, this will be a breach of trust. More details are available in the Commission’s guidance Charities and insurance (CC49).

Trustee Decision Making
Charity trustees are responsible for governing their charity and making decisions about how it should be run. Making decisions is one of the most important parts of the trustees’ role. Trustees can be confident about decision making if they understand their role and responsibilities, know how to make decisions effectively, are ready to be accountable to people with an interest in their charity, and follow the 7 principles that the courts have developed for reviewing decisions made by trustees. Trustees must:

*act within their powers
*act in good faith and only in the interests of the charity
*make sure they are sufficiently informed
*take account of all relevant factors
*ignore any irrelevant factors
*manage conflicts of interest
*make decisions that are within the range of decisions that a reasonable trustee body could make

It is important that charity trustees apply these 7 principles when making significant or strategic decisions, such as those affecting the charity’s beneficiaries, assets or future direction.

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