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Interview: Tabitha Jackson, Sundance's new documentary boss

Published November 27, 2013 10:40 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Tabitha Jackson is expecting a big culture shock moving from London to Los Angeles.

"Not talking the weather all the time, that's going to be amazing," Jackson, the new director of the Sundance Institute's Documentary Film Fund and Program, said in a recent phone interview with The Cricket.

Jackson was hired by Sundance in mid-November, and is leaving the job of arts commissioner for Britain's Channel 4. The following is a question-and-answer session from that interview:

So what made you interested in the job with Sundance?

Sundance is just like a global brand, that is instantly recognizable and instantly synonymous with independent filmmaking. That's the beginning and the end of it. I was actually incredibly happy in my job at Channel 4, but this is probably the only job that I had to do — that I had to stop exactly what I was doing, to go and do this one.

How long were you at Channel 4?

Seven years. That flew by.

A big proportion of my time at Channel 4 has been in international documentaries, … but most recently I've been commissioning art films and working with Film 4 as well on hybrid documentary/cinematic releases as well. I think the combination of documentary and art is a nice thing to come into Sundance with.

Channel 4's been at the forefront of experimental filmmaking since its founding, so I was really lucky to get this arts job. At the moemtn, I'm working with Film 4 on a cinema documentary with Nick Cave, so that's a music film. I did "The Imposter," a feature doc — that's the loosest interpretation of arts, but it was a piece of artistry, I think. … I describe what I do as "the creative expression of us now."That's my arts mantra, and that will equally apply at Sundance, I hope.

How will your past experience guide you moving forward at Sundance?

You're a collection of your past experiences. Channel 4 champions the independent voice. That's incredibly important to me, in terms of storytelling, that we can retain that independence. The Channel 4 mission statement when I joined was, "Inspire change, do it first, make trouble." It's hard to shake that off. I think it kind of goes to your bones. I'll try not to make too much trouble, but the inspiring change and doing things first, and just enabling the best storytelling from the best storytellers, is what I hope to achieve.

Where do you see the documentary genre going in the next few years?

Oh, just a small question, then. [laughs]

I feel very optimistic about documentary at the moment, because the means of production have been democratized. You can pick up a camera, and you can edit a story, and you can broadcast a story without having to go through any gatekeepers at all.

That's not to be naive about what it takes to fund a documentary, and all that democratization and technology still will not disguise the fact whether you can tell a story properly or not. But, it means that lots of different people can tell lots of different stories.

When there is an increased demand for people's attention, and increased competition, the upside is that you get some really amazing films floating to the top. There also are some amazing films that don't have the oxygen of publicity and marketing, and just don't get seen.

The immediate challenge for the documentary genre is to make sure the funding is available, to make sure the tools of storytelling are available, and to make sure there is a way of getting these films to audiences.

Do you have any favorite documentaries?

It depends on what mood I'm in. I have so many favorite ones.

Recent documentaries that have captured my attention are "The Act of Killing," and Sarah Polley's film, "Stories We Tell." Both of those films play with the form, and play with notions of truth, in a really interesting way. And they give you surprise — you don't know what you're going ot see when you start watching the film, which I think is a really important quality in a documentary.

Then, the old favorites are things like "Grey Gardens." The excitement when the camera became a portable thing, and you could get into people's lives, in the '60s. Looking back on those films, and the work of the Maysles brothers and all that, I have a particular soft spot for those, too.

How do you think the culture shock of moving to Los Angeles will affect you?

The culture shock, I think, is going to be quite big — not least because there will be days where I don't have to carry an umbrella and wear an overcoat. That's going to be extraordinary. Not talking about the weather all the time, that's going to be amazing. I'll have to find other things to talk about, like the future of documentary.

I'm very interested in understanding how the cultures of documentary filmmaking and feature filmmaking manifest themselves in the city. I don't know whether the cultures coincide. They should, because they're all storytelling.

— Sean P. Means