The Sundance Film Festival had to be totally reimagined. Tabitha Jackson met the challenge

The Sundance Film Festival had to be totally reimagined. Tabitha Jackson met the challenge

1/24/2021 6:04:00 PM

The Sundance Film Festival had to be totally reimagined. Tabitha Jackson met the challenge

Sundance's Tabitha Jackson won the festival director gig, then the pandemic hit. How she's leading the film festival's 2021 edition into the future at a pivotal time in history.

: Jackson would be the first woman, the first person of color and the first non-U.S. born leader of the prestigious Utah film festival, replacing outgoing predecessor John Cooper.In February, she began her new role, ready to put her stamp on the annual event. In March, the

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COVID-19 pandemichit.To say her inaugural year heading the most influential film festival in America was rife with unpredictable challenges is an understatement. But on Jan. 28, running a seven-day edition largely online and packed with virtual screenings, Q&A’s and events, Jackson’s tenure as Sundance director — which follows award-winning work as a filmmaker and six-year stint as director of the Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program — will kick off with a renewed sense of purpose for the Park City event run by the Institute founded more than 40 years ago by Robert Redford.

“The first question, given the pandemic, was: ‘Should we even be doing the festival?’” Jackson recalled this week, back in Manhattan ahead of the fest after spending nine months out of state because of the pandemic. “The answer very quickly was, ‘Yes.’ If we believe in the role of artists, the independent voice and community then a film festival is not a bauble or a distraction or a frivolity. It’s actually a necessary coming together, in whatever way is safe, to make sense of the moment.” headtopics.com

AdvertisementLast year, as they have for decades, filmmakers and movie fans trekked to Park City, Utah from across the globe to attend the annual Sundance Film Festival. Organizers of the 2021 edition started planning early, developing plans to hold the event safely amid the pandemic.

(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)This is your first Sundance Film Festival as festival director. In your own words, who is Tabitha Jackson?I am a 50-year-old British woman of African descent, Nigeria to be specific. I think that, plus the fact that I’m adopted, plus the fact that I’m a child of divorced parents, means that I have from an early age wanted to understand what exactly was going on. What art has done and what stories have done and what cinema certainly does is to help us make sense of things. So I’ve been a curious lover of the arts and culture as a way to understand what this all means.

What’s your earliest movie memory?AdvertisementI can recall it vividly, because when my dog died when I was 7, it was my first encounter with death, and my dad decided to cheer me up and take me to the cinema. We saw a film called “Watership Down,” which was an animated film based on the book, and it traumatized me for the rest of my life. There’s rabbit on rabbit violence, there are claws and blood and yapping dogs, and a rabbit dies in it. I couldn’t believe Dad would take me to see that film. And then somewhat poignantly, my dad died just a few years ago, and I was instantly transported back to that film because he had given me a way of understanding death and loss. So “Watership Down” scarred me for life.

Well, that’ll do it.It’s interesting how many people say the film that had the most powerful influence on them was one they had seen as a child. That stays with me, because it matters what we do. It matters what children can see, and it also matters [to] children, who perhaps don’t feel, as I didn’t, like they fit in anywhere — you suddenly feel connected to something bigger than your immediate circumstances. headtopics.com

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How did your 25 years as a filmmaker and your work heading the Sundance Institute’s documentary program inform your approach to this new role?AdvertisementThe same animating impulse that made me want to make films and that made me want to support filmmakers is what drew me to this extraordinary privilege and responsibility of running the Sundance Film Festival — which is the independent voice and calling attention to things in the world or things in the world of the imagination that illuminate who we are, and why we do things, and what the consequences of that are. And, the festival as a place of discovery: People aren’t just tuning in for things they already know they like, they’re coming to see who are the voices and what are the ideas that are going to be in the culture for the next year, and that’s thrilling.

If we believe in the role of artists, the independent voice and community then a film festival is not a bauble or a distraction or a frivolity. It’s actually a necessary coming together, in whatever way is safe, to make sense of the moment.Sundance Film Festival director Tabitha Jackson

You were announced as incoming festival director on the last day of the 2020 festival. A little over a month later in March, the COVID-19 pandemic was prompting shutdowns across the U.S. When and how did you and your team begin responding to these changing circumstances?

I got handed the keys to the festival in February. In March, it was already clear that the pandemic was beginning to hit the U.S. In April and May, whatever we thought we might be able to do, we were going to have to rethink. At that point, we said, “Let’s scenario-plan: There’s a scenario in which the pandemic will ease and we can gather in Utah, full expression; there’s a scenario in which we won’t be fully out the other side but we can still have a mixture of Utah and an online experience; and then the third scenario was, the pandemic is still raging — all we can do, if we’re going to have a festival, is build a festival platform.” In order to accommodate all three scenarios, we had to plan for everything. We started building the [online] festival platform really quickly. headtopics.com

AdvertisementThose three scenarios were three levers we continue to slide up and down, depending on the situation. We’re now in a moment where, for public health reasons, we’ve dialed up the festival platform, but we’ve also got an incredible network of partnerships with independent art houses across the U.S. who are part of putting on the festival with us. Where they can show films safely, maybe through drive-ins, depending on where they are, they will. And where they can’t, they will be expressing through this festival platform.

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