Member Spotlight: Jill Zahner – American Film Institute

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Member Spotlight: Jill Zahner

This month, AFI interviewed Two-Star Member Jill Zahner from Campbell, CA. Jill has been a longstanding supporter of AFI since 2004, attending and volunteering at AFI’s festivals and participating in many fundraising endeavors, including Giving Tuesday. We spoke to Jill about how she first became involved with AFI, the importance of film preservation and the moviegoing experience, and the powerful connection between artists and audiences. 

AFI: What is your first memory of a film or television show that made you fall in love with the art form?

Jill: The first movie I remember seeing was THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI at the drive-in when I was four years old. A few years later, BLOOD AND SAND, with Tyrone Power and Rita Hayworth, was seared into my brain because in my mind’s eye the two leads resembled my parents. It was then that I got a sense that somehow movies had the capacity to both invade and project the psyche. At eight, when I saw THE MIRACLE WORKER with Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke, I began to understand that movies weren’t only fictional stories – they could also be a form of oral history to which any person on the street could relate.

A week after my daughter, Jorden, started junior high school she weighed in on that social scene with, “Well, Mom, I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t know who Cary Grant is.” I laughed, but it made the point that film is clearly a record of culture, which is ever-changing.

AFI: If you could have lunch with one filmmaker or artist alive or dead, who would it be and why?

Jill: I’m a fan of Frank Capra – although Irving Thalberg would run a close second. Filmmakers, stars and the public are interacting in an entirely different manner than 50, 75 years ago. Now, information about film is transmitted through a mind-boggling array of platforms, but those filmmakers of old weren’t accessible in the same way. I’m sure they would have phenomenal genius and fascinating perspectives to share. Given who I am, I wouldn’t waste time on a lunch; I’d shadow those greats on a set. That’s where I’d really learn about how genius creates enchantment.

AFI: How did you first hear about AFI, and why did you become an AFI member?

Jill: I was forever dragging Jorden to exhibits, Hollywood historical sites or film events in Los Angeles when she was young. It seemed obvious to me that film and the history behind it could fade from public consciousness and thus needed preservation. I searched the internet on that topic and came across AFI.  I started donating right away around 2004 since I’m a big believer in putting your money where your values are.

Then one day in 2012 I got a phone message from [AFI President and CEO] Bob Gazzale saying he wanted to talk to me. I had already donated that year, but AFI had sponsored an additional fundraiser and I had sent a check in support. I thought, “Oh God, something went haywire with my check; it bounced…” Instead, he was calling to tell me I had won the fundraising prize to attend AFI FEST as a guest of AFI. What an experience that was! Despite living in the Bay Area, I continued to volunteer at the festival nearly every year after that until COVID. I’m anxious to get back to it!

AFI: What part of AFI’s mission, programs or events resonates with you the most? 

Jill: Definitely its film and film history preservation efforts. I’ve been hyper-aware of the mystical phenomenon of cinema all my life, and my mind is rather “archeological” in how it processes. The combination of those two has always had me concerned about the conservation of film and archiving cinema history, and AFI understands the value of both of those. Recorded history reveals our perceptions, and film is much like ancient cuneiform tablets in that respect. Think of all we know of past civilizations because we’ve discovered their records. If film knowledge is lost, a critical link in our understanding of ourselves is missing and the continuum of our reality becomes irreparably broken. AFI considers itself a guardian of our artistic continuum, and I can get behind that.

AFI: As a previous attendee of AFI FEST, what have been some of your favorite moments from the festival in year’s past? What kind of experience would you like to see from the festival in the future?

Jill: As a volunteer, I love the whole usher/crowd control element because you meet so many people who are standing in line or needing to be seated. The chance to chat with strangers, most of whom are wildly committed film fans, is really a treat. Their enthusiasm and knowledge of film is remarkable.

I also think that the AFI FEST’s mix of average Joes/Janes and celebrity folk is a valuable experience, for both sides. It allows us to experience each other as essential to the whole artistic cycle. I’ve been lucky to have had a lot of moments with “big names” at the festival, and if you aren’t easily awed by celebrity, it makes for an insightful experience.

I remember the year that BY THE SEA was screened. Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt had just barely hit the ground at the airport and were whisked to the TCL Chinese Theatre to go on stage and discuss the film with the audience. What impressed me about that was their insistence that they provide the same interaction to the other fans who were watching the movie in one of the smaller theaters. The people in that spill-over audience were so thrilled to have Jolie and Pitt standing in front of them to introduce the film. I really appreciated the artists’ respect for their audience as co-contributors to the flow of artistic creation. Another great moment was before the screening of THE BIG SHORT when I was helping a late patron get seated in the dark. The patron rushed to the seat, I got jostled and stumbled backwards, and someone caught me. I turned to apologize and there stood Ryan Gosling and Steve Carell, one of whom pithily remarked, “Anything to help out our fans!” We had a great chat. It’s another example of the solidarity between artist and audience that can happen at AFI FEST.

AFI: Film theaters across the country are gradually beginning to reopen. How do you think moviegoing has evolved in the past year, and why do you think the theatrical experience is such a special one that needs preserving?

Jill: The great film director Frank Capra once said, “Film is one of three universal languages. The others are math and music.”  He also said, “Audience is the third dimension of film.” Those two ideas state an encompassing truth about film that transcends the vagaries of its evolution.

I attend a lot of theater as well as movies, and the truth is that in both mediums the audience holds the key because art is most fully realized when it has a witness. In stage theater, you are sending the energy directly back to the players on the stage, and they use that energy to enrich and propel the performance, which then reinforces your engagement with the story. The same energetic drive exists in film, but instead of the energy going directly back to the players, it marinates in the psyche. It needs someplace to go to keep the cycle moving. If fusion with the experience is the driver of art, I think Norma Desmond of SUNSET BLVD fame best encapsulated that by saying, “There’s nothing else. Just us, and the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark.” The scriptwriters were spot on about that mystique.  While film actors, producers and directors can’t directly receive our energy, the way movie fans can keep that energy moving is by buying the next ticket. That’s the film-goer’s opportunity for applause and devotion. And that cycle is what supports the creation of art.

We go to the movie theater to fuse with the story, to be cocooned in the dark – like a dream state. The movie theater — a collective experience with strangers — has its own unique gestalt. A movie theater serves as a huge campfire, around which we are all drawn, whether we know each other or not, to experience hypnotic storytelling. We collectively experience a wondrous event that includes people other than those in our living room, and that’s bonding—which by the way we desperately need in our world right now.

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