Jenni Olson is an acclaimed nonfiction filmmaker, writer, film curator, historian and collector based in San Francisco. Her two feature-length essay films, The Joy of Life (2005) and The Royal Road (2015), premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and, like her many short works, have been widely acclaimed for their unique storytelling style. Combining mundane urban landscapes with intimate voiceover narration, these durational, formalist 16mm films often revolve around recurring themes of gender identity and butchness, the joys of Hollywood cinema and identification with its characters and a longing for unavailable women. She unearths arcane yet politically meaningful histories—a recounting of the Spanish colonization of California, the history of suicide and the Golden Gate Bridge, an appreciation of the work of French Symbolist poet Jules Laforgue—and remains philosophically devoted to the redemption of nostalgia as a path for the rediscovery of lost wisdom. Olson describes her contemplative film practice as a “completely impossible and yet partially successful effort to stop time.”
One of the world’s leading experts on LGBT film history and a longtime champion of LGBT cinema around the world, Olson has been writing about and facilitating access to these marginalized films since 1986. She has published two books on the subject—The Ultimate Guide to Lesbian & Gay Film and Video (Serpent’s Tail, 1996) and The Queer Movie Poster Book (Chronicle Books, 2005)—and curated a popular, illuminating series of vintage 35mm movie trailer programs that explore different themes in her collection: Homo Promo and Neo Homo Promo, Trailer Camp and Bride of Trailer Camp, Afro Promo, Trailers Schmailers and Jodie Promo, a chronological coming attractions overview of Jodie Foster’s career. Materials from Jenni’s personal archive of rare LGBT film prints have been featured in dozens of films including the acclaimed documentaries Stonewall Uprising (2010) and I Am Divine (2013).
In addition to her decades of curatorial experience—including stints at the Minneapolis/St. Paul and San Francisco LGBT Film Festivals—Jenni has written extensively about LGBT film since 1987 for such outlets as The Advocate, Filmmaker Magazine and the San Francisco Bay Guardian and is currently a contributing critic for LOGO TV’s online magazine NewNowNext. She serves on the advisory boards of the Outfest/UCLA Legacy Project for LGBT Moving Image Preservation, Canyon Cinema, the Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival and San Francisco Suicide Prevention. She is also a board member of the Jewish Film Institute and the co-founder of the legendary Queer Brunch at Sundance. With her decades of experience in virtually every realm of the independent film world, she continues to present her films and speak about experimental documentary filmmaking and LGBT film history at colleges, museums and film festivals worldwide while working as an independent consultant. Most recently she co-founded The Bressan Project where she is currently overseeing the restoration and re-release of the long unavailable films of gay indie filmmaker Arthur J. Bressan, Jr.
In nomine Patris (2019, experimental short, 2 min.) Writer/Director
The Royal Road (2015, experimental feature, 65 min.) Writer/Director
575 Castro St. (2009, experimental short, 7 min.) Writer/Director
The Joy of Life (2005, experimental feature, 65 min.) Writer/Director
Matzo Maidels (2003, video, 5 min.). Co-directed with Julie Dorf & Monica Nolan
Sing Along San Francisco (2002, 35mm, 5 min.) Producer, Jenni Olson, Director, Georgina Corzine.
Meep Meep! (2000, experimental video, 1 min.) Writer/Director/Producer
Blue Diary (1998, 16mm, experimental film, 7 min.) Writer/Director
Blow-Up (1997, experimental video, 6 min.) Co-directed with Kadet Kuhne
Sometimes (1994, experimental video, 1 min.) Writer/Director/Producer
Levi’s 501s Commercial (1991, experimental video, 1 min.) Writer/Director/Producer
About the Collection
Acquired in April 2020, the collection consists of two major series. The first consists of materials relating to Jenni Olson’s own filmmaking—including prints, negatives, digital masters, and production and distribution documentation—and the second is Olson’s vast trove of film and video material documenting LGBT film history. This portion of the collection consists of 35mm and 16mm feature films, such as That Tender Touch (1969), Dallas Doll (1994), Times Square (1980), Something Special, aka I Was a Teenage Boy (1986), The Gay Deceivers (1969), and The Maids (1975); as well as shorts such as Queens at Heart—a lost queer film from 1967 documenting interviews with trans women, the lesbian sex-ed short In Winterlight (1974), and vintage lesbian erotic shorts such as Costume Party and No Help Needed (both ca. 1940). This portion of the collection extends to a variety of ephemeral materials, including commercials and educational films such as Red Light, Green Light (a film from the 1960s teaching children that meeting a homosexual is worse than falling into a ditch or getting hit by a speeding car) and I Am Something Else (a 1970s Canadian film about trans women), 16mm footage of Anita Bryant getting a pie in the face from 1977, silent-era material (Charlie Chaplin in drag, an Our Gang episode with queer overtones) and A Question of Love, the first lesbian made-for-tv movie from 1978.
The collection also features a small set of queer home movies—with detailed shot lists— documenting gay pride parades in San Francisco, in addition to Olson’s many trailer compilation reels. In sum, Olson’s goal as a collector was to obtain every type of major (and minor) representation of the LGBT community in visual popular culture to understand how the prejudices and attitudes toward this community were shaped by specific societal messages. This area of the collection also includes Olson’s writings on LGBT film history, plus research materials and correspondence from over thirty years of working in the LGBT indie film world, including her activities not only as a historian, curator and filmmaker but also her work in film distribution and marketing (she served as director of marketing for LGBT distributor Wolfe Video from 2005-2016); online LGBT media (she co-founded PlanetOut.com and the pioneering LGBT film website, PopcornQ in 1995); and as a producer, consultant and advisor on hundreds of queer films over the decades.
A selection from her extensive collection of queer film posters is featured in Exhibitions.
The collection is currently unprocessed and closed to research. Processing is expected to be completed in 2022. After that is complete, an inventory can be provided by request. Please contact the collections staff for details.
A number of Jenni Olson's films are available on her Vimeo page.
Peterson, Jennifer. “The Long Take Breathes, It Makes Room: An Interview with Jenni Olson on INCITE, July 27, 2016.