Tom Daley
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Sundance’s Out Director on Getting Queerer and Going Virtual

Dakota Johnson and Sonoya Mizuno

Above: Dakota Johnson and Sonoya Mizuno in Am I OK?, the directorial debut of spouses Tig Notaro and Stephanie Allynne 

It’s a marvelous year for the always LGBTQ-inclusive Sundance Film Festival, despite the continuing pandemic.

After the venerable fest was held online in 2021 due to COVID-19, organizers hoped to have a hybrid fest in 2022, with both online and in-person components. But as the Omicron variant spread, they realized in-person screenings weren’t a good idea.

“We had designed, with great excitement … the first hybrid Sundance Film Festival,” with screenings in the fest’s home of Park City, Utah, as well as making use of the online platform the fest had developed last year, says Tabitha Jackson, the first woman — and first queer woman — to be festival director. As the data came in about Omicron, organizers pivoted in early January, just weeks before the fest’s opening, which happens Thursday.

“After being initially disappointed that we weren’t going to be back on Main Street, now I’m very excited about the work that is going to be introduced to the world on the 20th of January on our festival platform,” Jackson says. The festival continues through January 30 and will include about 80 features, 100 shorts, episodic works, and virtual reality presentations.

Sundance has traditionally offered much LGBTQ+ content, and this year’s edition is no different, Jackson says. The films she highlights include Sirens, a documentary from director Rita Baghdadi focusing on the relationship of two women founding the first thrash-metal band in the Middle East.

“They’re absolute badasses,” Jackson says of the Beirut-based musicians. “They embody the independent spirit, the resistance to cultural norms, and are really wanting to be themselves creatively and culturally and socially and politically.”

Shery Bechara and Lilas Mayassi

Shery Bechara and Lilas Mayassi in Sirens, courtesy Sundance Institute

She also highly recommends Am I OK?, a fiction film co-directed by spouses Tig Notaro and Stephanie Allynne, in their directorial debut, and starring Dakota Johnson and Sonoya Mizuno. “It’s a beautiful film about friendship and love and kind of late-blossoming coming out, and it’s just gorgeous,” Jackson observes.

She further notes that the festival will showcase many great short films, such as the intergenerational piece A Wild Patience Has Taken Me Here.

Overall, “there are too many [LGBTQ+ films] to mention, but LGBT creativity, perspective, community has been a bedrock of the festival pretty much since its founding, and that’s how it continues,” she adds.

Jackson became festival director two years ago, after having been director of the documentary film program at the Sundance Institute. The institute, in addition to producing the festival, provides training and support for emerging filmmakers.

She brings many firsts to the position — she’s not only the first woman and first queer woman in the post, she’s the first person of color and the first born outside the U.S. She was born in the U.K. and is of Nigerian and Welsh ancestry. She also is the first with a background focused primarily on nonfiction films.

Tabitha Jackson

Festival director Tabitha Jackson (Photo Credit: Sundance Institute)

She describes herself as a “late-blooming queer woman” and notes that the 2020 festival was significant for many reasons — among them, she was named festival director on the last day, while on the first day she got married to independent filmmaker Kirsten Johnson.

Her British sensibility, she adds, “probably means I’ll bring a lot more curse words to the festival and more tea.”

Despite all these firsts, Jackson says, “I should be accountable for what I actually achieve.” She wants the festival to continue to offer the most exciting fiction and nonfiction films, plus those that occupy a space in between. The in-between spaces are important to her in both life and work, she says.

Presenting the festival online has certain advantages. “One thing we learned from last year was how vibrant our audiences were, because it could accommodate people who whether for philosophical reasons or financial reasons or physical reasons could never contemplate coming to the festival in person, but they did want to participate as full festival-goers in the online version,” she says.

Even when it appeared in mid-2021 that the 2022 festival could be held in person, organizers wanted to maintain the online component “because it was a gift to us,” she says. Attendance in 2021 was more than 600,000, which is 2.7 times that of the previous year.

The program and tickets are available at Festival.Sundance.org, and attendees can also find access there to what organizers are calling the “spaceship,” where they can interact with other festival-goers online.

“The combination of the work itself and the social life around the work, which we were able to innovate and experiment with last year with great success, that’s also what I can’t wait to see coming together,” Jackson concludes.

Tags: film, Sundance

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