AUP. Ep. 37 Sundance Film Festival


Transcribed: Cameron Blackwell

Completed: 1/25/21

Cortney Wills: [00:00:03] Hello and welcome to Acting Up the podcast that dives deep into the world of TV and film that highlights our people, our culture and our stories. I’m your host, Cortney Wills, Entertainment Director at theGrio. And this week we’re sitting down with Tabitha Jackson, director of the Sundance Film Festival. This week we have Tabitha Jackson as our guest on Acting Up, and she is the director of the Sundance Film Festival, a position that’s never been held by a woman, let alone a Black woman. The trailblazer, who spent six years as the director of the documentary film program at the Sundance Institute. She’ll talk to us about a few of the projects that have really picked her interest and tell us about the tough decision to take the festival fully virtual in light of the Omicron virus. Hi Tabitha, thank you so much for joining me today. Gosh, we talked a few weeks ago when we were talking about being so excited to see each other in Park City and we are not going. What a bummer. [00:01:08][64.8]

Tabitha Jackson: [00:01:09] But we are going to the festival, though, Cortney, and we’re going to see each other on our spaceship, which is the social platform. But to your earlier point, yes, it’s a bummer. And we were led by the data and the data last Tuesday told us something so worrying that we pivoted away from in-person on Wednesday. So it’s, you know, it’s pandemic life, it’s Omicron. And thank goodness we design this festival as a hybrid festival. So we already had the online festival up and running and staffed? That was a relief. [00:01:43][34.3]

Cortney Wills: [00:01:44] Yeah, I mean, that is really a blessing because it is late in the game, you know, to have made this decision, but literally all hell broke loose- I mean, I talked to you right before Christmas, and since then, just in those few weeks, everything changed again. And I saw initially, you know, you guys were already taking extraordinary measures to try and keep everyone safe in this hybrid festival. And then Omicron hits and you reacted with more protocols and more layers of safety. And I just wonder, like what was the nail in the coffin that made you like, you know what? No. [00:02:17][33.0]

Tabitha Jackson: [00:02:20] There were three nails. Cortney, the first nail was we spoke to Summit County. That’s where Park City is. That’s where the hope of the festival. And we’ve been speaking to Summit County for a long time over the months with our health safety team. And on Tuesday, they had just received the new data, which showed that the transmission rate in Summit County, which is like practically vertical over the last two weeks. That was the first nail. It’s like oh, okay. The second nail was the day that was projected to be the peak day of COVID transmission fell smack in the middle of our festival, so that would be the second nail. And then the third nail was in talking through what the stresses already were on the infrastructure of Park City, essential workers, hospitals, snowplow drivers, all the kinds of things that we would be taking making use of as well, potentially. There was too much stress on it and we couldn’t responsibly A. either put our community into these conditions at this moment and B. we couldn’t do that to our host community. It would have been irresponsible, but it was only when we learned the latest data and those three things all came together. It was like the absolute epicenter of this thing on our opening festival weekend, it’s like, nah. [00:03:35][75.2]

Cortney Wills: [00:03:36] No, I mean, I think you made the right decision. We were really holding out hope I was, and I think I came back to work late January 3rd and was like, I’m not going, you know, and it like, killed me, but I was just like, I’m not going. It didn’t feel responsible and it felt like God. Even if we could jump all these groups and make it safe, it doesn’t feel like the right optics, like the right message to send like guys, this is really serious, but we’re all going to go party in Park City for a week anyway, you know? So I think you made the right call, and I think these points that you brought up are so great. And luckily, you guys curated another really fantastic festival by the looks of it. So we still have a ton to look forward to. And Utah is really cold, so. [00:04:15][38.4]

Tabitha Jackson: [00:04:17] Utah is really cold. And also it’s wonderful, but it is really cold, and it’s not such a bad thing to have to watch a movie in your slippers rather than snow boots because your socks will be dry. That’s the key thing to bear in mind. Socks will be dry. [00:04:32][14.6]

Cortney Wills: [00:04:32] Yeah, absolutely. I am still like all riled up over Aftersock, (right?) You told me I would like- and you know, no, I actually didn’t like it. That was so terrible to watch and also so important to watch like, I hope every single person listening watches this documentary because it’s such an urgent subject matter that affects all of us. And that is the Black maternal health crisis in this country. [00:04:57][24.4]

