‘People are coming back to the theater,’ says Jacob Burns Film Center Executive Director Mary Jo Ziesel (r), seen here at a screening (and Q&A) of Spencer, about Princess Diana, with the film’s director Pablo Larraín (c) and JBFC Founding Director of Film Programming Brian Ackerman. Photo > Lynda Shenkman
(From left) JBFC Executive Director Mary Jo Ziesel at a premiere of films by artists in residence with Creative Culture Fellows Ash Goh Hua and Aisha Amin. Photo > Lynda Shenkman
In summer 2020, a film lover named Mary Jo Ziesel attended a screening of Ron Howard’s documentary Pavoratti at Pleasantville’s Jacob Burns Film Center (JBFC). She was so impressed with the theater’s knowledgeable staff and sense of community that she returned the following week for a screening of Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite.
“It would be amazing to work in a place like this someday,” Ziesel, who also happens to be an administrator with more than 20 years of experience at New York’s American Ballet Theater, recalls thinking at the time. Shortly after, she applied for and landed a job as the JBFC’s new Executive Director.
“I threw it out into the universe, and it happened, so here I am,” says Ziesel.
“She has this incredible energy and good humor, and that has come to us as a real breath of fresh air during this tumultuous time,” says Sean Weiner, Director of Programs at the JBFC’s Media Arts Lab.
Weiner is also the Founding Director of Creative Culture, a JBFC program fostering collaboration and support among emerging filmmakers, which Ziesel was immediately passionate about.
Creative Culture consists of two groups – fellows and residents. For the fellowship program, four applicants are selected for each session. They each work on short films at JBFC, receiving production gear, 24/7 access to the Media Arts Lab, and production insurance for location shoots.
“We have fiction filmmakers, documentary filmmakers, animators, hybrid storytellers,” says Weiner. “We want to bring together people who are telling stories in all these different ways,”
Resident artists are recruited from organizations such as the Sundance Institute, Chicken & Egg Productions, and Black Public Media. They are flown to Pleasantville and spend 4-6 weeks at JBFC’s residence, a house next to the Media Lab that includes a full editing suite.
As part of the program’s “collaboration over competition” philosophy, filmmakers are encouraged to share their stories, skills, and space with each other. Often, they form connections that last throughout their careers.
“It really does make for a professional, and kind of a personal support community, which is just lovely to see,” says Ziesel. “It’s about creating support networks in an industry that can be pretty cutthroat otherwise.”
The JBFC also gives emerging filmmakers a chance to present their work to audiences and industry members, often facilitating relationships with film festivals and distribution companies.
Among notable former Creative Culture residents are Chilean filmmaker Francisca Alegria, whose film The Cow who Sang a Song About the Future was a Sundance winner in 2017; Melissa Lesh, whose documentary Raising Khan was recently acquired by Amazon for $20 million, and Academy Award winner Bong Joon Jo.
“It goes to show that you really have to support artists to get them to these breakout moments when studios come in to support them,” says Weiner.
JBFC offers many other educational programs, including a curated short-film library for schools, filmmaking camp for kids, and a media literacy course for educators.
During the time of Covid, JBFC – like many other arts organizations – has realized that while virtual presentations have limitations, they also find audiences that would otherwise be out of reach.
“The silver lining is that we’re not just reaching out to Westchester teachers. We’re able to reach teachers all over the country, and the world,” says Ziesel.
Ziesel is optimistic about the future of JBFC and hopes her enthusiasm, as well as the enthusiasm of the Center’s staff and members, is a sign of a bright future as the organization enters its 20th year.
“People are coming back to the theater. Once you start going again, once you break the seal, you get back into the rhythm of it,” she says. “One of the really gratifying things to me is when you’re standing in the lobby and you see all these people who are really excited to be back in this community of film lovers.”
Selected Coming Attractions
- Monthly series Senior Afternoon Cinema is remembering legendary musical theater composer Stephen Sondheim by highlighting three of his musical accomplishments on film: Warren Beatty’s Reds, Alan Resnais’ Stavisky, and Mervyn LeRoy’s Gypsy.
- Remix: The Black Experience in Film, Media, and Art. This ongoing series includes a free community screening on Jan. 17 of two episodes from acclaimed 1987 documentary series Eyes on the Prize, focusing on Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s historic March on Washington speech and the passing of the Voting Rights Act.
- On March 3, Buster Keaton’s silent comedy The General (1926) will be followed by a Q&A with Dana Stevens, author of Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century.
- Pedro Almodóvar’s Parallel Mothers, which opens Jan. 14 for an open engagement, follows the journey of two single women who meet in a hospital room where they are both going to give birth.
- Going Back Home with Paul Thomas Anderson, Jan. 13. Class on the celebrated filmmaker, featuring lecture and discussion of his current film Licorice Pizza (playing at JBFC), a coming-of-age love story set in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley. An in-depth look at the film’s story structure, cast, setting, soundtrack, and how the film works as both a homecoming and a continuation of Anderson’s stylistic and narrative themes.
- For the full schedule of films, virtual screenings, events, and ticket information, visit burnfilmcenter.org.
Christian Larson is Editor-at-Large of River Journal North.