Coming Out at a Theater Near You

How Jenni Olson founded a film festival--and became a queer cinema impresario in the process

Olson has also put her archives on film, splicing together original Hollywood trailers for gay-themed movies for screening at film festivals. Her trailer programs (including Homo Promo, Jodie Promo, Trailer Camp, Afro Promo, and Trailers Schmailers) function as queer film samplers, or, as Susan Sontag has described them, "cinematic Cliffs Notes on camp." Olson also directs and produces films, from her own critically acclaimed five-minute Blue Diary (1998), to Pratibha Parmar's short documentary, Jodie, an Icon.

Moreover, as a "freelance curator," Olson locates archival footage and film prints for filmmakers; her clients have included Spike Lee, Su Friedrich (The Lesbian Avengers Eat Fire, Too), and William Jones (Massillon). Renown notwithstanding--Olson informally helps coordinate 120 festivals around the world--she remains true to her school, as she continues to co-program the festival here, along with organizer Bob Strong. "I want to do what I can to help bring films to my hometown," Olson says of her continuing role in the festival she founded. With an eye on the perennial paucity of lesbian fare on the festival's programs, Olson works to ensure the inclusion of films by and about lesbians. "We definitely have had a lot of back-and-forth communication about what's going on with lesbian programming, she says, recommending Monika Treut's Gendernauts and Lukas Moodysson's Show Me Love in this year's program.


Queuing up: Queer cineaste Jenni Olson
Queuing up: Queer cineaste Jenni Olson

"There may be an abundance of gay characters floating around on various screens these days," Vito Russo wrote in 1985, "but plus ça change... Gay visibility has never really been an issue in the movies. Gays have always been visible. It's how they have been visible that's [at issue]."

Almost 15 years later, the issues as Russo defined them remain practically the same. As American pop culture admits a (selective) gay presence on the TV and the silver screen, the question of mainstream visibility and commercial viability versus independent integrity and political potency looms even larger. Some critics charge that gay films, unduly influenced by sitcoms and teen-sex comedies, have become distressingly conventional. Film Comment, for example, recently characterized new gay movies as "unbearably light," "relentlessly cheerful," "cotton-candy fantasies," and "softcore melodramas." And on the occasion of this year's Outfest, LA Weekly complained that "we're swamped with a lot of coming-out tales that are less imaginative than an episode of Dawson's Creek."

Olson is in a unique position to disagree. "We've seen a number of gay comedies that look glossier, or simpler, or that have more light, mainstream appeal. But I don't see those films compromising what they have to say. Like P.J. Castellaneta couldn't get Relax, It's Just Sex picked up by a distributor, because they wouldn't accept the opening sequence, which is butt-fucking in the first 60 seconds. And the distributors were like, 'If you take that out, sure we'll distribute your film.' And he wouldn't do it. He ended up going with a smaller, specialty gay distributor. So even films that appear to be sort of light, comic fare, are still challenging in different ways."

And while Olson, following Russo, says she doesn't "expect anything from Hollywood," she still hopes to sway studios and distributors alike with grassroots moviegoing. Consequently, PopcornQ endorses "The Queer First Weekend Club," organized to raise Hollywood's awareness of the demand for lesbian and gay cinema by attending movies en masse the weekend they open. And even the "straightest" Hollywood fare is open to queer interpretation; as Olson writes online, "Half the fun of watching 'straight' films is assigning a queer reading to them. Then sitting back and winking conspiratorially at each other while your literal-minded friends wonder what you're up to."

But there's simply no substitute, as Olson sees it, for queer film festivals. "To see gay films in a gay film festival, there's nothing like it," she says, describing the excitement of watching rare movies, "cruising the popcorn line," and schmoozing at gala receptions sponsored by gay businesses. Festivals revive the old-fashioned practice of call-and-response audience participation that characterized queer moviegoing before chain theaters, while fusing this to a new sophisticated, subtext-savvy sensibility.

As Olson says, "Today people often say, 'Oh, now there's gay films all over the place, and we don't really need gay film festivals anymore.' The truth is, we will always need gay film festivals."

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