Tabitha Jackson: [00:04:57] And it really, I mean, and it goes so much, it’s so much broader than it’s a maternal health crisis because of racism. Black women are not believed to understand their own bodies. They’re not taken seriously. I don’t know if you’ve read the amazing book by Jessie McMillan Cottom called Thick. (Yes.) And she talks about her own tragic experience. And this is just, you know, in this documentary when you meet the people left behind who are literally left carrying the baby, it’s just it’s it’s so unacceptable, I mean, I think that’s what we what we hold both, as you know, sentient humans, but also as women of color. Just this anger that this is this is part of a system. It’s not the unfortunate side effects of a system. It is a system that is doing this to women and families. And yeah, you got me all riled up now. [00:05:47][49.4]

Cortney Wills: [00:05:47] Yeah, I mean it. It makes you really, really angry and at other times, very, very deeply sad and frustrated because it is it’s just such a preventable problem- like it doesn’t have to be this way. But then also shocker. One thing that the filmmakers did really well was also trace this back historically, like just every perception representation down to paintings from a hundred years ago, like the entire representation of childbearing women and child birth was constructed, and it was so much based on racism and is killing people today and has been killing us for a very long time. And yes, you’re looking at these little children going like they deserve their mother and she is not here. And that is so heartbreaking. [00:06:32][44.6]

Tabitha Jackson: [00:06:33] It is. And it’s one of the things that, you know, films like this, I think we’re both, you know, women of the world. Read the news. But still, there’s a moment by just dedicating, just like closing down the rest of the noise and focusing on someone telling you something about the world in this in this cinematic way. I came out, I will I won’t ever see the world again in the same way because I know this thing and it’s so powerful and that’s happening. You know, the 82 features I mean 82 examples of that, and some will stick with you more than others. Yeah, depending on your own biography and how your meeting this work. But yes, yeah, Aftershock is- Aftersocks. Yeah, it should be mandatory viewing, right? [00:07:15][41.9]

Cortney Wills: [00:07:15] Really good. Absolutely. And you guys are so good about picking films that do exactly what you just said. Like, Stick with you. I saw 892 I think yesterday as well. And there are moments that just keep popping into my brain that are just sticking with me. And that’s another example of a film that I know is going to make it to a lot more people because it entered this festival. [00:07:38][23.4]

Tabitha Jackson: [00:07:39] Yes, yes. And hopefully also because the festival’s online and people, it’s easier to get to see a film at Sundance in the online iteration, you know truthfully than it is on the mountain. We have to maybe get on a shuttle bus or walk up Main Street or talk to a million people on the way. There’s a focus on the films and, 892, I watched that in my own home, as well as a submission cut, and I could barely breathe it. So I mean, we shouldn’t give too much away. [00:08:05][25.5]

Cortney Wills: [00:08:05] Yeah, I know it’s so hard. Well, the description, the description gives a lot away. The two line description is like, there’s a guy. He doesn’t get his veteran’s check and he walks into a bank and says he has a bomb, go. So there’s your there’s your spoilers, everyone. [00:08:19][14.7]

Tabitha Jackson: [00:08:20] While on, they’re not even spoilers. They’re just like, that happens at the beginning, but, (yeah.) Oh my goodness. This is a first time director to and the tension and the performances. John Boyega performance extraordinary. Sadly, Michael K. Williams last performance in this and we, you know again, this loss that we’re all experiencing is there on screen, as well as the capacity of cinema to bring people back to us for a for a moment or two, but yeah. [00:08:50][29.9]

Cortney Wills: [00:08:51] The second he came on the screen, I wasn’t expecting a really super try with Sundance movies like duh, like by- this is why I screened early, by by day one of the festival. I already know I’ve already gotten my head. You know, my top ten list of things to see and who’s in them. But before the festival, like the early, early watches, I really try and watch cold because I don’t want expectations to color my experience. So it wasn’t front of mind for me that Michael K. Williams was in this until he popped on the screen. And when he did it just kind– like my breath just kind of for a moment because I realized this is the last time we’re going to see him do that. (Yeah, yeah, it’s sad.) It really is. But it was also kind of a really appropriate kind of project for him to take his final bow in. Because he was so giving of his time and his talent and his energy to issues that really plague our community and the issues tackled in this film absolutely are ones that plague our community. So I think that that was kind of fitting. We won’t give too much away to everyone, but I’m talking to Tabitha Jackson. This is like the boss of Sundance. For those of you who don’t know she’s not, you know, the assistant boss or one of many bosses like she’s running the show up there in Park City. And this year the festival is pivoting back to fully virtual, which they did last year very successfully. And there’s so many really fantastic projects in. Store and what I’m wondering for you is especially going into Black History Month, I mean, you made some Black history yourself in getting to this point in your career. So what did that walk look like for you? And what is it like to be the first first woman, first Black woman? [00:10:38][106.6]

