This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes Tabitha Jackson, Director of the Sundance Film Festival. This year’s festival has shifted to an online format because of the pandemic. Jackson tells The Treatment this shift will make the festival’s offerings even more inclusive than in years past. She talks about why she is worried about the “tyranny of story,” and says we have to move away from the traditional western three-act story structure to allow for a more transcendent movie-watching experience. And she recommends festival goers seek out the films they don’t think they will like.
The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.
KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. I'm Elvis Mitchell. My guest is Tabitha Jackson, who is the director of the Sundance Film Festival. What was your first film festival experience?
Tabitha Jackson: I think it was actually the Sheffield International Documentary festival in the UK. And it took me a while to be able to afford to go to a film festival, and that was the first one. I just remember the thrill of it, the thrill of being able to talk to people about the films we've all watched, and then the slightly insane, kidney damaging social life that also went with that. One of the things I saw [at that festival] was a slate of Iranian films put together by Mark Cousins. And at that festival, we sat down for the first time, and I was able then to support him making his first documentary called "The First Movie." But it's that sense of discovery. Once you've bought into the festival, it's that sense of: well, I'm available now. What's on? I'll go and see it. It's a very different experience from turning on the television or going to a streaming platform and choosing it. It's really that notion of discovery.
KCRW: So much of what film festivals have been has been one way or another exclusionary. I'm guessing one of the things that's exciting you is that you're getting a chance to explode some of those exclusionary barriers.
Jackson: If we have a festival, as we do in a mountain town in Utah, it's an arduous festival to get around no matter if you've got all your arms and legs and are in full health. It's like a pilgrimage. There's something about the effort involved in navigating it that is part of its compelling aspect. But if you simply can't manage to do that, then you're never going to go to Sundance. So having a festival where there are no physical barriers [is important]. We're also doing what we can to improve the experience for the deaf community or for people with visual impairment. Then of course, there is the financial barrier, and who is excluded from festivals and from our festival, just from the cost of getting there and staying there.
There is much more that we would wish to do around it being a truly inclusive place. And there are other barriers as well, which are not physical or financial, but also to do with: what is a meaningful welcome? It's not simply unlocking the door. It's extending a genuine and specific invitation to come in. And that's also what we want to work on: who feels that Sundance is not for them currently, and how can we change that and be a place where everybody wants to be a part of this incredible community?
KCRW: I have to say, as a person of color, I sort of avoided Sundance for a long time, just because I felt it wasn't the kind of place that I belonged. And I wondered if, as a person of color, that was something that you’re hearing from people, too.
Jackson: Yes, absolutely. There are so many things. We are all made up of so many aspects and speaking personally: I'm British. I come from a working class background. I'm not white. The film festival community also is intimidating. People who are film lovers and cinephiles and who make the films and who support them; it can be an intimidating thing to contemplate walking into. So that feeling of, and it's part of my biography, actually, always feeling like the outsider, is heightened in places like this. But once you enter, and you find your community, and hopefully it's getting easier to find your community.
If you're a person of color, or if you're a trans person or a person who's deaf, it's easier to find your community, and you can help increase the richness of that community by bringing someone with you next time, whether this is the online experience or the in-person experience, creating the space in which these small communities add up to a big community engaged in the same endeavor, which is about supporting freedom of expression and these incredible distinctive voices.
KCRW: As an executive bringing people in, you brought in people who also felt in philosophical terms the way you did about exploding myths and these shibboleths that exist that separated populations, and you saw documentary as both somebody in private and public sectors, as a way to create community rather than to exclude people.
Jackson: I believe that the arts and cinema in particular and television and the visual narrative arts help in meaning making. I'm an adopted, mixed race child of divorced parents. I have many questions, and so I come to the arts as a way of trying to understand what this all means. What is our place in it? What are other people making of this lived experience? And one of the ways that has really compelled me is when artists find not just what it is they want to say, but how they want to say it. Playing with form was something that I've always been drawn to and the space in between fiction and nonfiction, the space in between documentary and theatre. And through that comes a new language, a new vocabulary for understanding something of the feeling of the world and how it's expressing itself.
