Sundance made a statement two years ago when they hired Tabitha Jackson to become the new director of their Documentary Film Program (DFP) and it wasn’t that they would be holding fast to the status quo. Jackson had come from a production background, where she supported innovative films and became associated with a movement within the documentary community that believed that cinematic expression and the unique voice of the filmmaker were as important as a film’s subject matter.
One year on the job, she laid out her vision for Sundance in what became a much discussed and often quoted address at DOC NYC:
"Many of our filmmakers make films to change the world, and we support them in that, but Sundance is not a campaigning organization. Rather, its animating purpose is to support artists to find their voice and be true to their creativity."
Later in the same speech, Jackson said, "the lingua franca [common language] of non-fiction filmmaking should be the language of cinema."
"When Tabitha said that at DOC NYC, it was just like light bulb going off," explained nonfiction filmmaker Robert Greene. "The fact that she giving voice to what I consider as close to a movement as possible, which is this idea of cinematic nonficiton and idea that documentaries can be aesthetically risk-taking art, it felt like one of us had been given the keys to Sundance."
For Jackson, it isn't about picking one of the sides in the various camps inside the documentary community, but more a simple idea that documentary film should not be viewed any differently than any other art form.
"When we look at how documentaries are discussed, too often it's a focus on what they are about and whether the main character is sympathetic," Jackson told Indiewire in a recent interview. "I’d just like the conversation around nonfiction film to be as exciting as the form itself. When we think about literature, poetry, fiction, or music, it's not about what is being said, it's about how it is being said and who is saying it, that's what makes things last and that's what makes things have cultural value."
Take for example how Jackson discusses documentarian Margaret Brown — who, along with Greene, was chosen by Jackson for Sundance's new fellowship that singles out filmmakers taking an innovative approach to form in nonfiction filmmaking.
When asked what was innovative about the way Brown handled the political and environmental issues of the BP oil spill in her film "The Great Invisible," Jackson very politely pushes back on the question itself: "Yes, ‘The Great Invisible’ is a great film, but what attracted us to Margaret was the sense of the uncanny in her films, along with the musical aspirations that she's had and her connection to place and the South. We were very interested in what continuing to explore these three things would mean and how they coalesce in her storytelling."
The point is clear: Brown is an artist with a unique voice and we need to discuss her approach to her subject matter the same way we would a fiction filmmaker. That might not seem like a very controversial stand, except that there are some in the documentary community that scoff at idea of a documentarian as an artist, and believe the filmmaker should leave as few fingerprints as possible while documenting reality.
There are also those who believe the legacy of Sundance’s documentary program is progressive films that advocate for social change, which is something Jackson is clear she doesn't want to stop.
"The pillars of the Sundance Documentary Film Program have always been social justice and human rights, and we're not pulling back on that, but the way we get there is through is the three values we have articulated as a team: Art, reach and change," explained Jackson. "People will only be moved to act if first they are moved, and that is where the art comes in."
"Where I'm militant in one direction and other people are militant in the other direction, she's got that ability to say, we can do all these things," explained Greene. "That's not just some cardboard 'everything is okay,' statement, she believes good can come from all different directions of the documentary community."
Yet, Jackson doesn't try to hide the fact that she gravitates toward the films pushing the boundaries of the documentary form: "I'm really excited about the types of films we are seeing at this year's festival, both ones we've supported and ones that have come from elsewhere, because there are such exciting forms I haven't seen before and it's brilliant that the festival can be a showcase for those."
Singling out one example of an innovative use of form at Sundance 2016, Jackson describes the Polish documentary "All These Sleepless Nights" like this: "The texture of the film reads like Godard as the filmmaker's capturing the lives of 20-year-olds in Warsaw who are asleep all day and awake all night with such an intensity — that 20-year-old intensity — it's really interesting. It's not about something, but then again it's about everything: Life, death and love."