For filmmaker Jenni Olson, who just received the Berlin International Film Festival’s 2021 Special Teddy Award for achievement in queer cinema, the journey to that prestigious honor began with a movie series at her university.
In 1986, while a student at the University of Minnesota, Olson read Vito Russo’s groundbreaking book The Celluloid Closet, which examines portrayals of homosexuality and gender variance in films from the silent era onward. That led Olson to start a film series, Lavender Images. “I wanted to see the films that Vito Russo wrote about, and I thought other people would want to see them too,” she says.
That started her off on a career as a film critic, curator, historian, and writer-director-producer who’s made movies in what’s been called an essayistic style. “I never expected I would grow up to be honored by one of the most important international film festivals,” she tells The Advocate.
The Special Teddy Award is presented for “outstanding achievement and long-term service to a figure from the creative industries whose work has made an exceptional contribution to a wide-scale public perception and reception of queer perspectives in art, culture and the media,” according to a press release from the film festival. Past recipients include Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Joe Dallesandro, Udo Kier, Christine Vachon, and Monika Treut.
Still from The Joy of Life.
Olson’s achievements are indeed outstanding. Her documentary films include 2005’s The Joy of Life, which looks at a butch lesbian’s love affairs and the role of the Golden Gate Bridge as a suicide location, and 2016’s The Royal Road, which examines the Spanish colonization of California along with butch identity, unavailable women, and classic Hollywood movies. Both mix images of urban California landscapes with lyrical voice-over. The focus on place make these films particularly interesting for queer travelers.
Her next project, The Quiet World, will deal with growing up queer in Minnesota, and Olson is writing an essayistic memoir to accompany it.
“I mainly say I’m an essay filmmaker or experimental filmmaker — I make urban landscape essay films,” she says. “They’re unconventional, very digressive, and very queer.”
Her filmmaking career was inspired by William E. Jones’s 1991 documentary Massillon, about his experience of growing up gay in the small town of Massillon, Ohio, also using an essayistic style. “That was what made me want to make movies,” says Olson, who interviewed Jones for The Advocate at the time.
Olson, now a resident of Berkeley, Calif., has also been co-director of Frameline’s San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival, the oldest and largest queer film festival in the world, and worked as director of marketing at LGBTQ+ film distributor Wolfe Video. She has put together films of LGBTQ+ movie images and trailers such as Homo Promo and Trailer Camp. She has amassed a huge collection of LGBTQ+ film prints and memorabilia, acquired last year by the Harvard Film Archive. She was a cofounder of media company PlanetOut. She has written articles for a variety of publications and published The Queer Movie Poster Book. The Oxford Handbook of Queer Cinema, containing her reflections on the last 30 years of LGBTQ+ film history, will soon be published by Oxford University Press.
She’s currently co-director of the Bressan Project, devoted to restoring and re-releasing the films of pioneering gay filmmaker Arthur J. Bressan Jr., and she spent the past year working with GLAAD on the Social Media Safety Project, which seeks to hold social media platforms accountable for the safety of their LGBTQ+ users. She has been a consulting producer and archival producer-researcher on dozens of projects, including HBO Max’s LGBTQ+ history series Equal and Netflix’s Disclosure.
The Berlin International Film Festival awards ceremony took place virtually this year but the distance hasn’t in any way dampened Olson’s enthusiasm about receiving the Special Teddy. “I am so thrilled,” she says. “I am so incredibly proud.”
Videos of the awards and interviews with various filmmakers can be found here.