KCRW: One of the things I'm thrilled about in this conversation is that you define film as fiction and nonfiction versus narrative and documentary, as if to say documentary can't be a narrative, and fiction film can't play with the idea of what narrative is supposed to be. That very assumption that one is narrative and one is not, is a very nuanced way of saying that one is better than the other.
Jackson: Yes, and one of the reasons why I have loved being at Sundance is that documentaries at the festival have always been on an equal footing with fiction, in the sense that there's always been a documentary competition. There was a house called House of Docs on Main Street. Robert Redford, our founder, always knew the value of nonfiction film, and so that has served us very well in the festival.
KCRW: Again, I find this conversation thrilling just because it's about, for me, ideally what the festival is supposed to be, which is to say that this is all about catalysts and creating conversation, and that there really shouldn't be dividing lines.
Jackson: We talk about our history as a series of rebellions, responding to something that came before. And I think that's not dissimilar to how we think about independent cinema, which is a series of resistances, reactions to the status quo, and what might be different. I am drawn to challenging orthodoxies, and I'm drawn to people who challenge orthodoxies. That basically is pretty much the entire artist community, and so this is a thrilling time. And then when you add to it in this particular moment, the rise of authoritarianism, a global pandemic, the revealing and accentuating of the social chasms. How do we make sense of all this? And how do we come together, around work, to understand what the present can mean, from different perspectives, and what the future might mean, as we emerge transformed from a 10-day festival?
KCRW: I think now more than ever, people are looking at films through traditional orthodoxy of being consumed by an experience bigger than themselves, which is what film can do at its best.
Jackson: Yes, exactly. That's what festivals can do at their best. When you get into that slightly mesmerized state of going from one film to another to another to another, even the four-film a day average, which you can get in at a festival, it just does something to you. It changes your self. And I think you come out of that series of black boxes--when we were in physical theaters--with a changed sensibility about what is possible, and a kind of hyper vigilance about what we're seeing on screens, which we now are attached to for so many hours of the day. We understand perhaps more about what images are doing. And all this is vital to being alive now and understanding both how we are being conditioned, and how we might slip out of that almost narcotic state of just consuming, consuming, consuming images and narrative and story and not questioning what it is or what it's doing, or who made it or who financed it.
KCRW: You were talking about watching streaming and getting caught into that kind of slipstream of losing consciousness. Where do we live now in the world where the independent, that rebellion you were talking about, is subsumed and institutionalized much quicker than it would have been even 10 years ago In terms of what filmmakers were doing?
Jackson: It used to be the case perhaps that a film would premiere at Sundance, and people would be hoping and praying it got picked up because if it didn't, it would never be seen again. And now the opposite is true, almost, that if a film is made, and that's no easy thing, then there is going to be a place for it, an outlet for it. Even if it's the equivalent of self-publishing, you can do it. If you can find that audience, which is the big thing, you can bring people to the work.
Documentaries have often been described as eating your vegetables, or it's medicinal or educational, and it's something you really ought to do, not something you would want to do. That's what documentaries were for many people for so long. Now, we are seeing that I think audiences have a greater opportunity to see exciting nonfiction work than they ever have done before because of the streamers who are hungry for what has now unfortunately become called content. All these new platforms, all the pluses need work; they need content. So there is a golden age in that this work does not languish in a vault somewhere. However, with the appetite for this work, with what one might call the commodification of nonfiction: reality TV, single plotline true crime stories, that a general audience truly enjoys and laps up. And there's nothing wrong with that. The conservatism or the cautiousness of the marketplace means that that's maybe the only thing they want, as well as biopics of famous people because the audience knows that. The algorithm can understand that there is an audience out there for this film about X or Y celebrity.
The worry about that is that as filmmakers try to make a living, pay the rent, be sustainable, and as public media, public television, foreign sales becomes smaller and fall away slightly because of the rise of streamers, then what we are left with is not dissimilar perhaps to when Sundance was first founded, and there were a few big studios, who would determine which work could get made. They became the tastemakers and they were serving a marketplace. Sundance Institute was founded by Robert Redford in 1981. And once again, I would say we are finding ourselves in a position where we worry for the vibrant expression and funding of independent work, meaning work that is coming from perspectives and using forms and questioning power in a way that might not be what the marketplace is looking for.