Tabitha Jackson: [00:10:39] Can I just compliment you first, Cortney on that smooth as silk Segway? You’ve made some Black history yourself. I love it. I really wrestle with this because, you know, I think I have a responsibility as a woman, as a woman of color, as a queer woman of color, as a British queer woman of color. There are all these, all these things that I bring with me, as we all do to our work, and there is a responsibility to those parts of ourselves and how they’re represented for others as well. So it is important that I don’t mess it up because this privilege and responsibility has been given to me. For me, it’s almost equally as important to immediately put that aside who I am? And just do the work, and that’s what- that’s what I should be held accountable to. I have all my own blind spots and implicit biases and prejudices that I, you know, need to be humble about. And so these identities and labels are part of my biography, but not the entirety of it, but the responsibility to once I’ve got through the door to make sure that the door is held open and joyfully opened for other people who look like me or sound like me, or maybe not someone who looked like me, that that’s my responsibility to keep the room tidy. Make some change and make it a hospitable place for other other women and other women of color. [00:12:17][98.2]

Cortney Wills: [00:12:18] Yeah, I mean, I think Sundance, it’s so interesting because gosh, I feel like there was this long period of time where Sundance was, at least to me, like the the the place the white people went in the winter, the way people in my business went in January, you know, to like, go snowboarding and watch movies. And then a while ago, it just kind of changed. And of course, like their Hollywood landscape has changed, there’s more stuff. There’s more of us there, more of us behind the camera. There are more of us writing and producing and being able to greenlight projects. So duh, like that natural shift kind of makes sense. And then there were also, I think, some intentional aspects aside from industry trends. You’ve got the Black House, you know, that is a big draw every year for me. Same with Macro Lodge, you know, like there’s so much more programing, so much more presents and so many of our stories being told at Sundance. But I do think that just your mere presence there and your presence kind of at the top of that masthead instantly makes it more hospitable. You know, like instantly feels like people who we want to see represented are getting a seat at at the table that counts, you know, at the table that’s curating these festivals, not just on the screen, but in every kind of aspect of entertainment. And I think the festival circuit is such an important part of all of this and and kind of serves as such a gateway to the kinds of projects that we all as consumers get to see. It’s really encouraging for me to see you at the helm and to see the way that the festival has progressed over the years. [00:13:52][94.5]

Tabitha Jackson: [00:13:53] Well, that’s so wonderful of you to say, Cortney, and you know that as we come out of the last question, that’s where I feel the responsibility. Like you say something like that to me and and this is helpful and galvanizing it’s like every decision I make, you are in my head and I’m thinking, I don’t want to let Cortney down or I don’t want to let these people down who have taken hope or optimism from whatever they see that I represent and that that is an appropriate thing to carry. And I know for some people it can get too much. You know it when you’re the only person in the room and decisions are being made in a collective way. But somehow you are the one who owns it. When you come out to your own community, what you are saying is right. I think this is a critical mass. There’s a critical mass and I don’t think we’re there yet. With Sundance, we’re absolutely working hard to get there. But there’s a critical mass of these things don’t have to be remarked upon. It feels comfortable for people to come to Park City and engage in a festival of creativity with many representations and perspectives, rather than feeling that there’s a kind of of them and us. And I think that is absolutely what happened with Macro and with Black House, who’s been there for for so many years and more and more and more kind of affinity houses. And that is great, and that’s a step on the way to. I don’t know if this is the right expression, but kind of blended festival, for some reason I just thought of those yogurts where you have the fruit on the bottom or you have the mixed, mixture and we’ve got lovely, delicious flavors with the fruit on the bottom. And I want to get to that. I’m going to continue this metaphor. I want to get to the mixed berry version where it’s all in there together because we don’t we the the the islands of affinity are really important at a festival, I think, which is, by its very nature, exhausting. But we but we also there must be a shared community around the mission of independent work and freedom of creative expression. [00:16:02][128.5]

