Finding a voice for black media

Open Signal's screening Friday at the Hollywood Theatre of work by six young black Portland filmmakers opens the door on a world of stories

Something’s happening. And you’d better know what it is.

On Friday, June 14, Open Signal Labs is giving six black filmmakers a chance to showcase their work and let the Portland media world know they’re here, they’re thriving, and they’re ready to enter the industry and take a commanding role. The screening, at 7 p.m. at the Hollywood Theatre in Northeast Portland, is the culmination of a year of work, learning and training for six young, black filmmakers: Kamryn Fall, Elijah Hasan, Tamera Lyn, Sika Stanton, Noah Thomas and Dustin Tolman.

Open Signal’s Ifanyi Bell and RaShaunda Brooks: making it happen. Photo: Sam Gehrke

This fellowship is the first of its kind in the state of Oregon. Over the course of the year, these artists were granted “a $2,000 stipend, training, access to industry-standard equipment, staff and actors from Artists Repertory Theatre, as well as mentorship with media professionals and connections to the field from the Oregon Governor’s Office of Film & Television.” The idea, says Open Signal executive producer and industry veteran Ifanyi Bell, is to “provide our fellows the best possible resources — cutting-edge filmmaking equipment and experienced industry professionals — and then time will tell. We hope to create a safe space immune from outside influence that will inspire true innovation and authentic stories of black Americans.”

The fellows were mentored by a number of industry professionals. For Tamera Lyn, the year was an opportunity to find out what it took to make a film, to learn what the process was like, “from the spark of the idea, pre-production then onto distributing the project to audiences that it’s intended for.”

Open Signal describes itself as “a media arts center in Portland, Oregon building upon the 35-year legacy of Portland Community Media.”  In other words, for those three-plus decades, PCM gave Portlanders a voice in television and video by making available resources and materials they might not otherwise have had access to. If you’ve watched a television program via Public Access, there was a good chance PCM had something to do with it. The organization has five channels. With the advent of YouTube, Instagram and various other platforms and social media, the need for what PCM was specifically offering went away.  So three years ago, the organization underwent a tectonic shift in its focus.

Open Signal Labs Executive Producer Ifanyi Bell noted in an interview on KPTV that even though Open Signal was planning on keeping all of its channels, and all of its public broadcasting and community storytelling was going to continue unabated, “we’re also focusing more on developing artists.” To that end, he and filmmaker and project coordinator RaShaunda Brooks began to develop the Open Signal Labs – a fellowship, “an incubator,” as Brooks calls it in her Open Signal bio, “for emerging African-American filmmakers.”

To that end, Open Signal Labs brought in a number of industry professionals to mentor the fellows and provide guidance, such as Los Angeles-based actress and producer Keena Ferguson of Atlanta; New York director and cinematographer Che Broadnax; and Portland writer and film expert David Walker, author of the books Becoming Black and Reflections on Blaxploitation: Actors and Directors Speak. They didn’t stop there. To also mentor the fellows they brought in Portland natives Ime Etuk, first assistant director of Netflix’s Everything Sucks; New York Times best-selling author Renee Watson; Mitchell S. Jackson, author of The Residue Years; and Portland-based writer and storyteller Béalleka Makau.

Open Signal’s young filmmakers on the move, from left: Dustin Tolman, Tamera Lyn, Kamryn Fall, Sika Stanton, Elijah Hasan. Not pictured: Noah Thomas.

How were the six fellows chosen? By “myself and Ifanyi Bell, the director of the program,” said Brooks, the Chicago-born filmmaker. “We reached out to filmmakers that we knew and we had sit-downs with them and got ideas of the work they were working on and then between the two of us, we deliberated. He had some people in mind that he knew that he wanted to work with. And then I had some suggestions, and we went from there.”

Lyn remembers, “I met Ifanyi Bell during a Rise & Shine brunch, hosted by the Portland Playhouse, where I work. We got a chance to speak; he mentioned that he saw some of my work and was interested in working with me further. He liked my self-starting initiative and encouraged an opportunity for me to join with other black film artists in Portland with that same initiative.” In the future, Open Signal Labs will turn to more of an application process.

To Bell, the change in direction for Open Signal isn’t just about Portland or even just about training these young artists. He’s trying to capture a moment in time and use that moment to shape the future. “We’re at a really cool time in cinema history,” he said in the KPTV interview, “where black stories are bubbling to the forefront, and this fellowship is a direct response to that. “ Indeed, from Moonlight to Get Out to Black Panther to If Beale Street Could Talk it’s not just that Black films are being made, it’s the breadth of Black experience and sensibility, the variety of stories being told, that makes it feel like a renaissance in Black filmmaking is happening. “I have always dreamt of creating and sharing artistic work in the unique envelope of black America and challenging the perception of the work of black creatives as being inherently political,” Bell said. It’s not just about the trials and tribulations of being Black in a white world, it’s about the Black experience fully containing the human experience.

For project coordinator Brooks, hopes for what the fellowship can achieve come from, perhaps, a more personal place. It’s not just about the breadth of stories and avenues open to Black artists, it’s also about autonomy and ownership. She’s hoping that the screening generates support for the young artists and for black filmmakers in general, but that support has to be more than just the dominant societal paradigm “eating up our culture.” And of course, America has a long and troubled history of doing just that, from blues to jazz to rock and roll to hip hop. In this allegedly new age, Brooks doesn’t want consumption without an awareness by the supporters and by the audiences of where the art comes from. Too often, in her mind, people are like, “Oh, this is nice, this is beautiful, let me consume it without absorbing or processing or even caring what it took to make this happen, the identities that are attached to it or the history that it comes from.”

This screening, of course, is not the end but the beginning. Not just for these young artists but for the program itself. “There is a range of documentaries, some narrative work, and there is also some experimental work and some music videos,” says Brooks. There will be a Q&A with the filmmakers, and then an after-party at Doug Fir where you can meet them, as well as Bell and Brooks and some of the other mentors and artists the fellows have worked with over the past year.

What happens next will be in the hands of the filmmakers themselves, on the one hand, and Open Signal, on the other. This screening is to give the filmmakers and the world of Portland media an eye on the future. “The event is about bringing an awareness to a thing that we as people of color already know; that we are creating this work, (have) been creating this work, but people want to be gatekeepers and don’t want to let us in,” says Brooks. “This program is a reframing of what we’ve already been doing and taking more ownership on how to create it and create it on a higher scale.” 

Bell concurs. “I think it’s important to be able to huddle together in order to tell complex and interesting stories,” he says. “I think that that in combination with this time we’re in now, this is really an important moment for us.”

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