When I began watching Jenni Olson’s The Joy of Life I had no idea how relevant the film would be to our current visual realities and societal conflicts. Nor did I imagine that it was going to be the balm I needed to personally weather these tumultuous times.
In The Joy of Life there are only shots of San Francisco cityscapes captured by a static camera with a narrator ruminating on various stories. The pace of the film is meditative. There are rarely any people in the frames. Instead, the images are of the green rolling hills, parked cars on empty streets, and skyscrapers.
These gorgeous, but people-less shots of San Francisco reminded me of our own new visual landscapes more than any mainstream cinematic post-apocalyptic vision. We aren’t living in cities of ruins, but in cities where cars sit parked in front of apartments without any human passing by. We aren’t surrounded by sepia-colored skies or dying plants, but by an earth all the more striking because of the lack of pollution.
The film has two main “narrative” thrusts. One chronicles the history of suicide at the Golden Gate Bridge. It exposes the overarching cultural and political negligence that has kept the bridge dangerous. It becomes a political rallying call for change. I couldn’t help but reflect on our country’s collective reckoning following the murder of George Floyd. After years of groundwork by activists, pressure to defund the police increased exponentially and it seems that politicians are finally listening to citizens’ demands. Hopefully.
In its conclusion, The Joy of Life brings together all its ruminations to create a stunning paean to holding onto joy in the midst of struggle. As someone who is frequently overwhelmed by both our times and my own mental health barriers, I was emboldened. The Joy of Life reminds one to keep pushing: pushing for change, pushing for connection, pushing just to get through the day.
Is this not the reminder we need to embrace our lives in this moment?
It was for me at least.
And it might be for you too.
Andy Motz is an award-winning filmmaker and writer who fuses together various genres and forms to explore pressing social issues.
Jenni Olson (1962-) is an American filmmaker and LGBT+ film historian. She campaigned to have a barrier built alongside the Golden Gate Bridge to prevent suicide attempts. The Joy of Life won Best U.S. Narrative Screenplay at the 2005 Newfest.