Sundance Film Festival names Tabitha Jackson as new director

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tabitha Jackson MC's the Sundance bonfire community gathering on Swede Alley, in Park City, Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020.

Park City • When Tabitha Jackson first attended the Sundance Film Festival, she learned how much the event embodies what the filmmaker Sally Potter called “the too-muchness of everything.”

“[There’s] the energy of the place, this incredible gathering,” Jackson said. “Where else can you go and you turn to your right and there’s [Chinese dissident artist] Ai Weiwei, you turn to your left and there’s Taylor Swift, and you look behind you and there’s Hillary Clinton?”

Right after the festival packs up its 2020 edition Sunday in Park City, Jackson will be in charge of the crown jewel of Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute. She will be the first person of color to direct the Sundance Film Festival, and the first woman to be the sole director.

Jackson is well known within Sundance, having run its Documentary Film Program since late 2013, supporting nonfiction filmmakers through grants and mentoring. In an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune before the festival’s closing-night announcement, Jackson called Sundance “the beacon of independent storytelling."

"This opportunity to take a festival and really double down on this glorious expression of community and creativity and connectivity with this amazing team is such a privilege,” she said.

She came to Sundance from Britain’s Channel 4, where she was head of arts and performance and the executive producer on several movies for the channel, including Bart Layton’s documentary “The Imposter” and the Nick Cave documentary and concert film “20,000 Days on Earth.” She also was commissioning producer on many films, and shares an Emmy for her work on the 2005 PBS documentary series “Rx for Survival: A Global Health Challenge.”

She has spent summers at Redford’s Sundance resort, overseeing documentary labs, and she has grown to love “the landscape, and in terms of coming to know it through the artists’ experience of making work.”

“As a girl growing up in London, Utah’s a very different place to anywhere I’ve experienced,” she said.

At the resort, Jackson said, she found a “beautiful metaphor” for artistic support in the quaking aspen, Utah’s state tree. “The metaphor of this seemingly community of individuals, which is in fact one interconnected organism, where the elders, as it were, are nurturing the younger ones, is just perfect,” she said.

Utah is also where Jackson got married this month, to documentary filmmaker Kirsten Johnson, in Park City on the 2020 festival’s opening day.

Jackson succeeds John Cooper, who announced in June that he would retire this month from the director’s job he has held since the 2010 festival. Cooper is “a huge admirer” of Jackson, he said in a statement, adding, "Tabitha’s approach and vision are ambitious and fresh, and she embodies the best of what Sundance can be.”

Sundance Institute founder and president, actor-filmmaker Robert Redford, added in a statement, "I’m pleased to have Tabitha lead us as we move into the future and meet the next generation of artists and their stories.”

Kim Yutani, the festival’s director of programming, called Jackson “thoughtful, bold and fearless,” and said she “has never been afraid of challenging us to continually evolve our programs to better serve art and artists,” in a statement.

When Putnam announced Jackson’s new job at Saturday’s awards ceremony, the audience started cheering loudly when Putnam uttered the pronoun “she,” even before saying her name.

Jackson told the audience that “as a Brit, going through Brexit yesterday, I felt something a little like grief. I lost a whole continent. Today, here, with you, I feel like I’ve gained a whole world.”

Before the announcement, Keri Putnam, the institute’s executive director, cited Jackson’s “deep belief in our mission, and her deep understanding of what it means to support independent work. … She’s very connected to what we do and why we do it.”

For years, many directors at major festivals, like the current heads of Cannes and Venice, have been white men. There are exceptions: Mariette Rissenbeek, executive director of the Berlin International Film Festival; Telluride Film Festival co-director Julie Huntsinger; and the co-directors of the Toronto International Film Festival, Joana Vicente and Cameron Bailey — who, like Jackson, is black and British.

“We don’t hire on that basis,” Putnam said. “I always want to hire the best person for the job. … [It’s] terrific in terms of an opportunity to shine a light on a woman in this job, a woman of color in this job, but that’s not why she got the job.”

Putnam compared the hiring process to the selection of the festival’s films, which are picked for quality but, because programmers seek out “new voices, new ideas,” the festival’s slate organically “reflects the world we live in.”

Jackson said, “it’s hard for me to speak in terms of symbolism, although that can be useful in inspiring other people who may see something that gives them the freedom to imagine themselves doing a similar thing.”

Putnam said Sundance received around 700 applications, both internally and externally. “I really dug deep. I wanted to make sure we did a really thorough search,” Putnam said.

Once she had a short list of candidates, Putnam consulted with some Sundance board members and colleagues within the institute. “Through it all, Tabitha just kept rising to the top,” Putnam said.

While running the Documentary Film Program, Jackson launched efforts to expand support for impact, engagement and advocacy, so filmmakers could get their work seen by more people and foster change on the issues the films explore.

During the job interview process, though, Putnam said she “just discovered additional dimensions of her rightness for this role, and her creativity and her leadership that just really inspired me.” Putnam also praised Jackson’s “taste and her creative experience, both at Sundance and her previous jobs, in knowing how to assess work and pick creative work. …

“She asks the right questions about where we sit in the culture, and how we think about going forward,” Putnam said. “She’s a provocative, risk-taking thinker who’s always going to be open to change while being really loyal to the core mission.”

Though Jackson’s expertise is in documentary, Putnam said, “Tabitha loves fiction.” The films she worked on for Film 4 show her penchant to “explore the ways documentary and fiction are interdisciplinary,” Putnam said.

Jackson called the vetting process “rigorous, as it should be when taking on a role this important. But it was fascinating, because It invites you to consider what Sundance stands for in 2020, what the role of a festival is, what are the opportunities for us and the challenges for us.”

One of the last steps was an interview with Redford, and Jackson ended up asking a question of the boss. “I asked him what he wanted to see in the next festival director,” Jackson said. “He said he wanted a commitment to independence and an embrace of change. And that’s what he has said consistently, from the founding, and it is still relevant and resonant and necessary.”

Jackson said Johnson, as her wife, won’t be able to apply for future festivals. Jackson stressed that she and Johnson were not dating when Johnson’s acclaimed “Cameraperson” received support from Sundance’s documentary program. Johnson’s festival entry this year, “Dick Johnson Is Dead,” did not get support from the program, to avoid any conflict of interest, and Jackson was not involved in programming it.

Cooper, Putnam noted, will be moving into a role as “emeritus director,” and will still be part of Sundance, so Jackson “will have a resource, should she need one.” Partly in deference to Cooper, Jackson is holding back on announcing bold initiatives for the 2021 festival.

“The first thing I want to do is sit with the team and lay out a vision in its broadest terms, and understand what their experience has been, what they see as the possible challenges and opportunities going forward,” she said. “Nothing is off the table, nothing is on the table.”