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From the Archives: Tabitha Jackson Reflects on One Year at Sundance and the State of Documentary Film


[Editor's Note: One of our favorite things about celebrating 20 years of Sundance Institute's Documentary Film Program is reflecting on the powerful leaders that the program has had at the helm. Today, we've pulled an insightful piece written by former director Tabitha Jackson from 2014.

Her thoughts on the state of documentary are as important as they were nearly a decade ago and her reflections on the DFP are a great look into our historic past.]

by Tabitha Jackson

Tabitha Jackson is approaching her first anniversary as director of the Documentary Film Program at Sundance Institute. This week she spoke at DOC NYC to shares some thoughts on the cultural value of documentary film, the contemporary documentary landscape, and shared a personal promise as well as a call-to-action for the year to come.

Thanks to Thom and Raphaela for having me. I'm in grateful awe of the community they have created and supported around documentary filmmaking. In December, I will have spent a year as director of the Documentary Film Program at Sundance Institute. In that time I have travelled around the world, meeting our filmmakers and funders, our friends and our future collaborators. Which is why I look like I currently look. The shell of a woman.

This morning, I want to reflect on what has stayed with me.

10 things I value about documentary film:

When documentary film is metaphor not simile.

When documentary film is the painting not the photograph.

When documentary film is slow food not fast food.

When documentary film is honest but it is A truth not THE truth.

When documentary film is empathy not sympathy.

When documentary film is the question not the answer.

When documentary film is the transformation not the transaction.

When documentary film is ambiguity and complexity not certainty and simplicity.

When documentary film is meaning not explanation.

When documentary film is art as well as craft.

That's just what I believe. What does the Sundance DFP believe? During our first team away day we came up with this sentence to encapsulate why we do what we do:

Art changes the way we reach people.

And so our three values:

art excellence in form.

reach finding the audience and the new storytellers that will keep this art form relevant and vibrant.

change empathetic and social

The DFP was built on the twin pillars of human rights under Diane Weyermann (with the support of the Open Society Foundations), and social justice under Cara Mertes (with the support of Ford Foundation). These are still non-negotiable aspects of the work that we do, but so too is art, and that is what I'll be focusing on today.

A word on reach: We care about movies being seen. What use is a story without someone to hear it? Similarly, a film isn't finished until an audience has received it. So we are looking at new ways to take advantage of today's technology (through #ArtistServices) to help artists connect directly with their audiences and take a share of entrepreneurial control.

But there's another kind of reach. We also need to reach the filmmakers who can tell the story of our times, and they can't all afford to spend two years fundraising and another three to make their film. If we're not careful, documentary filmmaking will be the preserve of the elite. Lack of sustainability leads to lack of diversity, which in my opinion leads to a de facto censorship and an erosion of documentary's cultural value. This, despite us being in a golden age, presents us as a community with one of our most pressing challenges.

A word on change: We live in exciting times as philanthropists, corporations, and brands have come to fully recognize what filmmakers and foundations have always known - the power of documentary to effect social change. 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. People will only be moved to act if first they are moved, and that is where the art comes in.

The ArtFirst off, in this noisy distracted world, let's just sit and listen to something. This is the great writer and thinker Wendell Berry being interviewed by one of our grantees, filmmaker Laura Dunn.

I like to think that we, like Wendell, are dandelion people too, and that we see what fits together and try to fit it together. In other words, we are trying to make sense of the world.

Now I want you to watch something:

That was from a short film by the Latvian director Herz Frank, whom I had the privilege to meet not long before he died. 10 minutes long, one shot, every emotion.

Frank once said, The first rule of a documentary filmmaker is: Have the patience to observe life! If you are observant, if you look not only with your eyes, but also with your heart, then life, for sure, will present you with some particular discovery. Then, the reality recorded by you will gain artistic value, become in line with art, and will always excite people. The facts and events will become old. They become history. [But] the feelings we felt regarding those events stay with us. Therefore, art is the only living bridge between people of various generations, between time periods.

This is a compelling explanation of why great arts sustains. For me, film is one era talking to another era. What do we want to say? What do we want to show them? The job of the artist is to notice things. In fact the meaning of the word aesthetic is not lovely loveliness' but rather comes from the ancient Greek work meaning to perceive'. So, documentary is an aesthetic medium in the true sense of the word. Giving ourselves the time and space to perceive things will determine what we say.

But it's not just what we want to say,
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