Butch Filmmaker Rising


As a queer-experimental-documentary filmmaker there are times when I lament the limitations of this multiply hyphenated niche (it really is highly unlikely that I will ever be nominated for an Oscar). This sometimes extremely challenging chosen path includes such obstacles as a serious shortage of institutional funding opportunities, a limited potential audience of interested viewers (though I’m proud of overturning the myth that experimental film has to be painful to watch) and pretty much zero chance of recouping the costs of production due to the non-commercial nature of my films.


But as is true of so many life paths, the rewards and gifts outweigh these difficulties. And ultimately I feel grateful to create work within an artistic field that has such an amazing (and extremely queer) heritage including such pioneers and luminaries as Kenneth Anger, Andy Warhol, James Broughton, Barbara Hammer, Su Friedrich, Marlon Riggs, Cheryl Dunye, William Jones and others.

Some of you may be familiar with my first feature, The Joy of Life (in a nutshell: the adventures of a butch dyke in San Francisco and the history of suicide and the Golden Gate Bridge). Please go rent it on iTunes or Amazon Watch Instantly, or get the DVD from Netflix or your local video store. Like most of my other short films, The Joy of Life arises out of my passion for 16mm urban landscapes (shot with very simple compositions and using very long takes) in combination with an intimate first-person butch voiceover. To get a sense of my unique aesthetic, you can watch my 1997 short film, Blue Diary right here:

Over the years, most of my films have been fundamentally informed by my perspective as a butch lesbian — Meep! Meep! is a one-minute reflection on lost love; Sometimes a reflection on identifying with Marlon Brando; and Levi’s 501s Commercial about one of the many things I like to do in my 501s. My original impulse to make these kinds of films arose out of two desires — wanting to put butch voices on screen and wanting to impress girls.  Yes, it’s true. While I always think of my work as inherently queer, my chief interest as a filmmaker relates to form and style.

My new film, The Royal Road continues the unusual storytelling vision of my previous work. Shot on 16mm film, The Royal Road contemplatively frames a 70-minute sequence of simple urban landscapes in Los Angeles and San Francisco (and the exquisite California light), as a yearning butch lesbian hero offers up a wonderfully entertaining voiceover including an exploration of El Camino Real (the original trail connecting the territory’s Missions during the era of Spanish and Mexican rule); all the while pursuing two unavailable women (one in San Francisco, the other in Los Angeles).

As a verbal and visual diary the film offers an intimate glimpse into the life of an erudite butch movie addict during a remarkable period of self-discovery. The Royal Road balances melancholy angst with wry humor as our lone protagonist conveys her stream-of-consciousness monologue. The film’s pacing is contemplative and sensual. The visual strategy is simple — a series of urban landscape shots (empty alleys, weathered buildings, a dark street corner) mirror the melancholy voiceover of the film’s protagonist. The relation between voiceover and image is often oblique but always in collaboration. This bold, innovative film combines rigorous historical research with lyrically written memoir and relates these seemingly disparate stories from an intimate, colloquial perspective to tell a one-of-a-kind California tale.


While I may not win any Academy Awards, I’m extremely proud to be one of the few active butch voices in LGBT cinema today (a big shout out here for Campbell X who recently released Stud Life. And please share your favorite butch films and filmmakers in the comments field below). In closing, I want to share one of my favorite reviews of The Joy of Life (from lesbian film critic and academic Terri Sutton). “Part dyke’s own Sex and the City, part documentary, and all collage, The Joy of Life provides a lover’s look at the pain and bliss of desiring, whether the desired be a beautiful woman, a dead friend, a place called San Francisco, or film itself.”

I’m aspiring for The Royal Road to be an equally accomplished follow up — passionately crafted to feature a butch voice on the screen and… to impress all the girls!

LGBT filmmaker and film historian Jenni Olson is currently raising funds via Kickstarter for her latest film project, The Royal Road — please contribute if you can.

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