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Jenni Olson's experimental doc on California's hidden colonial history


In Pacific Standard, Katie Kilkenny talks to queer filmmaker Jenni Olson about her latest experimental documentary, The Royal Road. The titular road is Highway 101, which runs the length of California and which Olson uses as a device to meditate on the remnants of colonial history in California—a history that most Americans would prefer to forget. In the film, Olson mixes long, contemplative landscape shots with quirky personal narrative to approach her subject matter in a very different way than traditional documentary. Here’s an excerpt from the interview (and below that, the trailer for the film):

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 Junipero 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.

Image: Still from The Royal Road. Via Pacific Standard.