Cortney Wills: [00:16:03] Yeah, and that’s happening, too. I think, you know, two years ago when I was there, I remember thinking like, Wow, it used to be used at least feel like for the events or the discussions about the films with Black leads in them, you had to go to Black House or Macro. But when I was there, it was like, No, Sylvie’s Love. Yeah, they’re doing a panel at Macro, but they’re also doing one at Audible, and they’re also doing one at The Hollywood Reporter or Infinity or whatever the other kind of big grand places are. And that didn’t used to be the case, either. I love going to Sundance and being like, Wow, I could choose between five and five opportunities to dive into Aftersock. Whereas before you know you’d be lucky if you found the one little event that was being thrown for it. So it’s a good place to like, see things I would never see and be exposed to aren’t that I would never be exposed to, or maybe just don’t think applies to us? And it does. And that’s why Sundance really is one of my favorite events of the year. So much fun. And I wondered right now, you know, we of course, like remain in this very tumultuous time in this country. And going into Black History Month this year, what’s on my mind is actually how you know, it is Black History Month, even American. Like, Is this something that they celebrate all over and this desire for us to learn our history, which in large parts the masses start learning about our history through projects? You know, like so many people learned about the Tulsa Race Massacre, that it even happened because they saw an episode of Watchmen, you know, and and later, Lovecraft Country. So many amazing documentaries come out of Sundance and reveal truths to people. And you’re going like, How or how did you not know that this was happening? And I think that film has such an immense power to teach us our history in so many films that tell us a lot about African-American history actually star British talent like Cynthia, Erivo in Harriet or David as Martin Luther King in Selma. And I wondered, like, Do you think that these films explain or, you know, do they open people’s eyes to African-American history in other countries too? Like are people in the U.K. watching these projects? And like, that’s their introduction to what all has happened here? [00:18:27][144.7]

Tabitha Jackson: [00:18:28] Yes. And I think partly because I think that’s absolutely true. I mean, I remember I can’t remember what year Roots was, but I remember watching it avidly and the actually more viscerally. For me, then Roots was Eyes On the Prize and I- and it was a documentary, and I was I really wasn’t very- I promise you, I wasn’t very old when that came out, but I was old enough to know adult enough to to have watched a lot of documentaries. There was something that hit me in the gut. It was about seeing little children who look like me being water cannoned as they tried to get into school and that- there was something. I mean, empathy is kind of fallen out of fashion in a way, but it was absolutely an empathetic gut punch that both cemented my love for documentary and also helped me understand a little about the United States. And there was another documentary series that I was loosely involved with called The People’s Century, and it was one whole episode which had both apartheid South Africa and Civil Rights U.S. in the same episode. And the resonances between the two. It was like joining the dots just from proximity is like, Whoa, we know that was really bad, but it’s not as bad as that thing, which we never talk about. So yes, I think that particularly in fiction, those stories where we can come to access a history all the first ways we learn it. But I also think that documentary and I’m thinking particularly of one that to your earlier point, I just can’t shake. There’s a documentary called Descendents in this year’s festival, which is about the ship Clotilde, which was the last ship to bring slaves to the coast of North America. And it came and it dropped to Africans in Mobile, Alabama and the descendants of those Africans still live there. And this film is about the recovery of the slave ship Clotilde and what it reveals because the descendants of the people who own the slave ship also live there and the patterns in history that started there when that ship brought those Africans to to mobile continue to this day. But it’s unlike any other history of the slave trade or of slavery that I’ve seen because we never have these direct links and it’s it’s astonishing. Cortney, if you haven’t seen that one, make sure you see Descendents. [00:21:02][153.6]

Cortney Wills: [00:21:03] I’m never going to sleep again. I’ll sleep in February. I guess that’s definitely going on my list. I have to watch that. Hopefully, our listeners will see you. [00:21:10][7.2]

Tabitha Jackson: [00:21:10] Absolutely. But then I worry about you because because of Aftersock, these weighty, you know, amazingly socially engaged issues and Decendents is the same. So then you have to offset it with Emergency, which is a riotous comedy by Kari Williams, (okay) which doesn’t shy away from social issues. But oh my goodness, it’s it’s such a thrill ride. It’s it’s crazy. So watch that that will that will, you know. [00:21:37][26.5]

