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Sundance’s Tabitha Jackson on Why This is the Golden Age of Documentaries

Sundance's Tabitha Jackson on Why This is the Golden Age of Documentaries

Yesterday at DOC NYC, Tabitha Jackson, director of the Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program, gave a rousing keynote address which called on the documentary film community to value artistry rather than get bogged down in the logistics of funding. “The lingua franca of nonfiction filmmaking should be the language of cinema and not the language of grant applications,” said Jackson, who was previously Commissioning Editor at Channel Four in London, to a round of applause. 

You can read her entire keynote here.

After her presentation, Indiewire spoke with Jackson by phone to hear her thoughts on the state of nonfiction film, the challenges facing documentary filmmakers and what she’s learned in her first year heading up the Documentary Film Program at the Sundance Institute.

READ MORE: Making a Living at Documentary Filmmaking Is Harder Than Ever

In your speech you suggested that this may be a golden age for documentaries. How so?

I think it’s so because of the democratization of the art form, particularly in having access to the means of production. So, anybody can tell a story—it doesn’t mean its going to be a good one, or artfully done, but the sense that you can tell your own truth and that you don’t have to go find gatekeepers who may or may not respond to your sensibility, your background, your take on the world—you can just tell your story and you can effectively broadcast it by putting it on the internet and speaking to the people you want to speak to. I think that’s incredibly liberating, but it comes with a huge caveat and potential pitfall. But it’s documentary as an art form that’s here to reflect our time, to express the world, to say something about what it is to be alive now. The more people who have access to the means of doing that, the richer the art form.  

So what is the huge caveat? Is it that with democratization, there’s a glut of projects out there and it’s harder to stand out?

I think so, yeah….It’s not a bad thing that lots of films are being made. It’s a challenging thing, as you say, you’re trying to curate them, you’re trying to fund them, or you’re trying to find the good ones. The fact that there are more films doesn’t necessarily mean there are more good films, but that’s one issue, which I think all the big funders and festivals are wrestling with—how to make sure we don’t miss a good one? Another thing is the ethics—where do people learn their documentary ethics from if they’re just off making films without the benefit of the community or the apprenticeship or a film school—how do you know what’s right? How do you know how to choose a subject? How do you deal with these tricky situations? So I think the ethical dimension of it is a question, something that needs to be looked at. Then there’s the sustainability of it, how do you make this into your career? What’s the system or structure for funding it? 

On a panel recently, Marshall Curry said, “There’s never been an easier time to be a filmmaker, and there’s never been a harder time to make a career at it.”

Yes, absolutely. I think that’s a huge issue, and I referred to it briefly in my talk [at DOC NYC] about what happens when this career is not sustainable for lots of people. It means you get a certain section of people only who are able to make films in this way, which means you’re not really reflecting society. You’re just getting one take, which erodes cultural value of the form and results in de facto censorship so that’s the flip-side of what everybody’s doing. 

So what would you say is the biggest challenge facing documentary filmmakers today? Is that it?

The challenge is getting your film seen. If the traditional distribution infrastructures have tumbled, how do you get your film out there? Which, is both a good news story and a bad news story. The good news story is that there’s more technology around to enable you to connect directly with your audience and to have a entrepreneurial stake in your film. But the bad news is that everyone else has got that too, so how are you heard above the noise?

In your talk you said, “Ask not what documentaries can do for you, but for what you can do for documentaries.” Can you expand on that a bit?

It’s about trying to align the balance between the intrinsic value of documentary and the instrumental value of it. So, of course, we support many filmmakers who want their documentary to do a certain thing, who want to make a certain specific change in the world—which is an instrumental purpose of it. But, there are also filmmakers who simply want to make a good film which expresses the world in some way, artfully, and those filmmakers need supporting as well….I do agree that they are not too mutually exclusive. But, we should just be mindful of what documentaries need to get made as great films, as well as how effective they are in doing what they’re doing. And those two things that are inextricably linked: if you don’t have the creative space and the financial underpinning and the ability to experiment, you’re probably not going to make a great film, which is probably not going to effect the change you want to see in the world. 

What advice do you have for aspiring documentary filmmakers who may be reading this and feel like it is beyond them and their capabilities? 

I think as an artist your responsibility is to your art. So find your voice and speak your truth, and that is the best thing you can do as an artist. That’s a different answer to what I would say in terms of a career and how you make that sustainable but I think your first duty is to the art, and you have to make it. This contradicts what I just said, but I don’t think there’s any excuse for not doing it, you can tell a story, you can make a film—if you have an iPhone you can tell your story. Thats what differentiates committed filmmakers—they just have to tell their stories, it doesn’t matter what they’ve got on hand, they just have to tell the story. So do that, and at some point, someone will find it. 

I think that’s true. The best stories are the ones that we’re compelled to tell regardless of resources. 

I think it’s being true to what you want to say about the world—that’s what makes distinctive filmmakers. The people we think are remarkable now—it’s because they in some sense had a different sensibility. They saw the world in a different way, so that’s what you have to be true to, and as soon as you’re to trying to second-guess anybody else, whether it’s your partner or your funder or your lawyer—you’ve lost something, so just be true to that. 

READ MORE: Attention, Documentary Filmmakers: Here’s What You Need to Know Before You Start Production

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