Slamdance selects ‘This Teacher’ to close out this year’s festival
Mark Jackson’s “This Teacher,” which is Slamdance’s closing night film, will screen at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 30, at the Treasure Mountain Inn Ballroom. For tickets and information, visit slamdance.com.
President Trump spurred Mark Jackson to make his new film “This Teacher,” which is Slamdance’s closing-night film on Thursday.
The feature film is about a French Muslim played by Hafsia Herzi who travels to New York to visit a friend. But she finds herself lost in the woods, where she encounters a nightmare of intolerance and suspicion that stems from Islamophobia, Jackson said.
“Like many people, I was moved to action when the current administration took the election,” he said. “Trump’s Twitter feed represents the very worst of humanity, and I felt it important to try to provide a humanizing portrait of a Muslim woman.”
Jackson cast Herzi because he had worked with her before on his last film, “War Story,” which was shot in Sicily and which premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.
Herzi was first discovered by filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche for his 2007 drama, “The Secret of the Grain,” for which she won a Cesar, the national film award in France.
“I think of her as a French Rosie Perez,” he said. “She was street cast and an absolute natural that brought fire to the screen.”
In “War Story,” Herzi played opposite of Oscar-nominated actress Catherine Keener.
“I was floored by Hafsia’s talents, and I wanted to craft her character in “This Teacher” together with her,” he said. “I wanted to focus on what the normalization and internalization of the current rhetoric of hatred feels like for her character, and what it does to that person.”
Jackson’s experience with Herzi, so he could imagine her in the role he wanted to write.
“I wrote the script alongside my partner in life and writing Dana Thompson,” he said. “We knew this would be the first time for Hafsia to be in the United States, and it was the first time for her to act in English for an extended period.”
These factors led to some interesting challenges, Jackson said.
“I speak Italian and Spanish and terrible French, and Hafsia; she speaks weak English,” he said. “So there was a challenge in communication, but we had some native French speakers who were there to help us through it all.”
Jackson also relied on Hertzi’s understated performance.
“I remember when we worked on a scene from (‘War Story’) where I wanted her to play it angrily,” he said. “She just wouldn’t do it, and when I got into the editing room, I found it was better that she played it the way she did. So when we would come into a scene in ‘This Teacher,’ if her inclination was different than mine, I would certainly take it into account and shift if it worked better.”
The other challenge was the small-scale production for “This Teacher.”
“The message of the film felt incredibly urgent and something we wanted to make right away,” Jackson said. “We wrote it on a very modest scale, and doing something this small, we have very few resources. So we have to stretch with what we had.”
Jackson and a small crew shot the film in 15 days.
“The third act takes place within a single location and functions like a one-act play between three characters,” he said. “We shot that in two days, and that was 30 pages of dialogue, plus the fact we had language issues.”
Jackson premiered the film in Los Angeles and then took it to the BFI London Film Festival last fall.
“The reception from the audiences was so warm,” he said. “And we had a good deal of Muslim people in the audience in London who were affected by the film.”
Since Jackson has difficulty with public speaking, he decided to turn the tables with the post-screening Q and A to hear the audience’s responses to the film.
“Many people who were Muslim told me they have never seen themselves portrayed in this way,” he said. “Others told me this was the first time they could see on film how hard it is to be Muslim today.”
Other audience members approached Jackson privately to share similar experiences that Herzi’s character dealt with in the film.
“I can’t say how gratifying that was,” Jackson said. “That’s the whole point for me as a creative activist.
“Movies are a medium that reaches the most people, and if this gets online through a streaming service, it’s likely that someone who has never been to a film festival will give it a click,” he said. “If that happens, the film may change their minds or at least get them to consider someone else’s perspective.”
Jackson was honored that Slamdance selected “This Teacher” as the festival’s closing-night film, because his first ever film premiere was at the festival in 2012.
The film was “Without,” which was about a young woman who takes care of a man in a vegetative state on a remote island.
“Slamdance was my first platform, and I had never been to a film festival before,” Jackson said. “It was there I discovered Slamdance’s commitment to people like me who are undiscovered, no-budget, first-time filmmakers who are working outside the mainstream.
“I think this is an invaluable contribution to cinema. So it’s great to come full circle.”
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