Tabitha Jackson and Gina Duncan have a new take on the Sundance Film Festival
For nearly 40 years, the Sundance Film Festival’s goal has been to connect storytellers and audiences through film. As the film industry has changed and transformed to become more expansive, diverse and inclusive, Sundance has evolved as well. In 2021, amid the coronavirus pandemic, the film festival was entirely virtual, drawing people from the safety and comfort of their homes into an expansive and connected online festival.
Building on last year’s experiences, festival director Tabitha Jackson and production manager Gina Duncan are moving forward. They had hoped to launch a new format for the 2022 festival, redesigned as a hybrid. Sundance wanted attendees to have the opportunity to attend the festival in person on the mountain in Park City, Utah. For others who preferred the comfort of their own home, screenings, talks and events would be available online.
However, due to the Omicron variant, the Utah in-person elements of Sundance 2022 will go live this year. Attendees will be able to watch films, visit exhibits and engage virtually in captivating dialogues and conversations around stories, tales and art. Before the festival kicks off on January 20 and before the festival announces it will be entirely virtual this year, ESSENCE spoke with Jackson and Duncan about how they’ve transformed Sundance and what they plan to do next. to come up.
“I always wanted Sundance to be a pick and choose adventure,” Duncan explained of the thought process behind the hybrid. “I can choose what I want to see and if I want to see it from my condo or if I want to go to the movies. He is much more relaxed and meets me where I am. I think what we’ve come up with this year is actually the dream scenario.
For Jackson, the perfect Sundance experience involves a sense of connection despite what may be going on around us. “It’s this rich and vibrant array of work that is both creative, expressive and tackles the issues of our time in a way that helps us better understand them,” she said. “I think amazingly, given that we’re still in the middle of a pandemic, art filmmakers and artists have managed to do the work that does that. This year’s program shows that there is, beyond our expectations, a dynamism and an urgency to create independent media.
Jackson and his programmers took away a lot from the Sundance virtual experience in 2021. “One of the things I learned was that [it] was not a virtual film festival,” Jackson explained. “It was a real film festival. There were real movies and real people engaged with the movies and meeting the audience through a screen.
“One of the things we experienced last year was presence and energy. We made sure you saw a movie together at a specific time. After this film, there was a live question-and-answer session with the filmmakers and the public in direct communion. We also broke new ground with a social space that we ended up calling The Spaceship, where you could go into space, walk around, bump into people, meet people, then go off to another small space. It was all about the presence and feeling of being with other people watching the work and talking about it. So those are the two main lessons for me, energy and presence.
Since Sundance 2022 attendees won’t be meeting in person, it was important to Jackson and Duncan that there still be a sense of community and unity. “There are real connections happening,” Duncan said. “There’s a real camaraderie and relationships that are built through the screen. It’s real, and I see that even after COVID-19, it’s still a big part of our lives in a very big way. more important than in the past. This is our reality.
As the world around us has changed, there has been a significant push for diversity and inclusion across all industries. For Jackson and Duncan, that meant extending Sundance even further than identity. “This business we’re in is understanding the world differently through the eyes of others, and that’s what independent filmmakers do for us,” Jackson explained. “They have a unique perspective, a unique vision that they bring. When you have a collection of unique visions, you begin to see things that you could never see before through just one. So for me, diversity in its truest sense is about a multiplicity of perspectives, subjectivities and lived experiences. This translates into the form of the work, the way the work is done, and the engagement with the reality around them to do those things, and a diversity of life experiences. It goes far beyond ethnicity or gender. It is the responsibility.
Standing at the head of the film festival, Duncan and Jackson both feel responsible for shaking the table. “It’s about our responsibility as gatekeepers and facilitators in terms of who we center and how we decenter,” Duncan explained. “For me, it’s about questioning how we curate, how our norms are created, making sure we recognize our own implicit biases. So we decenter this white male perspective of, ‘This is what quality is. That’s what art is. I think when you put that aside, you make room for everyone.
Jackson also focused on leveling the playing field for non-fiction and documentary works. “When Robert Redford founded the Institute and the festival, he elevated non-fiction and documentary,” she explained. “So it’s always been in Sundance’s blood. I feel like I’m still interested in the space between the two. Perhaps it comes from my own biography of being half Nigerian, half Welsh. The space between fiction and non-fiction fascinates me. One of the joys of a festival is that these works are always in dialogue with each other. As filmmakers describe how they see the world and derive meaning from it, non-fiction must live up to fiction. That’s how we live. »
In addition to creating a fully inclusive Sundance, Duncan also worked diligently to keep attendees safe. “It’s still a lot of thinking about safety and belonging,” she said. “We know that online is accessible, but we also know that it’s not necessarily a safe space when you bring together a group of different people, and you have that level of anonymity. I’ve thought about that a lot. We did a really good job last year with the virtual festival in terms of creating a community agreement and then also having people in every space of the festival who were online to make sure people not only respected the community agreement, but knew who to contact if they needed help or had questions.
With so much uncertainty over the past two years, Jackson and Duncan are thrilled that festival-goers feel a sense of immersion and belonging in this digital space. “I want people to see this amazing work and this set of creators and come together as an audience,” Jackson said. “There’s this feeling at the end of every festival that somehow the way we see the world has changed, maybe because of a movie we’ve seen or a person we met, but just being in this space for 10 days changes their perception of the world. I hope that can be the case even in these times, especially in these times.”
For Duncan, Sundance 2022 is about redefining what it means to attend film festivals. “We come together in time, not place,” she explained. “We wanted to make sure no one viewed the people experiencing the festival online as a second audience or another audience. It is a real space. If we can fix that, I think we can get people to recognize that it’s an experience we share over time instead of just being on the mountain. I think that explains what it means to be a festival and how you participate in a festival. It’s exciting for me.
The 2020 Sundance Film Festival will take place online from January 20-30.