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‘The Royal Road’: An Alternative Approach to a Social-Justice Documentary

In her latest experimental film, Jenni Olson tackles California’s brutal colonial history—and, through a non-linear story and humorous narration, asks the viewer to draw their own conclusions about its contemporary applications.
Contemplative long shots of California’s El Camino Real highway and statues of Junipero Serra feature in Jenni Olson’s new film, The Royal Road.

Contemplative long shots of California’s El Camino Real highway and statues of Junipero Serra feature in Jenni Olson’s new film, The Royal Road.

It’s not every filmmaker who would intersperse a history of California’s colonial history with humorous anecdotes from a lesbian’s failed romantic conquests. But Jenni Olson, an experimental and self-identifying lesbian filmmaker, isn’t a conventional studio-system helmer. An LGBT film historian, critic, curator, marketer, and director, Olson makes landscape films—feature-length, essayistic movies that cover political topics though a combination of static shots of urban environments and reflective, personal, and often funny narration. Her work is labeled as “experimental,” even as it tackles topics that are both accessible and highly resonant in the contemporary political landscape. In her latest, The Royal Road, released on DVD and VOD last week, Olson serves up a timely reminder that, not so long ago, California belonged to Mexico.

The Royal Road’s narrator isn’t exactly forthcoming in pointing out the challenge the story—primarily a history of colonialism in California—poses for contemporary politicians backing hard-line immigration policies: Contemplative long shots of California’s El Camino Real highway, a funny story about the narrator’s pursuit of unavailable women in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and visual references to classical Hollywood films like Vertigo (1958) and Double Indemnity (1944) predominate. In short, it’s a 65-minute movie with a lot of spinning parts.

But it’s routine for Olson to encourage viewers to draw connections between the meditative images she presents in her films and news items in the present day themselves: Her first feature, 2005’s The Joy of Life, told the stories of both the Golden Gate Bridge’s history as a “suicide landmark” and a lesbian seeking romance in San Francisco; her 2008 short film 575 Castro St. set recorded audio that openly gay San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk made to be played in the event that he was killed (a particularly tragic—and chilling—case of serendipitous foresight) to images from the set of the eponymous 2008 biopic about him, which starred Sean Penn.

Already, The Royal Road has helped to discredit one of California’s most dubious colonial heroes. Film critics (and Olson herself) have the film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, in their criticisms of the Catholic Church’s controversial decision to canonize Junipero Serra.

Last week, we caught up with Olsonto discuss the modern meaning in The Royal Road’s history. In our discussion, Olson emphasized that her films begin as personal quests for knowledge—and that the meanings that viewers find in them are sometimes intended, but often coincidental and contextual.

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What drew you to make film about El Camino Real?

I became curious about the history of [Highway] 101 as I was driving up and down it, spending more time in the city. I had a sense of it being a political history and a social-justice history—using the history of the road as a way of talking about social justice and the current political situation in the state, and in San Francisco specifically as well, El Camino Real was a great device to approach a bunch of topics, including the Spanish colonization of California and the resulting defamation of the Native population.

What contemporary social-justice struggles does the film grapple with?

Just as the film was about to premiere at Sundance [Film Festival], Pope Francis made his announcement that he was going to canonize Serra, and there was this huge outpouring of discussion about what a problematic figure he was that continued through the actual canonization. It was exciting for the film to end up being a part of that dialogue. Now, Stanford [University] is looking at removing Serra’s name from some of the buildings there.

The film’s analysis of the Mexican-American War, meanwhile, looks at the way that we as a society tend to want to forget about the problematic, difficult, violent history of our country. [It regards] Native Americans as well as our Latino citizens, and the general anti-Mexican sentiment particularly,[in] Donald Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric. In the film, I say that it’s understandable that the United States as a country would want to forget about the Mexican-American war—but in this time of anti-Mexican sentiment, it’s easy to see the importance of remembering.

The initial impetus for that aspect of the film was this sense that so many Californians and Americans in general don’t really know the history of the Mexican-American War and that California and the entire American Southwest actually belonged to Mexico and that we provoked a war to seize it from them after having offered them $30 million for it—and they declined. I didn’t set out to make a conventional social-justice documentary, but the film does have those aspects to it.

To what extent when you started this film was it about a personal reflection for you, and to what extent was it intended to inform viewers in this way?

The initial impulse behind the film is as a personal, character-based, poetic monologue, and that my interest in creating unconventional narrative experience that impacts the viewer in a different way than conventional filmmaking. I’m really interested in landscape filmmaking and what it’s possible to create within this completely different way of storytelling in cinema—all you’re seeing are these empty, urban landscapes and long takes with very little movement, very little sound, even. Viewers are put in an almost-meditative state by that quiet space; they have a really different engagement with it than with a regular narrative film or a regular documentary film, where they are being told about how you’re supposed to feel, or things are moving along, and they’re just keeping up. [These kinds of films] gives viewers room for their own feelings.

You’re a filmmaker known for these urban landscape films but you’re also a critic, curator, marketer, and general expert on queer films. Does your preferred format of filmmaking overlap with your work in the LGBT space, or come out of it, to a certain extent?

Yes. It’s kind of like right-brain, left-brain thing, my switching between work in filmmaking and in geeky history—I do creative filmmaking like The Royal Road and then I do much more straightforward LGBT film-history things like my book, The Queer Movie Poster Book, and looking at the history of LGBT movie marketing.

All of it arises out of my sense that queer film is crucially important: The way that I was able to come out was reading Vito Russo’s book The Celluloid Closet, about the history of homosexuality in film. I feel like that book saved my life. When I read the book, I started a gay film series on campus at the University of Minnesota in 1986. That was the beginning of my interest in LGBT film and my sense of how much of a difference it can make in people’s lives.

That said, landscape films in particular are a very tiny sub-genre of experimental film—there are a handful of films and filmmakers. The first one that I saw happened to be queer—a film called Massillon by William E. Jones, [released] in 1991—but in general the other landscape filmmakers are not necessarily queer.

You mentioned Russo’s book The Celluloid Closet, which is really interesting given the content of the film, which references classical Hollywood cinema a great deal. As Russo showed, it was a time when queer characters were only suggested, or didn’t exist at all.

I love classic Hollywood film; I look at it from a pure enjoyment perspective that doesn’t even really have much to do with my queer identity per se; I love it regardless of the absence of queer characters. From when I was a little kid, I loved watching old classic Hollywood films on television, from Jimmy Cagney to Fred Astaire to the Marx Brothers. I’ve always been captivated.

The film tackles the concept of nostalgia, particularly in the scenes in which you say you have attempted to preserve the San Francisco landscape by filming it. Were you thinking about the ongoing changes to the city’s artistic and queer cultures as you were doing so?

My initial impulse was the simple sense that the physical landscape is changing, and I just wanted to shoot these buildings that were literally disappearing, or spaces where buildings—tall buildings—were appearing. The film has a quality of almost pure documentary: Literally, if you watched it with the sound turned down, you would be looking at a documentation of the landscape. There are already dozens of shops that are no longer there.

I don’t necessarily tackle fast-paced development, gentrification, and displacement directly in the film, but there is an awareness of that, and people are connecting with it [through those themes]. I have a quote from Vertigo within the films, where one of the characters says, “The things that spell San Francisco to me are disappearing fast”—the gist being that this is the perennial lament and that people have been saying this forever. But obviously the pace of development and the politics around it are really serious right now, and it’s painful to see the way that it’s happening. The film is engaging with that in ways that are more complicated than talking about it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.