KCRW: Something I had in many conversations with your predecessors at Sundance is what does all this mean? This idea basically as you said, commodification, but certainly, institutionalization of nonfiction storytelling is what is happening to what used to be called the experimental film. The medium can work upon us in ways that other media cannot, which I think, in some way, on the big screen and in festivals, that kind of film seems to be disappearing.
Jackson: I was really heartened to see that the biggest documentary festival in the world, IDFA in Amsterdam, they've just added sections which deal with the experimental film. And you know, Berlin is doing interesting things, too. We have always, with our New Frontier program, wanted to be a home for filmmakers experimenting in whichever ways they want. But to be honest, it's obvious I think that experimental film has always had a hard time finding a place because we are so addicted as a culture to story. And story, of course, is a primal expression of who we are. And we think of early humans gathered around fires telling stories to each other. But story has also become slightly tyrannical, I think, both in terms of curation and funding.
There is a Western three act structure that many people hew to. But when we talk about experimental filmmaking, it normally means not a linear narrative structure. And if we can't get away from that, because it comforts us and we know where we're going, and we know that things are gonna resolve in the end, we aren't going to find that transcendent or complex language that really expresses how we live and what life is. I worry about this tyranny of story.
KCRW: I've got to guess that to a large extent, the reason you wanted to come to [Sundance] was so you could encourage this sort of symbiosis, which becomes this marriage of these things that say that all these ideas can exist, simultaneously.
Jackson: Yes, absolutely. I am thrilled by how artists express the feeling of the world and how they do that using, in this case, sound, and image and structure. I think of a filmmaker like RaMell Ross, who was part of a little experimental program that we did called The Art of Nonfiction, where we're trying to learn from artists what they need, in terms of the conditions that help their creativity.
RaMell Ross made a film called "Hale County This Morning, This Evening." He basically almost literally wanted to redefine what it is to have black bodies on screen, frame by frame, whatever expectation we might have about what was going to happen next, because of who we were seeing on screen, he wanted to subvert that frame by frame. So the editing is extraordinary. The way he thinks of color is extraordinary. This film managed to get all the way to being nominated for an Academy Award. I say that not because that is the ultimate pinnacle of worth or value, but because it takes a lot to get a film on that journey towards an Oscar. It was totally against the odds, I thought, that it would get the cultural traction, just because of the kind of film it was, not that it's not a brilliant film, but because it's not one that the market knew it wanted, and that the cultural mainstream knew it wanted. He was thinking about a history of cinema, a history of erasure and misrepresentation, and how he was determined with every frame of this film, to subvert that.
KCRW: I have to ask you the money question, which is: what do you think people should see or look out for since the festival is now open to more people than ever before?
Jackson: I think what we love about the festival is the sense that it's a festival of discovery, so I don't want to be too prescriptive. But I would say in that spirit of discovery, there will be films there that we love that feature big names that you'll be familiar with, or you're in for a great ride with this film. And I would say, try the one that you haven't heard of, that you don't think is for you. And I think you'll discover something remarkable. You might discover why you're totally right, and you knew you were going to hate this film, but now you know why. Or you might discover something that you never would have come across if it had been left to the algorithm of telling you what you already know.
There are 82 feature films in this festival and there are 50 brand new shorts and there are another 40 classic shorts. So I would just want you to wander around the program, festival.sundance.org. Read the descriptions of the work, look at the talks and events which are free and open to everybody, and think about how you might best hope to surprise yourself.
KCRW: Tell us about a gem you think that people might want to look at at this year's festival.
Jackson: Our festival concentrates on the new and looking forward and this new explosion of work every year. But what we always also do is have a film that we have wanted to restore, and it's called a collection screening. This year, we are showing "Just Another Girl on the IRT" which was made in 1992 by Leslie Harris.
Leslie Harris, is one of the lost voices. She had this film; it broke out. It won awards at Sundance; it got picked up by Miramax, and she has never been able to make another film. And I think that is because she was a woman and I think it's because she was a woman of color. And I think it's because the work that she wanted to make challenged the orthodoxies, so people like her and Julie Dash, these voices that were lost to us because of the distribution system, the infrastructure, the industry. I am so pleased that we can show this film at the festival in its restored version, and that perhaps we will be able to support Leslie to make a second feature 30 years later.