When Tabitha Jackson became the new director of the Sundance Film Festival in 2019, she brought years of work in the documentary community with her. So it came as no surprise that one of the first big changes she made to the venerable festival was to elevate the nonfiction form by integrating documentaries into the main “Premieres” section.
“I didn’t like the fact that the section was called ‘Premieres’ and then there was a subcategory called ‘Documentary Premieres,’” Jackson told IndieWire. She called the decision a “conceptual approach,” and one that was an outgrowth of her earlier efforts to advocate for boundary-pushing documentaries. “I wanted to turn up the volume on that conversation about the expressive powers and the artistic integrity of nonfiction, as well as thinking about social impact and the role of film within that,” she said.
Over the past decade, Jackson has led the charge in the support for adventurous nonfiction storytelling, a feat that led her to Sundance’s top programming job. Though her current perch at the festival finds her overseeing a lineup that includes traditional narrative work as well, the job came to her as a result of her work at the Sundance Institute as head of the Documentary Film Program (DFP), where she started in 2013 after working as a commissioning editor for Channel 4 in London.
Jackson has said that she did not seek out the Sundance director position as a means of leaving her roots behind her. “I was perfectly happy doing the job I was currently doing,” she told IndieWire at the time of her hiring, “engaging with artists in the messy business of documentary filmmaking.”
Indeed, when it comes to discussions about documentary aesthetics, Jackson likes to get her hands dirty. In a 2016 address at DOC NYC, she argued that “the lingua franca of non-fiction filmmaking should be the language of filmmaking and not the language of grant applications.” As an extension of that ethos, Jackson has made the case for the art in tandem with its subject matter, a feat that many considered a revelation.
“There were expectations and pressures on filmmakers to explore hard-hitting social issues, but it was refreshing to hear Tabitha remind us about the art of the form,” said Richard Ray Perez, the current director of the International Documentary Association (IDA) and a former Sundance staffer under Jackson.
Two years after she started, Jackson launched The Art of Nonfiction, a lab and artist support program dedicated to exploration without predetermined outcomes. The space encouraged filmmakers to embrace adventurous pathways for their projects. “As I was coming into the U.S. landscape, I really wanted to understand structurally and systemically, what were the blocks to financing filmmakers who didn’t necessarily fit in the accepted mainstream of documentary,” she said.
Filmmaker Robert Greene (“Kate Plays Christine,” “Procession”) was involved in the planning of the initiative and among the first group of fellows to benefit from its non-constrictive format with his project “Bisbee ’17.” To him and many others, Jackson’s ascent at Sundance meant having an ally who would advocate for the elastic possibilities of nonfiction. “She gave voice to what was happening in documentary for a while that was underrepresented at the institutional level,” Greene said. “When she took that job as the head of the DFP, it felt like a changing-of-the-guard moment.”
Another one of the documentaries that benefited from the initiative was Ramell Ross’ “Hale County This Morning, This Evening,” a dreamlike exploration of Black life in Hale County, Alabama. The movie was ultimately nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary. The experimental form of the project epitomized Jackson’s desire to support non-fiction storytellers who could find new avenues to express timely issues. “It’s not just about art for art’s sake,” she said. ”It’s about finding the language to express the most difficult things in ways that can reach audiences and can stand the test of time.”
Now at the helm of the country’s most prominent festival, Jackson said she was worried that the explicit reckoning on inclusion and redistribution of power has reached a tokenistic stage. “I hope next steps coming up are thinking not simply in terms of identity, but also in terms of the other kinds of diversity that are really solely lacking in the non-fiction space, such as socioeconomic diversity and the class structure,” she said. “Many of the people who can make nonfiction films come from a certain class because no one else can afford to do this work, which is often isn’t sustainable.”
AP Images for Discovery Communications
Jackson managed to open up the festival to a greater level of accessibility during the pandemic, as the festival’s virtual edition reached all 50 states and beyond, and hopes to continue that progress as the festival enters a hybrid edition year. Despite these big-picture goals, however, she said she remains committed to tearing down illusory definitions of the non-fiction form through the platform that Sundance provides.
“Sundance has had a history of doing having fiction and nonfiction equally amplified during the festival, but how do we give both enough space and put them together so that people understand that when they’re watching non-fiction film, they are watching film?” she asked. “There may be a distinct ethical dimension, which may exist differently to those in fiction, but we’re still thinking about form, language, character structure, meaning, purpose, perspective, maker, and what that is saying when it meets the world.”
Jackson’s supporters say that this kind of mentality has been a gamechanger for the documentary field. “That vision she has for expanding the cinematic language around nonfiction film is a real asset for the Sundance Film Festival,” noted Perez. “She understands the intersections between meaning, form, creative exploration and how to leverage all these components in documentary.”
Sundance Institute / Phot
As Jackson looks at the road ahead for the festival in flux, and the possibilities that our new realities have presented for the ecosystem of independent cinema, she is certain that the impact of Sundance and events like it will be contingent on how diligent and effective organizations are in nurturing a replenishing community that engages with the work they support.
“The number of people who came to the festival who were first timers was really valuable. That for us is our future,” she said. “Having new people come to the festival and different kinds of audiences is going to be key to key to us.”
But she was just as keen on pushing for new audiences beyond the Sundance bubble. “This is about people who are going to see the value of this kind of independent work for years to come,” she said. “That’s really key to the sustainability of this field that we are continually refreshing, exciting and feeling meaningful to new kinds of audiences. We can’t sit on our laurels.” —Carlos Aguilar