'Lady Bountiful' Captures a Rare San Francisco Character on Film

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Joan von Briesen lounging in her Cole Valley home. (Courtesy of Ethan Goldwater)

Having a hard time recognizing San Francisco these days? It could be the radically altered skylines, with construction cranes busily working to make once-familiar corners ever more strange. Maybe it’s because all your friends have moved to Los Angeles or places where your Bay Area rent would pay for a five-bedroom mansion. Or was it that Maserati you were stuck behind in traffic, the one with the “JOHN GALT” vanity plate?

The good news is the San Francisco you once knew still exists, and the short documentary Lady Bountiful, screening at the Little Roxie this Thursday, Nov. 30 at 7pm, is here to remind you the city’s freaks, radicals, free-thinkers, bohemians, poets, artists and outcasts aren’t going anywhere without a fight.

Standing in for all of the above is the bike-riding, tai chi-practicing, tennis-playing octogenarian artist Joan von Briesen, whose penchant for accumulating things -- and people -- in her Cole Valley Victorian home are delightfully captured by filmmaker Ethan Goldwater. As she faces cancer treatments and her own mortality, von Briesen only stops moving, it seems, while napping face down on her bed.

von Briesen's Cole Valley Victorian.
von Briesen's Cole Valley Victorian. (Courtesy of Ethan Goldwater)

Goldwater met von Briesen through a family member nearly 15 years ago, when he was interning at the Bay Guardian and writing investigative pieces about medical marijuana. He ended up living in the attic of von Briesen’s home for a year and a half; he’s been back and forth between San Francisco and New York ever since.

Despite the fact that von Briesen has hosted 100-plus tenants over the years -- many of them artists of various stripes -- this is the first time she’s been the subject of someone else’s work.


Does she feel accurately depicted? “Yes, except there were some things that were not in it,” she says, “but it’s only 20 minutes long.” Those missing things include mention of von Briesen’s two adult children -- a son and daughter who still reside in the Bay Area (an artist and a journalist, respectively) -- and her decades of involvement with SCRAP, the nonprofit creative reuse center, materials depot and workshop space founded in 1976. Von Briesen served on the board for 20 years.

“I’ve always been sort of noted for collecting dumb things that nobody else wants, and not being able to throw things away,” she says in the film. “I’m trying to overcome my messiness, but it may be a losing battle.”

Goldwater doesn’t shy away from showing the realities of aging along with the charming details of von Briesen’s life; his subject approaches it all in the same way. In the film, she speaks candidly about death, grieving, relationships and not taking any of it for granted. Over six years of filming, Goldwater says, “different story lines started to emerge."

“It was an excuse to figure out how I could hang around Joanie more,” he says. “I would have been happy to keep filming it and never finish but we did want to have an opportunity to celebrate with Joanie and the family.”

von Briesen in her Cole Valley home.
von Briesen in her Cole Valley home. (Courtesy of Ethan Goldwater)

Lady Bountiful premiered in February at SF Indie Fest. Goldwater says response to that screening inspired this week's engagement. "People said, 'Wow this is exactly why I moved to San Francisco 20 years ago! It's like a living museum of the history of the city that I thought I was moving to,'" he says.

"That’s how I feel every time I’m here," Goldwater says over the phone. Throughout Lady Bountiful, Goldwater's camera lingers lovingly over the many many items contained within von Briesen's home, among them: her innumerable figure paintings, a jar bearing the label "ANCIENT GINGR POWDR" and books of old family photos.

"It's an oasis away from the tropes that people think about the city related to the tech industry, consumerism or an elite lifestyle. You might be curious and slightly disturbed by what you see, but it’s still here, which is a miracle. I feel really lucky to experience this still."

'Lady Bountiful' plays at the Little Roxie in San Francisco, Thursday, Nov. 30 at 7pm. A Q&A and an in-progress cut of Ethan Goldwater's ongoing documentary project CURA will follow. For more information, click here.