When it comes to the queer indie film world, Jenni Olson figures she has done it all, even selling popcorn. (It’s true!) Over a career that spans back to the latter end of the 1980s, she has established herself as a filmmaker, critic, curator, archivist, historian, distributor, consultant, and so much more.
Now she’s being recognized for the often unrecognized force she is. The Berlinale, Berlin’s International Film Festival, where she premiered her short Blue Diary in 1998 is honoring Olson this year for her lifetime of achievement with a special Teddy Award—one of the top honors in the indie film world. (You can livestream the award ceremony Fri/18 at 10am PDT here.)
The award, says the festival’s press release, is in recognition of “decades of bridge-building work with which she has made queer film history visible and tangible… Jenni Olson embodies, lives and creates queer film culture.”
For Olson, her road to this latest tribute and a four-decade career in the queer cinema trenches began when she was a student at the University of Minnesota in 1986 and read Vito Russo’s seminal 1981 work, The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies. The author would go on to become one of Olson’s mentors, but the effect of the book was more immediate.
“I realized I wanted to see all the movies that Vito wrote about,” Olson says during a recent Zoom chat. “And then I thought other people would want to, as well, and so I started a gay film series on campus. And so, kind of curating, and then becoming a film critic for the gay paper was the beginning of my career in LGBT film.”
By 1991, Olson was in San Francisco where she became co-director with the late Mark Finch of the Frameline LGBTQ+ film festival. She was also beginning to amass a large collection of memorabilia, posters, press books, films, and especially trailers, which she compiled into theatrical exhibitions.
She was also among the first to the internet party in 1995 when she cofounded trailblazing LGBTQ website PlanetOut, which became the largest gay and lesbian movie (and connection) site on the web, and one that offered a kind of primitive form of streaming, with shorts screening via Real Player.
“I remember feeling that it was like the days of silent movies, because it was like these little, tiny things and everyone’s using a dial-up modem,” Olson says.
“One of the big things that I did at PlanetOut was Popcorn Q that was the queer film section of PlanetOut, a kind of gay IMDb-like database of every gay movie. And then we had a lot of professional resources, like an old-fashioned listserv for filmmakers and distributors and festival programmers and publicists and journalists. I built a lot of tools like that to network people.”
From PlanetOut, she went to Wolfe Video, the South Bay-based LGBTQ distributor, where Olson worked in marketing and distribution for 11 years. In 1997, she founded the Queer Brunch at the Sundance Film Festival.
“That’s one of the things I’m most proud of, that piece of my career of finding ways to connect people and facilitating connections between LGBT films and audiences that need to see them.”
The ironic thing is that if it was possible to make a living as an artist in the United States, Olson may have had a quite different career. Her own films, which include the features The Joy of Life (2005), The Royal Road (2015), and her current work-in-progress The Quiet World, are experimental essays, her 16mm images capturing empty Bay Area landscapes, intensely personal works.
“Being an experimental filmmaker is not a ‘job,'” Olson says. “It’s a good thing that being an artist is not a sustainable career because it meant that I did all this other work. So much of my career, of having jobs in the film world is because I have to have a job.”
The world may have slowed for the pandemic, but Olson did not. She has continued to advance queer film and queer stories, serving as consult producer on a pair of documentaries, Disclosure and No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics, and as archival producer on the recent TV documentary series Equal.
The Criterion Channel offered a retrospective, “The Films of Jenni Olson.” The Harvard Film Archive acquired her archives, in two parts, one relating to her filmmaking and the other of her extensive collection of LGBTQ cinema materials. More recently, Out Magazine named her to its 2021 “Out 100 List.”
Currently, she is working on The Quiet World and a memoir of the same name. Like her other films, the new one will mix new images with film Olson has shot over the years, some as far back as the 1990s.
“When I look back at the reservoir of footage, I feel like it has extra layers of emotional resonance to it,” Olson says. “And in general, I also have a whole theory about the emotional resonance of the landscape and giving the viewer all of this space to actually feel their feelings in the landscape.
“Spiritually, psychologically, it brings me back,” she adds. “Oddly, thinking of the past or connecting to the past brings me back to the present. There’s a melancholy or a sadness or a sense of loss, but it’s also a joy and a liveliness, a mindfulness, we’re alive.
“Let’s be here. It’s sad, being alive is sad, but not in a bad way. It’s mixed with feelings of joy, a lot of joy. I always say, The Joy of Life, that title, there’s nothing ironic in that title. That film is about being alive.”
In a way, Olson has won the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game in being feted with the Teddy Award, the prize connecting her to past winners that include Udo Kier, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Christine Vachon, Monika Treut, Rosa von Praunheim, and Joe Dallesandro.
“It was really cool seeing all those names, amazing company,” says Olson. “Yeah, me and Joe Dallesandro, that’s a good one.”