Film

Interview with the First Female Director of Sundance Film Festival ahead of Sundance London 7-9 August

“….We want to get the festival of the mountain, normally we ask the world to come to Sundance this year we want to take Sundance to the world or at least make it much more accessible. Which is terrifying and exciting but also necessary, for public health as it does not make sense to have people in a small space”. Tabitha Jackson

In February Tabitha Jackson become the first women to take the role of Director of the Sundance Film Festival, chosen from a worldwide search Jackson follows Director, John Cooper. Prior the award-winning filmmaker, served as Director of the Institute’s Documentary Film Program for six years, since 2013. Jackson oversees the Festival’s overall vision and strategy, while leading a senior team in close collaboration with Director of Programming, Kim Yutani.

A focus of the new role will be shaping the nonprofit Institute’s full slate of global public programming throughout the year –including Sundance Film Festivals in Hong Kong and London and a nationwide Short Film Tour – as well as leading the community of artists and audiences those programs serve.
Jackson worked in arts and entertainment for more than 25 years as an award-winning filmmaker. The British “native” was Head of Arts and Performance at Channel 4 Television in London, where she supported the independent and alternative voice and sought to find fresh and innovative ways of storytelling. She executive produced a number of projects for the UK’s Film 4 including Mark Cousins’ cinematic odyssey The Story of Film, Clio Barnard’s formally experimental The Arbor, Sophie Fiennes’ essay The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Bart Layton’s thriller The Imposter, and Iain and Jane’s innovative Nick Cave biography 20,000 Days on Earth.

It is exciting to be amplifying the voices and work of independent artists in these challenging and fast-changing times. My role, working with a team at the top of their game, will be to ensure that the festival remains as effective, vital and transformational in the years going forward as it has been in the past — and to make sure that we have fun doing it. I can’t wait to get started.”

The 2020 Festival received over 15,100 submissions from around the world, featured over 200 new works from a diverse array of voices, welcomed more than 125,000 guests to Utah, and reaches millions more who watch festival news and content online.

Alt caught the extremely busy Jackson just before the start of Sundance London as they prepare to bring the festival to a global audience in the new digital format, the festival opens tonight 7th August.

What are the some of the joys and challenges to your role especially in the current climate?

The festival director some people say it is like throwing a big party, spending a year planning a big party, but actually I think that is true but also what we are trying to do at Sundance is a celebration of the independent voice, not just a celebration of it. It is getting these voices, filmmakers, their ideas and their work into the cultural bloodstream. Independent filmmaking is often about challenging the orthodoxies, representing perspectives that have been either put or kept in the margins. And actually just doing something different with form finding a new cinematic language for describing what it is to be alive now and you know some of the challenges at this moment of putting on a festival. Our festival is normally about 120.000 people gathered together in a tiny tiny sea town in Utah during flu season. That does not seem to be a very good idea this year. So you know coming to the job in February and having to rethink what we can do while holding fast to our values. We want to get the festival of the mountain, normally we ask the world to come to Sundance this year we want to take Sundance to the world or at least make it much more accessible. Which is terrifying and exciting but also necessary, for public health as it does not make sense to have people in a small space.

What was the role you did at Sundance prior to the Director role?

I was running the Documentary film programme, supporting artist with grants and residential labs, just helping or facilitating them in finding their own voice. Which is wonderful that messy creative process is what I love but the Festival Director offer was too good to turn down because that is how we can really think about catapulting that work and those artist into the world. But before that, I am a proud Brit, so I had been at the BBC and worked at Channel Four and Film 4 and again particularly Channel 4 that sense of the other that independent voice that has what has propelled me throughout my career. Now being the only Brit at sundance I feel like the other there.

Are you UK based or do you deviate between cities?

I am a total deviate( laughs) when I was offered the job I moved from London to Los Angeles.

What are some of the positive and negative effects Covid-19 has had on the film industry?

The positive effects are on one hand it has brought everything to a pause so we have to reflect on what we do and how we do it and what those structures and systems are around distribution around equity, around who get to tell the stories. It gives us a chance to reflect on whether we want to go back to that so as things pause and crack open I think there is an opportunity to think about doing things differently. And it is not lost on me that the whole uprising around racial equity injustice happened in this moment. That is also filtering into hollywood and in the independent film systems. That is the positive. The negative is it is very difficult to shoot, to go out and do the work, this independent world is also interdependent we rely on each other. The fact that we are all distanced and separate is not good for communication. But again back to the positive it does give us the time, some of us to read and also evaluate who we are and what we do and what is it for. But that all said it is all within this environment of loss there are things we are losing, there are people we are losing and the habits and the way we do things. It is a very strange time. It is a very strange feeling of unprocessed grief and untapped possibility. When I wake up in the morning it is a weird combination of those two.

Do you think that doing the role in this moment of putting on the festival would have been different?

