Made-in-Utah: Jenny Mackenzie

This series of posts highlights some of our local industry talent: on-screen and behind-the-scenes, established and up-and-coming.

The much-anticipated Sundance lineup is out, giving occasion to celebrate our local filmmakers who made the list.  Salt Lake based documentary director Jenny Mackenzie will premiere her film Quiet Heroes at the Festival. The film explores how the socially conservative religious monoculture complicated the AIDS crisis in Salt Lake City, where patients in the entire state and intermountain region relied on only one doctor.  The film follows her fight to save a maligned population everyone else seemed willing to just let die.

Ms. Mackenzie’s previous films include Kick Like a Girl, Sugar Babies, and the recently released Dying in Vein, all films exploring issues with a relevance that is both deeply personal and universal. All are also the centerpieces of outreach campaigns designed to have tangible impact on the world. In celebration of her Sundance debut, I spoke with Jenny about her experience as a filmmaker in Utah. 

What inspired you to become a filmmaker? 

I grew up in NYC with two parents in the theatre world. My mother is a playwright, and my father was an actor who then became a sitcom director. Storytelling on both paper and screen has always been an important part of my life. After a 15-year career as a social worker as a passionate social justice advocate, and observing my parents work on stage and behind the camera, I decided to go back to my roots and begin making documentaries. Making social impact documentary films felt like the perfect career trajectory.

How do you find or choose your projects?

I choose projects that I’m passionate about, that are connected to my family’s personal experience, and that are stories that need to be told. I believe that personal connections to the story and issue help me to keep the storytelling connected and authentic.

What is your professional background and how does it affect your filmmaking?

I received a BA from Brown University in Psychology and a Ph.D. from the University of Utah in Social Work.  After a 15-year career in social work, I went back to school and took 2 years of production classes at the University of Utah.  I learned everything I could about film production, and made about 6 short films.  As a former social worker, being able to compassionately listen to people’s stories and understand human behavior are skills that I constantly use as a filmmaker.  Everyone has a story to share, and we want to know that people are present and listening to our stories. My social work management skills also help me as I work with a crew.

How does living and working in Utah affect your art?

Utah is one of the most beautiful states in the US. We have four seasons. We have mountains. We have deserts. Our family loves outdoor recreation, so to be able to hike, cycle and ski so close to home greatly improves our quality of life. It has been a beautiful place to raise our three daughters. We also live in a conservative state, but a liberal and diverse city. Our state politics and some of our history motivate me to tell stories about inclusion/exclusion.

How does your female perspective affect your art, or your process?

As a daughter, sister, mother, and woman, I am always looking at stories through the female lens. In a field dominated by men, I feel a responsibility to create meaningful and powerful work that includes the voices of other women as well as other groups that are or have historically been marginalized.

For you, does documentary, specifically, have a unique role in the world?

For me documentary film has a unique ability to capture a snapshot of the world as it is, in present, or as it has been historically. For me, it has a snow globe effect, one that narrative film can’t do in quite the same way. Social impact documentaries, specifically, have the unique ability to inspire social change and activism.

What are your current projects? 

Currently I am working on a project called However Long, which is about women with stage 4, Metastatic Breast Cancer (MBC). Approximately 30% of women with breast cancer will receive the diagnosis of MBC. Despite early detection and new treatments, and 30 years of “think pink campaigns” in corporate America, we are not seeing a significant decrease in the mortality rates. This documentary looks at the experience of the women who are living with the disease with no cure in sight, the researchers who are trying to cure it, and the activists who are fighting in marginalized communities for more funding and better treatment.

Tell me about the film you have premiering at Sundance!

Quiet Heroes is the story of Dr. Kristen Ries and Maggie Snyder, two fearless medical professionals who provided world-class care in conservative, Mormon Utah in the 1980s and 90s – when no one else would. Facing adversity and ostracism, Dr. Ries, along with her physician assistant, Maggie Snyder, forged a path of compassion, discovery and quality care for a marginalized population. Because this is an historical documentary, I did a lot of research looking through archival materials, spending lots of time with our subjects before we started shooting, and looking at other historical docs about HIV/AIDS. Directing this film reminds that one of the best part of my job is getting to know the remarkable subjects who entrust us with their stories. I am very proud of this film, and premiering at Sundance is a dream come true for our entire team!

Contributing writer Diana Whitten, writes, makes art, and directs film.