Berkeley filmmaker champions queer heroes of all genders

LGBTQ+ historian and filmmaker Jenni Olson brings “Masc: Trans Men, Butch Dykes, and Gender Nonconforming Heroes in Cinema” to Berkeley in January and February. (Courtesy Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive)

By preserving and protecting LGBTQ-themed films, Berkeley’s Jenni Olson props open a window for the queer community, giving people the opportunity to see their stories reflected on big and little screens. 

There’s power and unity in creating a haven and a huge need for it, particularly for people who are trans and being targeted, Olson says. 

“Trans people are under attack in the country right now in ways that are just unbelievable, and should not be experiencing this,” she says. “Like leave us alone (and) go deal with actual problems and (stop) fear mongering…. We deserve to just go to the movies like everybody else.” 

The hostile attitude has even strengthened Olson’s resolve and commitment as a film historian, advocate, and filmmaker to keep those windows open. It’s a belief that has shaped and fueled her career. 

“I think my entire life’s work is about how vital it is to see ourselves on screen, see ourselves in culture, and then especially to see these representations together,” says Olson, 61, whose series “Masc: Trans Men, Butch Dykes, and Gender Nonconforming Heroes in Cinema” runs Jan. 19-Feb. 25 at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. 

Released in 2001, “By Hook or by Crook” —directed and written by Harry Dodge and Silas Howard and shot in the Bay Area — remains as timely as ever. (Courtesy Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive)

The program includes the Bay Area-shot drama “By Hook or Crook” (a 2001 butch and trans buddy film Olson considers ahead of its time in how it views gender identity) and Kate Davis’ poignant 2001 Sundance Film Festival award-winner “Southern Comfort,” a touching, influential portrait of Robert Eads, a terminally ill trans man and his supportive community in a rural Georgia town. It’s also prescient, addressing the deplorable medical treatment and care he received—a subject that resonates today for anyone who is trans. 

“Southern Comfort” is an inspirational documentary about a dying trans man and his supportive community. (Courtesy Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive).

Films in the lineup qualify as groundbreaking, as does the series, which offers a fluid set of titles.  

“I am not aware of any previous curated series like this (one)…of making those connections, having these conversations and also just being in solidarity together,” says Olson, who received a special Teddy Award in 2021 from The Berlinale, Berlin’s international film festival, for her “decades of bridge-building work with which she has made queer film history visible and tangible.” 

Olson co-curated the program, which has traveled from Brooklyn to UCLA, with film critic Caden Mark Gardner, who is trans. Also, the Criterion Channel has been highlighting the series, including films that will not be shown in Berkeley. 

Olson, the proprietor of the website (“a conceptual worldwide safe space dedicated to butches everywhere”), made the Bay Area-focused documentaries — 2005’s “The Joy of Life,” 2015’s “The Royal Road” and 2009’s haunting “575 Castro St.” among other films. Together, they are meditative, poetic experiences that ruminate about being queer and California history.  

Olson is particularly excited about “Masc” at its final stop in the Bay Area, the home of Frameline, the world’s largest LGBTQ film festival. All films in the lineup have screened at Frameline, which is a co-presenter with Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project and the Gender and Women’s Studies Department at the University of California, Berkeley.  

In “No Ordinary Man,” Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt take an innovative approach in relating the true story of musician and trans icon Billy Tipton. (Courtesy Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive)

The program, a rich blend of notable as well as little-seen documentaries, narratives and shorts, includes post-screening conversations with Olson that venture beyond rote Q&As.  

Lisa Udelson’s little-seen “Lifetime Guarantee: Phranc’s Adventures in Plastic.” (Courtesy Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive)

That holds true with the first screening, the inventive “No Ordinary Man” at 7 p.m. Jan. 19. Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt’s vibrant 2020 documentary about musician Billy Tipton reinvigorates the doc format as it considers how Tipton’s trans identity was sensationalized in the media upon his 1988 death. Peppered with performances and insights from trans actors and historians, “No Ordinary Man” defies nonfiction conventions. 

Susan Stryker, author of “Transgender History: The Roots of Today’s Revolution” and co-director of the excellent Emmy-winning “Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria” (about a pre-Stonewall 1966 standoff between trans and drag performers and police in San Francisco’s Tenderloin) and award-winning novelist Isaac Fellman, a GLBT Historical Society archivist, join Olson for the “No Ordinary Man” discussion. 

Other films not to miss include Lisa Udelson’s little-seen charmer “Lifetime Guarantee: Phranc’s Adventures in Plastic” (7 p.m. Feb. 25) about a lesbian folksinger who became a lovable Southern California Tupperware salesperson; and the fascinating 1995 documentary “Shinjuku Boys” (5 p.m. Feb. 25) by Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams, which looks at the lives of three assigned-female-at-birth nightclub hosts in Tokyo. 

In “Shinjuku Boys,” directors Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams focus on three assigned-female-at-birth hosts at a mid-1990s Tokyo club who talk about their lives and encounters with straight women. (Courtesy Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive)

“Masc–The Shorts” (7 p.m. Feb. 17) offers nine short films, including “Pete,” a sweet seven-minute movie for families by San Francisco filmmaker Bret Parker, a Pixar animator since 1996. 

The delightful 2022 film (which was short-listed for an Oscar) tells a personal tale about Parker’s wife Pete Barma, who cowrote and executive produced the film. Parker and Barma thought a story about Pete as an 8-year-old in Florida playing Little League baseball and encountering allies and detractors both on and off the field would make an ideal short.  

“Pete,” a sweet crowd-pleaser about gender identity by a San Francisco filmmaker who works at Pixar, was short-listed for an Oscar. (Courtesy Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive)

Working on “Pete” off-hours at Pixar, where a cooperative program allows employees access to company software and additional resources on approved projects, Parker calls the short a true team effort, with many Pixar coworkers volunteering to chip in.

Parker and Barma took “Pete” on the festival circuit, starting at the Tribeca Film Festival, where it received an enthusiastic response. From there, it caught on. 

“After a little while it just sort of started to have a life of its own,” she said. 

Now Parker and Barma are working on turning it into a feature. Parker says, “I call it a queer coming-of-age story that’s in a ‘Forrest Gump’-style where you get to watch people grow up kind of through flashbacks.” 

Parker hopes the short, which has been shown in some classrooms, expands its reach.  

Parker and Barma will join Olson and other filmmakers, some from the Bay Area, in conversation after the screening. 

“Masc: Trans Men, Butch Dykes, and Gender Nonconforming Heroes in Cinema” runs Jan. 19–Feb. 25 at Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive, 2155 Center St., Berkeley. Tickets are $10-$14 at

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