American documentary folks, meet Tabitha Jackson.

Jackson is the relatively new director of the documentary program at the Sundance Institute, a position she’s held for 11 months, having filled the sizable shoes of Cara Mertes (now at the Ford Foundation) who followed Diane Weyermann (now at Participant Media). With close to a year under her belt, Jackson gave a keynote speech this week at DOC NYC, which felt a little bit like her coming-out party.

With the job at Sundance, Jackson has entered that elite echelon of powerful doc decision-makers, which includes Mertes, Weyermann, and HBO’s Sheila Nevins, the latter of whom is also giving a keynote at DOC NYC this week.

I’m being a little flip in my introduction. Many within doc circles already know Jackson well, either from her work so far at Sundance or her work overseas. Jackson cut her teeth at Channel 4 in Britain, where she was commissioning editor, and among the films she’s shepherded are The Cove, Burma VJ and The Imposter. She’s not exactly new to the scene.

But this does seem like a good moment to — and I’m borrowing language from her keynote speech here — consider what good she can do for documentary. With close to $2 million in grant money, a series of filmmaker labs, an unparalleled network of relationships, and being, figuratively speaking, spitting distance from the premiere film festival for docs, the Sundance Institute can be a force for great good.

Jackson opened up with a set of oppositions to help illustrate what she loves about documentary film, which included:

Metaphor / not simile
Slow food / not fast food
“A” truth / not “the” truth
Empathy / not sympathy
Question / not answer
Ambiguity / not certainty
Meaning / not explanation

She especially aligned herself with the notion that documentary is “an empathy machine,” which resonates well, especially when one considers her distancing documentary from the notion of sympathy — she wants the nonfiction form to make audiences feel.

Where she may have raised some eyebrows — and let’s be careful here, I’m not saying this pejoratively — is in crediting Weyermann for championing human rights, and Mertes for her work toward social justice. Those are “nonnegotiable pillars” of Sundance, she said. And then Jackson credited one to herself: art. This takes some explaining, which I will do in a moment, having had the opportunity to have a coffee with Jackson after her talk, but it still suggests a lot when considering what Jackson could be embarking on here.

“The lingua franca of nonfiction filmmaking should be the language of cinema and not that language of grant applications,” Jackson said, to the sound of applause.

After showing a photograph of Quentin Tarantino at a Sundance lab, she referenced a creative nonfiction voice that Sundance has supported. Laura Poitras, she said, is “our Tarantino.”

I like it.

With Jackson coming to Sundance from London, it’s inescapable to predict a possible new era, one that is influenced by a European sensibility. What does that entail?

If you spend any time with Brits or Danes, you know that their tendencies are away from journalistic responsibilities and toward aesthetics and story.

Jackson herself cited the Dogme 95 movement in Denmark — where filmmakers cooked up new rules of filmmaking through decidedly non-commercial, expressionistic tendencies — as a possible inspiration for documentary going forward.

After her speech, Jackson made clear that she is not one to dictate change or to impugn the achievements of her predecessors. She says that she is building on what they’ve accomplished. “It’s not that I want to take Sundance in a new direction,” she said. “It would be unfair to say that Sundance hasn’t supported aesthetic films in the past.”

She said she just wants to make sure “that the doors are opened more widely” for artistic expression, and that she is reacting to “a general climate where art can seem to be secondary.” And it’s really not up to her, she told me. She wants to respond to Sundance’s, and, by extension, the documentary community’s, needs for change.

We had an extensive conversation and I plan to write about it more, closer to the Sundance Festival in January. But it’s worth noting here that there’s an imperious nature that people in power, even doc folks, can adopt. I did not find that in Jackson. She was more empathetic than imperious: knowledgeable, yet humble; sensitive, yet sharp. Open.

When I questioned, as I like to do, the ethical slippery slope that she may be heading toward by waving the flag of aesthetics, she was quick to note that, “documentarians don’t have a greater claim to morality than artists do.” She quoted Marcel Ophuls, who said of nonfiction filmmakers, “I don’t trust the little bastards. I don’t trust the nature of those who think they are superior to fiction films, I don’t trust their claim to have cornered the market on the truth. I don’t trust their inordinately high, and entirely underserved, status of bourgeois respectability.”

Said like a European! I love it.

On a more practical level, Jackson is planning to make sure that the Sundance Institute will be tracking certain filmmakers — rather than films — to see if it can help individuals where and when they are in need of support. There will also be changes in the admissions schedule. Instead of having two deadlines, Jackson is looking at more of a rolling admissions process. Both options are inside-baseball that could be broken down further, but suffice it to say here, she’s thinking about how to make the Sundance Institute more flexible and responsive to filmmakers. This may be a sick comparison, but it suggests to me that she wants to lead a more nimble counterinsurgency attack rather than an unwieldy invasion.

Finally, I asked Jackson about the relationship between the Sundance Institute and the Sundance Festival, and what she feels when, for instance, a Sundance Institute-supported documentary like Yance Ford’s Strong Island doesn’t get submitted to the festival.

“Sometimes the worst thing that can happen to a film is that it gets into Sundance, because it’s not ready,” she said, adding that she was greatly relieved when Ford decided to make the best film she could make, instead of sacrificing that for the festival deadline.

That’s straight talk from a straight shooter. Jackson appears to be a fresh change for the preeminent documentary organization — dedicated to not letting itself get too comfortable.

It should be fun to see where they’re headed.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen