Mother of Color, the first feature film from Portland director Dawn Jones Redstone, explores the challenges faced by a woman engaged in two pursuits that our society pays lip service to but too often fails to adequately facilitate: working for social change and raising children.
Noelia (Ana del Rocío) is a single mom with two appropriately aggravating young sons. She works for a local nonprofit as a community organizer, but the challenges of arranging child care and dealing with her supercilious supervisor make it a difficult row to hoe. On top of that, social justice protests and the state of the world in 2020 aren’t helping her mindset. Stressed out and experiencing odd ringing in her ears, she’s referred by her mother to an eccentric family friend (Luz Elena Mendoza of the acclaimed band Y La Bamba), who gives her a mysterious concoction. Soon, Noelia begins having uncanny experiences that connect her to both the pain and perseverance of her heritage.
The film, which has its Portland premiere on Friday, November 4, at the Hollywood Theatre, is inspired by the experiences of del Rocío, a veteran community activist making her acting debut. Her performance, and the incorporation of footage from Portland’s tumultuous 2020 summer, give Mother of Color a grounded, documentary feel. That vibe is only enhanced by the unexpected appearance of a real-world Portland public figure late in the film.
I talked with Jones Redstone about the challenges of feature filmmaking, the importance of acknowledging trauma, and the power of paying it forward. Questions and answers are edited for length and clarity.
OREGON ARTS WATCH: It’s interesting the way Noelia’s tinnitus serves as a metaphor for her dissociation from society. What was the origin of that idea?
DAWN JONES REDSTONE: Originally, the story was going to be a much more straightforward social drama. As the pandemic unfolded and the BLM protests were happening all around us, I became extremely interested in finding a way to connect the day-to-day life of someone who constantly experiences being marginalized to the bigger happenings in our world right now. I also wanted something that was less straightforward, something mystical or spiritual. What she’s hearing is connected to the pain that we all experience from living in a white supremacist culture.
OAW: It reminded me of Memoria, where Tilda Swinton’s character is also plagued by these unexplained noises that end up having a metaphysical origin.
DJR: Yes! I saw that, but of course it was way after this was done. There’s that great scene where they’re sitting in a studio trying to replicate the sound. I also love that it was only shown in theaters.
OAW: What was the biggest challenge you encountered in moving from the world of short films to tackling a larger-scale project?
DJR: It’s so different. The easiest way to describe it would be to say that it’s five times the amount of work. It’s exponentially more. Part of that was because of the large cast of characters, the size of the crew, and the number of locations. Everything about it was pretty different from the types of films I usually make. It became this huge machine, with Tara [Johnson-Medinger] and Ashley [Song] running production. We had a production office, which I’ve never had before. And we needed one, for the paperwork involved for everyone who came on set, all the COVID testing, even a place to store wardrobe.
OAW: It sounds like it’s much more of a team sport.
DJR: Absolutely. I try to work that way in general, where I want to collaborate with people and welcome their ideas. But just the number of people involved pushed it up and up.
OAW: And the work doesn’t stop when production wraps, right?
DJR: Because there’s so much more of a market for feature films than for shorts, everything about the process of getting the film out is more involved. It’s like a house with constantly expanding hallways. You’re working on getting the film ready for distribution, and that’s the next door. But when you open that door, you see another door, and it’s just expanding out. For instance, I thought doing Foley sound was when you didn’t record the sound properly in the moment, so you have to go back later. But when you’re getting a feature film ready for distribution, you remove the dialogue track, and when you do that, every single sound you recorded during that dialogue is also removed. So then you have to do Foley for the whole film, no matter what. That’s just one example.
OAW: The film was shot in 2021 under strict COVID protocols and includes footage of the racial justice protests. But COVID isn’t acknowledged on-screen. Was that simply a practical choice?
DJR: To be honest, yes. I wanted to be able to see people’s faces.
OAW: The film is inspired by Ana’s life, but what convinced you that she could play herself in the lead role?
DJR: She and I had worked together before. She was in a short film of mine called We Have Our Ways. In that film, I saw what she was capable of. She did work with an acting coach, and we did lots of rehearsals. I think it was quite easy for her to portray so many of the moments in the film. There are a few specific things that are plucked from her life, but mostly it’s fiction riffing off things that she’s experienced, in terms of her marginalization more than the ancestry stuff.
OAW: Mother of Color emphasizes how the availability, or nonavailability, of childcare can be a huge hurdle for already burdened parents trying to improve their and their children’s lives. It can feel like a mundane issue, but you show how crucial it can be.
DJR: I think that Noelia is like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez but with two kids. She’s someone who’s seen by everybody around them as a leader, but she has to make this tough choice between supporting her family and being there for her family.
OAW: The boys you cast as Noelia’s sons do seem authentically disruptive.
DJR: We got so lucky casting those kids, especially with Kasey [Tinoco], who’s the older kid and more featured in the film. He gave such a strong performance. We fell in love with him when he auditioned. Something that emerged during the making of the film that I hadn’t considered before was the idea that she wants to be in the political realm because she wants to make a better world for her kids, but it also goes the other way. Because she wants a better world, she wants to raise these boys to be good men in a world that desperately needs them.
OAW: As Noelia is preparing for her big job interview in the film, it feels like (at least for anyone familiar with Portland politics) her potential boss is modeled after Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty. And then the role turns out to be played by Hardesty. How did you manage to get her in the movie?
DJR: I was imagining someone like her in that role from the start, but it never occurred to me to actually have her do it. I had cast another actor and they ended up having a scheduling problem. I had interviewed Commissioner Hardesty a couple of times, and Ana also knows her, so she suggested we reach out. We e-mailed, and she said yes! We were completely delighted. She gets to speak directly to what it means to be a woman of color in political office, which is what our lead character is trying to achieve.
OAW: You had the opportunity to shadow the director Debra Granik when she was in Portland shooting Leave No Trace. What did you learn from that experience and how did it shape your own directing style?
DJR: Part of it was just being on a set of that size. It was about a $5 million movie, and I’d never been in that world. Getting to be alongside her and see how she told a story with everything else happening around her was incredible and really formative for me as a director. I aspire to that. I’m still learning. Because I had that opportunity, we had three women shadow me on the set of my film. Even though my imposter syndrome was making me wonder what they could possibly learn from me, I still felt it was important to provide that opportunity.
OAW: There have been a number of stories in film and popular culture that deal with generational trauma, from the intimate level of individual families to the wider scope of historical oppression. What makes Mother of Color unique among those types of stories?
DJR: I’ve never seen a story like this. There’s a real interest in stories that take it to the next step. Everyone’s talking about trauma, but what is that next step that can move the conversation forward? For me, it was definitely about healing. This character, who never has a moment to themselves and never has a rest, is being told to take that moment, allow themselves to feel something. The only way to move through trauma is to accept it in some way. I don’t know how to continue to deny something, to push it down, as a way of moving past it. You have to allow yourself to experience it, and then you can move on. I’m interested in providing a cathartic moment. I want people to share in the experience of acknowledging that the world is really hard right now, and then getting to work to do all the things that need to be done.
- Mother of Color screens at 7 p.m. on Friday, November 4, at the Hollywood Theatre. Cast, crew, and supporters will be in attendance.