Review: The Royal Road-The Legacy of Junipero Serra

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Sailor Holladay's picture
The Royal Road film
The Royal Road, a story of love and loss in a changing San Francisco landscape.

By Sailor Holladay

The problem with nostalgia, with missing something, is it shows us our narcissism up close. We miss who we were when the place was there. When a place changes, we have to change in some way. At the very least, we age. This is hard during rapid gentrification. Everything around us seems like it’s getting younger and newer as we and what we know to be true decay.

Did the place we miss and who we were then ever exist anyway? Recently someone in my presence referred to the late 90's and early 2000's as the time in San Francisco when being a lesbian really mattered, but I disagree. It might matter less now to an individual lesbian, but it matters more to the city as its queer population dwindles. Still I wonder who gets to be nostalgic for a disappearing place? How many iterations of disappearing will this city go through?

The Royal Road is a memory documentary, a dreamy imagescape with as many blackout spaces as pictures. The blackouts between each shot serve to cement the image of the city before, and prepare us for the next image, cleansing our memory of what we know the "real" San Francisco to be. There are virtually no people in the film, instead we see fog laden ground cover, streets without today's strollers, and stop signs without car lineups.

Filmmaker Jenni Olson narrates the film and as we watch her camera capture the outstretched hills of peach and yellow stucco, we hear her voice, "I've been filming the landscapes of San Francisco since just after a few years after I arrived here. In capturing these images on film, I'm engaged in a completely impossible and yet partially successful effort to stop time." Black out. New shot overlooking the Mission Dolores, "I now own the landscapes that I love. These images serve as a reminder of what once was and as a prompt to appreciate what now is."

This Spring, despite protests from Native tribes around California, including the Ohlone, Chumash, Amah Matsun, and Mono, Pope Francis canonized Junipero Serra, the priest who founded the California mission system and forcibly converted thousands of Native people. Serra is set to be sainted on Oct 24th during the Pope's first visit to the U.S. Besides the narrator, Junipero is the main person in this film and perhaps the reason San Francisco in this iteration exists at all.

Many find this sainthood as contrary to the apology Pope Francis made for colonialism earlier this summer, “I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offense of the church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America,” yet Serra’s sainthood is seen as a way for the Catholic Church to deepen ties with the United States. Two miracles are usually required in order to become a saint. Junipero Serra only has one, and Pope Francis is waiving the requirement for another.

Most of the film's 16 mm shots are cast on the far flung neighborhoods of Bernal Heights, St. Mary's Place, the Excelsior, and presumably the filmmaker’s neighborhood, and my old one: Glen Park. Behind the camera is a lesbian filmmaker, or is it someone from gentrification past or present, one of the displaced indigenous people of California, or Junipero himself?

The Royal Road plays at the Roxie Sept 24th 7pm

Director Jenni Olson will be there in attendance.

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