Essential SF Q&A: Jenni Olson

By Pam Grady

Filmmaker Jenni Olson has been a co-director at Frameline, the San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival. She was a co-founder of and is the VP of Marketing at Wolfe Video. She is on the board of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and the advisory board of Canyon Cinema. She is also an advisor and producer on projects not her own, including acting as a consulting producer on two current productions, The Freedom to Marry and the SFFS-supported AWOL. 2015 saw the release of her latest film The Royal Road, her first feature since The Joy of Life (2005), an evocation and pondering of the Spanish conquest of California, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and desire, as well as a spirited defense of nostalgia. In her close to 25 years in San Francisco, Olson has become essential to cinema by the Bay, just as the city itself, in inspiring her work, has become essential to her.

San Francisco Film Society: Where are you from originally?

Jenni Olson: St. Paul, Minnesota.

SFFS: Were you always a film person?

JO: I studied film history and theory. My line always is that I didn’t learn how to make movies, I learned how to watch them.

SFFS: What brought you to the Bay Area originally?

JO: The job at Frameline, actually. When I was in college [at the University of Minnesota], I started a gay film festival in 1986. I did that for several years and then I would come here to Frameline to watch films to see what to bring back there. In 1991, they were hiring what was then known as the guest curator position. I figured in my little tiny world of gay film programming, that was pretty much the best job in the world. I applied and got hired for the ’92 festival. I moved here January 1, 1992 to program Frameline and then I was co-director of Frameline through the ’94 festival.

SFFS: You’ve been a programmer. You’re a filmmaker. You’re a vice president of Wolfe Video. How long have you been at Wolfe now?

JO: I’ve been at Wolfe 10 years. I did Frameline and then right after Frameline, I published a book called The Ultimate Guide to Lesbian and Gay Film and Video. Right at that moment, Tom Rielly was starting and brought me on to do the film and entertainment stuff. And so my book became the database for the film section at PlanetOut, which was called Popcorn Q. Then we did all this amazing stuff with gay film. We were the first online cinema for LGBT short films in the early days of RealPlayers back when they were tiny, postage-stamp-sized players. It was like watching silent movies. I got to do that from ’95 to 2002. I was also making films during that time, and then I wrote my next book, The Queer Movie Poster Book, which came out in 2005. At the same time, I did my previous film, The Joy of Life, and then right after that I started at Wolfe.

SFFS: You shot The Royal Road in 16mm.

JO: It was shot in 16mm. It was finished in digital format, but it is more and more a big deal to me that I shoot on 16mm film. It’s very important, both just kind of organically in terms of the things I’m interested in addressing and in the aesthetic quality.

SFFS: What is it about 16mm that you find so attractive?

JO: It’s a combination of the grain of the image, the color quality, the saturated colors that you can get, the aspect ratio, because it’s a 4:3, kind of a more squarish aspect ratio, because I shoot regular 16mm. I got to see Carol a couple of weeks ago. Todd Haynes shot on Super 16, and there’s just a visual quality to it that you can’t get any other way. In terms of what I’m dealing with thematically in my films, I’m dealing a lot with history and memory and nostalgia and movies. I feel in some ways The Royal Road is a film about film and so there’s an organic connection between what it’s about and what it’s shot on that is really all part of the same package.

SFFS: You shot the film over a number of years, much of it right here in San Francisco, so you witnessed the city evolve.

JO: I say in the film that I’ve shot the landscapes of San Francisco since a few years after I arrived here. I started filming in 1997, during the first dot-com boom, which I was a part of at PlanetOut. We were freaking out, thinking, ‘The city is changing so fast.’ They were just starting the Transbay Terminal project. They were about to knock things down over there. I remember having this sense of urgency, of wanting to shoot things. Of course, that was nothing compared to now and how fast things are changing. I’m really proud that I’ve documented so many things that are gone now. I do have the sense that The Royal Road and The Joy of Life and my short film, Blue Diary, that they are these essential documentaries in the sense that they are a literal documentation of the landscape.

SFFS: With all the changes going on here, what makes San Francisco still essential to you?

JO: The first thing I thought of, and it seems surprising to say, is the people, because as landscape films, my films have no people in them. Sometimes I think people might think that I’m a bit of misanthrope, because I just don’t want any people in my movies. But I’m in love with the landscape and the buildings and the light, and the weather, and the qualities of the physical space, but there’s no question that it’s also the people. There’s a line that I have where I say this thing about, ‘San Francisco, where self-discovery is a civic value.’ It’s kind of jokey, like an insider joke, ‘Yeah, that’s how we are.’ I remember watching the local premiere at the San Francisco International Film Festival. I remember seeing that line and thinking, ‘Is that still true of our identity, as a city?’ I kind of thought like there are the people who I think of as my compatriots who feel that way, but the people who are coming in fresh, they may not think of their civic identity in that way.

I really like the concept of the flaneur, Walter Benjamin writes a lot about it, kind of the person walking around in the city, just experiencing the city, kind of wandering. I love just wandering and connecting with the smallness of the city and the neighborhoods and the individual character.

SFFS: We live in an area where there are something like 65 film festivals. Is that something you think that, even as things change, helps to keep the Bay Area what it is in terms of being a place where cinema can be art and flourish instead of just multiplex commerce?

JO: Yeah, that’s an interesting angle on it. My background, initially, is as a film festival programmer. It was how I came out, so I’ve always had this sense of how essential it is, how life-changing, how lifesaving it can be to see images of ourselves on screen, for all identity-based groups where you’re not represented in mainstream film. We’ve got the Asian American festival, the Jewish festival, the Latin American festival, obviously the gay festival, all these different festivals. The American Indian festival here is also like the oldest and largest—so many of the festivals here are the oldest and largest of their kind; Jewish, the gay festival. I think you do have a sense of those festivals as these essential, cultural treasures and that the values associated with them are about creating community.

Essential SF is the San Francisco Film Society's ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions. This year's inductees—filmmaker and curator Craig Baldwin, longtime film distributor California Newsreel, Mill Valley Film Festival Director of Programming Zoë Elton, journalist Michael Fox and filmmakers Jenni Olson and Jennifer Phang—will be honored at this annual celebration. A key event in the Film Society's year-round appreciation of local talent, this tribute shines a light on the region's most unique and creative personalities and their invaluable contributions to the film world.