Remembering DIY Queen Sarah Jacobson, 1971-2004
by Eugene Hernandez
Sarah Jacobson, whose feature film "Mary Jane's Not A Virgin Anymore" screened at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival, died Friday in New York City after a battle with cancer. Beyond the attention she received for that movie, Sarah led a DIY ("Do It Yourself") movement in the 1990s, promoting and distributing her own work with her producer and mom, Ruth Ellen Jacobson, speaking at festivals and events everywhere, and writing about film for a number of publications. A tireless, at times even shameless, promoter of her own work, Sarah was also a passionate advocate for the films of fellow filmmakers.
Born in 1971 in Minneapolis, Sarah Jacobson was a boisterous, funny, opinionated, energetic, confrontational, and caring presence in the film community. At festivals and parties, whether during a seminar or within a small group, she would often provoke conversations and debates about topics including movies, music, masturbation, Molly Ringwald, and men. "We're gonna fuck shit up!," she would often exclaim loudly and with a big smile, to the dismay of some and the joy of many.
Inspired by such influences as "Stranger Than Paradise" and Sassy magazine, Sarah formed Station Wagon Productions with her mom Ruth 10 years ago and the two women worked to develop, promote, and distribute Sarah's films. Heading to the San Francisco Art Institute after a spell at Bard College in New York, Jacobson studied under George Kuchar and directed "I Was a Teenage Serial Killer," a film that she described as the story of "a 19-year-old girl who has a series of run-ins with various condescending men."
Online, where I met Sarah in 1995, she developed a website for her small company and cultivated an email list to promote her projects and meet new friends. The first time I hung out with her in person we met at her home office in San Francisco and she later dragged me around The Mission to meet her many friends at video stores, bars, and movie theaters. Over burritos at Taqueria Cancun she told me more about her own life and her commitment to making movies for and about young women.
After taking a trailer for her first feature, "Mary Jane's Not a Virgin Anymore," to the 1995 IFP Market (then known as the Independent Feature Film Market), Sarah returned to the IFFM in '96 with the feature version after debuting it at the Chicago Underground Film Festival and nabbing a great review from critic Roger Ebert. Sarah took the '96 market by storm, flooding parties with handmade "Not a Virgin" stickers that she and her mom had made at Kinko's, a place she told me was the DIY filmmaker's "home office." The screening went well, filling the Angelika Film Center theater with festival programmers, filmmaker Jim McKay and even Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, both of whom she admired. An invitation to Sundance soon followed.
At Sundance, Sarah and her mom let me crash at her condo for a couple of nights and I got a first hand look at their guerilla marketing operation. Sarah worked long and hard to get to Sundance and was thrilled to be invited, at the time she also told me at the time that she was excited to be screening alongside films by a number of women, including the Sichel sisters' "All of Me," Hannah Weyer's "Arresting Gena," Jill Sprecher's "The Clockwatchers," and Julie Davis' "I Love You...Don't Touch Me."
"Scrappy, raw, and quaintly unpretentious, 'Mary Jane's Not a Virgin Anymore' surveys the punk universe of a small midwestern town with none of the usual shock-value affectations," wrote programmer Rebecca Yeldham in the festival's catalog. "Made for a song, it proves itself the persistent train that could."
At the festival, Jacobson had a chance to meet John Waters and hang out with Roger Ebert. After hours, Jacobson could be found with Brian Flemming and his crew from the unique underground fest, Slumdance. While the right distribution deal didn't come about, Jacobson and her mom were bolstered by audience reactions to the film and decided to take the film on the road on their own.
"What is DIY, you might ask?," Sarah wrote in indieWIRE in 1997, introducing our section on the topic, "Well, it's a term co-opted from the punk rock movement and it stands for Do It Yourself. For as buzzword-y as the label is, it stands for a very important concept in the independent world -- the idea that you don't need a big company or lots of money to validate you." Continuing she added, "Lately in the mainstream media there has been lots of excitement over 'indie' films. But that excitement has turned into Indiewood with it's own set of bullshit rules and limits. Not only do those pressures inhibit creativity, it's not what I want as a filmmaker."
