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, 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, planning solar-energized getaway homes, which 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 which, handed out annually since 1996, has done much to put New Mexico's Taos Talking Pictures Film Festival on the national map. The Taos Land Grant Award winning filmmaker, chosen each year by a jury, gets five acres of mountain-top land out in the desert, donated by Jackson. The previous winners: Gary Walkow (Notes from Underground), Constance Marks (Green Chimneys), Chris Eyre (Smoke Signals), David Riker (La Ciudad).
"I once lectured students that independent film is like sex," Jackson told me at this April's Taos Fest, "how 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 are on your own. That's what indie filmmaking feels like... and you can dance a riff off of that."
I was one of the six judges for the year 2000 contest, asked to pick from four pre-selected Land Grant Finalists. Nobody much liked Jeremy Stein's The Photographer, a phony work set in New York's art scene, and all agreed that Sandra Osawa's On and Off the Res was a too-conventional biography of Native American comedian, Charlie Hill. But everyone was in a bind between Frances Reid's and 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, deeply moving, multifaceted story of post-apartheid South Africa, following four cases of persons, black and white, asking for amnesty before Bishop Desmond Tutu's Truth & Reconciliation Committee. While other jurors agreed that this documentary was powerful and emotional, some also felt the film was too slanted toward Tutu's position of compromise.
The recipient of the 2000 Taos Land Grant Award was Daniel Yoon, a 34-year-old Korean-Canadian from Toronto, whose Post Concussion, was an erratic but extremely likeable autobiographical comedy. It was shot by, edited by, and starred the filmmaker. After his screening, Yoon readily admitted that his movie was very flawed, and that he was forced to reject takes of many scenes because his own acting pulled down the other performers. Still, he loved making a 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. That's Jackson's term for the filmmaker's commune he envisions sharing their 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 through shrubbery the last half-mile. 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 Land Grant winners can get to know each other and think up a future for their acreage. Maybe a shared dwelling?
"They'll have to pay their own way," said Jeff 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 but add, "But if in the next week I find I've sold three lots, I just may pay for the retreat myself!"