Cortney Wills: [00:21:37] OK, I can’t wait to see that. And then there’s one more. It’s like, I think it’s Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. [00:21:42][5.1]

Tabitha Jackson: [00:21:44] Honk for Jesus. Yeah, Honk for Jesus. yeah? [00:21:46][2.1]

Cortney Wills: [00:21:46] Regina Hall, Sterling Brown and cannot wait to see that one too. [00:21:49][2.5]

Tabitha Jackson: [00:21:49] Yeah, I’ll get you you ahead of me. You should be telling me what to watch. [00:21:52][3.1]

Cortney Wills: [00:21:56] Everything! Lastly, you know what I was going to tell you ask you about is that I was talking to Steve McQueen recently about his last collection of I don’t even know what to call that. It was like they were. They were their kind of documentaries, but they were altogether (Small Acts?) No, no. Oh my gosh, I’m going to send this to you is after Small Acts and it was around the holidays, so a lot of people missed it. But I’m going to find the title. But it was like a collection of four documentaries, two. He directed the other ones executive produced, but they were little snapshots of British Black British history. One was about this terrible fire that killed a whole bunch of kids. [00:22:30][33.9]

Tabitha Jackson: [00:22:30] Right Handsworth, yeah. [00:22:30][0.2]

Cortney Wills: [00:22:32] Yes. See, you know that? And it struck me how little, how few projects we’ve ever seen here about Black British history. [00:22:40][8.5]

Tabitha Jackson: [00:22:41] Right, right. [00:22:41][0.6]

Cortney Wills: [00:22:42] I don’t know anything. I don’t know anything about the experience. And just that little peak that I got through Steve’s work made me see instant, you know, huge similarities. You know, in in the journeys and in the experiences. And it just made me wonder why, why we haven’t gotten that yet. We’ve gotten a lot of U.S. American history told and often told through the brilliance of a British actor. But I haven’t seen many stories about what it’s been like over there, and I bet our experiences are more similar than we think. [00:23:12][30.0]

Tabitha Jackson: [00:23:13] I think so. And and they also have their particularities. And I would say about the British actors who are wonderful. We have had this discussion in the U.K. about actors needing to move across the pond because it’s difficult to find work in Britain for the kind of work that they want to do. So, you know, these things all have social forces at play. And I would also say that in the U.K., we’re still and this is not a criticism of costume dramas, but we’re still hooked on costume dramas and royal sagas. And there’s not that much British history being reflected in fiction and high production value fiction, which is why to go back to Steve McQueen’s Small Acts, which was contemporary, relatively contemporary history was 50 years. Years or so was so important and wonderful to apprehend, and the people who featured in it, you know, there was still alive. It wasn’t this going way way back. So the media landscape around stories involving African-Americans, African, Caribbean, you know, it’s it’s still a bit of a an unfinished jigsaw, which means we can’t fully see the whole picture. [00:24:32][78.9]

Cortney Wills: [00:24:33] That’s right. But we are moving toward it. And part of that we owe to folks such as yourself doing the work in the real world and changing the way that we view cinema and even the kind of cinema that we ever get to see. So I’m so grateful to the work that you do and so grateful to you for being a guest on Acting Up today. [00:24:49][16.2]

Tabitha Jackson: [00:24:51] Cortney it was an incredible pleasure, an9’d you and your listeners are doing the work because you’re taking this work, translating it into the culture and giving it meaning. So we really appreciate you. [00:25:01][10.0]

Cortney Wills: [00:25:01] Thank you so much. It’s good to see you. [00:25:03][1.7]

Tabitha Jackson: [00:25:04] Great to see you, too. Take care. [00:25:05][1.4]

Cortney Wills: [00:25:06] You, too. Thank you for listening to Acting Up. If you like what you heard, please give us a five star review and subscribe to the show wherever you listen to your podcast and share it with everyone you know. Please email all questions, comments and suggestions to podcasts@theGrio.com. Acting Up is brought to you by theGrio and executive produced by Cortney Wills and produced by Cameron Blackwell. For more with me and Acting Up, check us out on Instagram @Acting Up.Pod. [00:25:06][0.0]


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