In Cleveland in March 1998, Jacobson joined a group of filmmakers at the Midwest Filmmakers Conference at the Cleveland International Film Festival. "My point of view is that there is a lot of hype for indie film," explained Jacobson during a panel discussion at the Cleveland International Film Festival. "But at the same time a lot of what is coming out as 'indie' -- to me its 'Indiewood' -- there's a lot of stuff that is really safe and conventional." In that moment Sarah offered a word that so perfectly summed up the dichotomy of '90s "independent" film. She continued to use the word regularly, as have we at indieWIRE, and the term has become a part of the lexicon.
Since taking her feature on the road in the U.S. and in Europe (and documenting parts of her journey for indieWIRE), Sarah has inspired countless filmmakers and served as a resource for those who have taken films out themselves. Countless times she would call or email me to tip me off to a new film, filmmaker, or event worth indieWIRE's attention. Her role in shaping our coverage over the years is immeasurable.
Along the way, Sarah continued to work. After moving to New York, she took a job producing segments for the Oxygen cable network and continued to write for a number of magazines and publications. Along the way she re-discovered "Ladies And Gentlemen The Fabulous Stains" and talked about it to anyone who would listen, even shooting a short doc about the movie for John Pierson's TV show "Split Screen." Her byline has appeared in countless outlets over the years, from indieWIRE joint-venture IFCRant to Punk Planet and Grand Royale to Release Print and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. She continued to advocate for women in filmmaking and joined a group of women directors, led by filmmaking idol Allison Anders, at a summit in California.
Nearly a year ago, determined to get back to narrative filmmaking, Sarah asked me to meet her for lunch. Eating at Trailer Park in Chelsea we talked about the state of independent filmmaking, the latest Indiewood gossip, her plans to get a few projects off the ground. In love with her boyfriend Aaron and anxious to get back into filmmaking, Sarah seemed poised to strike once again. Despite a nagging ailment, then not diagnosed as cancer, she was walking with the aid of a cane, but seemed healthy and was teaching a film course here in Manhattan. At indieWIRE's seventh-anniversary party in June, Sarah showed up with her entire class of students, that week's lesson: networking. The assignment: don't leave without three business cards. Despite receiving the bad news about her illness later in the year, Sarah forged ahead, taking a script to the IFP Market; she and her mom also made an appearance at the event's closing awards ceremony.
A few weeks ago, as she became weaker, Sarah and her boyfriend, with the help of critic and friend Ed Halter, began planning an retrospective of her work to be shown at the Pioneer Theater. She had planned to be on hand for the special evening. The event will continue as a memorial tonight (Wednesday, February 18) at the Pioneer on Avenue A in the East Village. Halter told indieWIRE on Tuesday that there is interest in bringing the event to Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco.
A special indieWIRE discussion board has been created for her friends and admirers to post their thoughts. A memorial service was held in New York on Monday at a local synagogue.
"One thing that really inspires me, is no one can really stop you -- I mean, who's gonna stop you?," Sarah asked during the session at the Cleveland festival. "If the big theater doesn't let you in, go to the next theater. If that theater doesn't let you in, go the museum. If the museum does let you in, go the college. If the college doesn't let you in, go to the skate park, go to the high school, the community center. There's always a way to screen your film and there's always a way to get it out there. I guess you just have to figure out what your goal is -- do you want money? O.K. maybe the high school isn't a very good idea."
And concluding her thoughts in indieWIRE's DIY section article, Sarah summed up her philosophy well. "As a filmmaker, I get my main inspiration from punk rock bands and scummy zine editors. Living at the copy shop, putting up flyers, selling T-shirts and tapes to pay for expenses, sleeping on floors of friends of a friend, working hard to promote my film 'cuz if I don't, no one will, and finding an audience who really cares about what my films are saying, building a relationship that grows stronger with each film I make."
[ Tonight, Wednesday, February 18, the Pioneer Theater will screen a selection of Sarah Jacobson's shorts at 7 p.m., followed by a screening of "Mary Jane's Not a Virgin Anymore" at 9 p.m. For more information, please visit: http://www.twoboots.com/pioneer/. ]