Yes it definitely would have been a different thing I think I would have been trying to recarry Sundance and not break it. So this possibility for the festival in Utah, we have Sundance London starting very shortly which is very exciting, a much tighter curation 3 films, great panels a slate of shorts and some meetups. All for a bargain price I have got to say and this time accessible to all of the UK not simply London so that is exciting. But in terms of the big festival (Utah) we are still hoping as it is still i 6 months away. we hope there is going to be the possibility to gather in person, be it small and socially distanced , across the country, But what a digital festival does, the online aspects of the festival allow for accessibility, the possibility of more community not in person but able to reach more audiences and audiences to come to their first Sundance in a way they would not have been able to do before so for all that we are losing in term of personal gatherings I think we are gaining in terms of values making this festival a thing that many can participate in safely and economically.

Tell us about Sundance London programming what are some of the highlights this year?

I am really excited about the 3 films we have ranging from documentaries to fiction, there are some great, great panels worth checking out. Anyone interested in the state of the independent film scene I am lucky enough to be moderating a panel on Saturday with some really great people from creatives to senior industry figures, asking “what do we want to imagine to”. It is exciting, it is wonderful that Picturehouse has opened and cinemas have opened up but for those who are still cautious, uncomfortable about going out this a way that Picturehouse and Sundance can bring some works into the home so it is win win.

Who are your film heroes?

They are so many, I have a weakness for people who are doing different things with the form, playing with the form. So they are a range of people. In my past life we supported a filmmaker called RaMell Ross who did a non-fiction film called “Hale County This Morning, This Evening” and it’s beautiful. It’s aesthetically beautiful and it is also deeply political in that he is trying to subvert a whole history of racist cinema, in terms of how the black body has been portrayed, almost by every frame trying to question what cinema has previously done in showing black bodies on screen and what he does in this film. It is an amazing film and I encourage people to check it out. It is an amazing film for what it does and brilliant producing by many including Joslyn Barnes they managed to get the film Oscar nominated. So a film that may sounded challenging went right into the mainstream and was up there being looked at and that conversation about what cinema can do both for good and not good was articulated in the campaign process so that film for me, yeah it is amazing.

Do you think that festivals will now change post-Covid because the digital model is a game changer or do you think they will revert back to their original model?

I suspect it will be a combination because everything has been thrown up in the air and we realise both the importance and the almost ritualistic necessity of gathering in person. I can speak for us: we are not gong to give up that possibility where we can but now having the ability for work and conversation and community to reach beyond these small expensive places that film festivals tend to reside in. It is going to be very difficult to walk away from that kind of communication, the reach and the accessibility with others. I think there would be a wonderful hybridity of form going forward and not to be pessimistic I don’t think things are just going to snap back after this first wave or second wave of this pandemic I think this is a longer term behavioral change but many and for many of the artists I have spoken to there is just nothing like being with an audience as they watch your work and for audience there is nothing like watching a work in the presence of person who has just made it or featured in it as it meets the world for the first time. So I think we are not going to give up on either of those things.

Do you think that Covid-19 and the murder of George Floyd will reflect in new content coming to festivals?

I think that we will see these times reflected in work whether that is fiction or nonfiction and it is important to make meaning of what is happening in these times. I think what is as important is who gets to tell those stories, who is funded who is given the financial resources, who is given the real estate in terms of funding institutions and companies. Who is trusted with telling, creating the narrative of our time I think that has to and it going to change as people are not asking for permission they are demanding justice and equity. That feels to me a very positive thing. So we must not lose what this moment seems to be showing, this age of accountability. That will result in different people telling their own stories, so that will result in different stories being told. It is important that we continue as organisations, as institutions, as festivals and as individual content creators, filmmakers or artists, whatever term you want to choose understanding why it is that person or indeed yourself should be telling this story about these people in this way, Definitely some self reflection needs to be going on as well as accountability of institutions.

What do you think audience will enjoy this weekend?

It is a very tight package so although we are living in these confined spaces, I am speaking from the US which I think is a worse situation than the UK but there is so much we can access now. Nevertheless, it is pretty cool for a relative small about of money to buy an pass and be able to see great films that have come freshly from the Sundance film festival in Utah. They have not yet been released so you are getting to see them first in the UK. The three great features, Boys State is a wonderful documentary, super entertaining but also resonating with the political process in the US at the moment, it’s a competition film, a political film, it’s a coming of age film it is all that stuff. Luxor is this exquisite love story, reflection on grief, loss, set in Egypt by a wonderful Director Zeina Durra and Uncle Frank which kicks of Sundance London, it’s written and directed by Alan Ball who did American Beauty, Six Feet Under, just one of the great voices of contemporary American culture. It’s a period piece, semi-autobiographical, a lovely kind of US indie film. Then there is an exciting selections of shorts which I would recommend dipping into and seeing who are the next voices coming through into the feature world and also the beautifully honed voices in the shorts world. And then we have some great people on our panels like Jeff Deutchman, Lena Waithe,  Mathieu Ajan. I am not going to pick one event out it is tight enough. Experience everything Joy, dive in for a bit of indie creativity!!

The festival passes can be booked online and for £20 for the whole weekend it really is worth it!! I will dive in Tabitha I just got my press pass ( Whoopee) ,

For all passes and single tickets £5.99 BOOK HERE

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