Baichwal and de Pencier to Replace Stephenson as HRWFF Chairs

Jennifer Baichwal and Nick de Pencier assume new roles as co-chairs of Toronto’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival


By Pat Mullen

Filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nick de Pencier will assume new roles as co-chairs of Toronto’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival (HRWFF). Long-time chair Helga Stephenson is stepping down after bringing the festival to Toronto 17 years ago. The 2020 edition of HRWFF recently wrapped a popular run at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema that included an appearance by freed political prisoner Oleg Sentsov.

“Helga has been a vocal champion of our festival and an ambassador for our work, inspiring our audiences to action to defend human rights,” said Jasmine Herlt, Managing Director, Development and Global Initiatives at Human Rights Watch, in a statement. “By using film to underscore the harm people have done to our planet, Jennifer and Nick help viewers to understand the human rights issues involved and challenge the audience to demand change. They are true partners in the movement to uphold human dignity.”

Helga Stephenson steps down after 17 years with HRWFF.

“It was an honour and privilege to work on this festival for which I am very grateful,” Stephenson said in a release. “I wish Jennifer and Nick the same rich rewarding experience that comes with working for Human Rights Watch. The festival is in excellent hands.”

The news of Stephenson’s departure from HRWFF follows the recent announcement of her role as co-chair of Toronto’s POV 3rd Street along with entertainment lawyer Divya Shahani. POV (no relation) helps marginalized youth break into the media industry through training, mentorship, job placement, and professional development opportunities. Stephenson previously played a key role with the Toronto International Film Festival (then the Festival of Festivals) since 1978 and served as its director from 1986 to 1994. She later led the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television as CEO from 2011 to 2016.

Baichwal and de Pencier are no strangers to human rights, either, as their films frequently harness the power of moving images to inspire and provoke audiences through art. 2018’s Anthropocene: The Human Epoch concluded the acclaimed trilogy of environmental films made in collaboration with photographer Edward Burtynsky that began with Manufactured Landscapes (2006) and Watermark (2013). All three films won the feature documentary prize from the Genie/Canadian Screen Awards. 2012’s Payback, directed by Baichwal and shot by de Pencier, adapted the book by Margaret Atwood and examined the various forms of indebtedness that contribute to inequality worldwide. HRWFF previously honoured the filmmakers with a celebration of their work on the opening night of the 2019 festival.

“We are both honoured and thrilled to be part of the HRW family and to champion film as a catalyst for social justice and meaningful change,” the filmmakers said in a statement. “It won’t be easy to fill the shoes of the formidable Helga Stephenson, but we are looking forward to serving this cause that we are deeply committed to.”

More than 3000 people attended this year’s event after HRWFF made screenings free to the public, making it a record year for the Toronto festival.