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Jeff Jackson and the Taos Film Festival

By Gerald Peary

MAY 1, 2000:  Jeff Jackson has suffered the hardships of an independent filmmaker. His documentary Death and Taxes, about a survivalist murdered after running afoul of the IRS, was so controversial, Jackson says, that he was forced to recoup his money by peddling tapes on conservative radio programs. His recent Postal Worker, an angry, personal feature, was snubbed by the Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals and went unseen by distributors, and he had to cut a deal with HBO to hold down financial losses.

Fortunately, Jackson has a second career, and that one is bouncing along beautifully: the Venice (California) resident has become a major land developer in northern New Mexico, where he seems to have memorized every square inch of desert land west of the Rio Grande Gorge: what's government property, what large acreage can be bought up reasonably and divided into smaller-acreage lots. People from LA are buying, exalted to be tooling around Georgia O'Keeffe territory and planning solar-energized getaway homes. And that allows Jackson the luxury of giving back to the independent film world, where his heart and spirit remain.

It was he, through his Taos Land and Film Company, who conceived the film prize that has done so much to put New Mexico's Taos Talking Pictures Film Festival on the national map. The Taos Land Grant Award-winning filmmaker, who's chosen each year by a jury, gets five acres of mountaintop land out in the desert donated by Jackson. The four previous winners: Gary Walkow (Notes from Underground), Constance Marks (Green Chimneys), Chris Eyre (Smoke Signals), and David Riker (La Ciudad).

"I once lectured students that independent film is like sex," Jackson told me at Taos this month, "that losing one's virginity is as hard as making one's first movie. But now I think my mountain is a better metaphor. It's tough to get to the top. There's no water, electricity, it's rough and tense, and you're on your own. That's what indie filmmaking feels like."

I was one of the six judges this month who were asked to pick from four pre-selected TLGA finalists. Nobody much liked Jeremy Stein's The Photographer, a phony work set in New York's art scene, and we all agreed that Sandra Osawa's On and Off the Res was a too-conventional biography of Native American comedian Charlie Hill. But we were in a bind between Frances Reid & Deborah Hoffman's documentary Long Night's Journey into Day and Daniel Yoon's feature Post Concussion.

My vote went to Long Night's Journey, a potent, moving story of post-apartheid South Africa that follows four cases in which persons (both black and white) were asking for amnesty from Bishop Desmond Tutu's Truth & Reconciliation Committee. Although other jurors agreed that this documentary was powerful and emotional, some felt the film was too slanted toward Tutu's position of compromise.

So the recipient of the 2000 Taos Land Grant Award was Daniel Yoon, a 34-year-old Korean-Canadian from Toronto whose Post Concussion is an erratic but extremely likable autobiographical comedy that was shot and edited by and starred the filmmaker. After its screening, Yoon acknowledged that his movie is flawed and revealed that he rejected takes of many scenes because his own acting pulled down the other performers. Still, he loved making the film, and he plans a more serious one, about racism.

Yoon was a stunned winner at the awards ceremony, and so was his Korean mother, who acts in the movie. But the next morning, they were up early for Jeff Jackson to drive them into the desert and show them their winning piece of land. "The Yoons had their property taken away many years ago in Korea," Jackson said, "so it was important for Mrs. Yoon to again have land. And Daniel, I think, adds a lot to the Film Colony."

The Film Colony is Jackson's term for the filmmakers' commune he envisions as sharing an artistic identity up on his mountain. What's up there now? Bears and elk.

"You're the first journalist to make this trip," Jackson said, taking me in his four-wheel truck through back roads and up mountainsides and across rock-filled paths, much farther from Taos, and civilization as we know it, than I imagined. We parked and walked the last half-mile through shrubbery. I couldn't help thinking: is this land grant a fool's-gold proposition? Does any filmmaker seriously want property out here?

But as we reached the mountain crest, we encountered last year's winner, David Riker, with his companion, Elizabeth Downer, as they excitedly walked the land. They'd spent an exhilarating afternoon climbing about. Riker's plan: to organize a retreat here in the summer so that the five winners can get to know one another and think up a future for their acreage. Maybe a shared dwelling?

"They'll have to pay their own way," said Jackson on our long drive back to Taos, "though I'll probably pitch in for food and tents." Yet as we continued on, the man behind it all couldn't help adding, "But if in the next week I find I've sold three lots, I just may pay for the retreat myself!"


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