Spotlighting the lives of Black Portlanders in the pandemic

The short film "See Me," the first project from Artist Rep’s DNA: Oxygen, is premiering at the Portland International Film Festival

During the climax of Artist Repertory Theatre’s new short film See Me, CL (Treasure Lunan), an agoraphobe, imagines stepping through their front door.

“CL has a glimpse of what it’s like to be outside without worrying,” says Kisha Jarrett, a writer and an executive producer on the film. “To have the pressure on you of not feeling like you can do that and then throw on a pandemic and then throw on that Black people are dying, that is a lot … when you’re trying to walk out of the door.”

Treasure Lunan in a still from the film “See Me.”

See Me, which is premiering virtually on Friday, March 5, at the Portland International Film Festival, chronicles the lives of three Black Portlanders surviving the pandemic. It’s a movie for this moment (it is haunted by the protests that swept Portland in the wake of George Floyd’s murder), but it is as personal as it is universal. The film’s characters face racism and micro-aggressions, but they also battle mundane evils like interminable Zoom meetings and burnt toast.

“There’s films and shows that are starring white people that are allowed to be a slice of life,” Jarrett says. “And I’ve never experienced a slice-of-life film that stars a Black person. We’re so frequently asked to be the representation of an entire race of people, and we just want people to see us.”

See Me is the first project from DNA: Oxygen, a group of nine Black artists who are company members at Artists Rep (the name of the organization was inspired by the numerous Black victims of police violence whose last words were “I can’t breathe”). Jarrett, who recently became Artists Rep’s managing director, laid the groundwork for the film by asking DNA: Oxygen’s members to write about their daily routine during the pandemic, bringing the collaborative spirit of devised theatre to the script.

William Earl Ray, killing time as Jones in “See Me.”

“To film people, this was an unthinkable act that I was doing, but I really wanted the process to be rooted in theater—and if it was that, then we were building it as if it was a devised piece,” Jarrett says. That led to the creation of the main characters in See Me: Lunan’s CL, Andrea Vernae’s Ayira (an actor preparing a virtual audition for Titus Andronicus) and William (Bill) Earl Ray’s Jones (a man killing time as he struggles to connect to Oregon Unemployment on the phone).

To transform these stories into cinema, Jarrett drafted director Dawn Jones Redstone, whose past films include the short Sista in the Brotherhood, the semi-autobiographical saga of a carpenter working on the remodeling of the Sellwood Bridge.

“One of the things that I said when Kisha first talked with me was, ‘I’m not Black’,” Jones Redstone says. That didn’t bother Jarrett, who favored an all-BIPOC production team that wouldn’t be limited to Black artists. “I was like, ‘Look, here’s the thing,’” Jarrett says. “‘This story is centered around three Black people. But the process with which we’re filming to create this piece doesn’t mean that it needs to be an all-Black production team.’”

According to Jones Redstone, she and Jarrett “talked about the idea that, especially within our subgroup of BIPOC or folks that are minoritized, we don’t have to be the exact identity that we choose to tell a story about. I am part of multiple minoritized groups—as a woman, as a queer Mexican-American.”

Andrea Vernae as Ayira, preparing for an audition, in “See Me.”

Jones Redstone brought grim grandeur to See Me by filming a montage of images of COVID-era Portland with cinematographer Matthew Hayes, who shot everything from an empty street outside a 7-Eleven to graffiti being sprayed into nothingness. Most of See Me is set indoors, but that didn’t necessarily simplify the film for Lunan, who had to embody a character who is being spiritually strangled by both agoraphobia and pandemic-adjacent anxieties. 

To prepare for the role, Lunan looked to Reddit, where they found insights from actual agoraphobes. “I do remember seeing a couple of people saying that the pandemic was welcome—that they could stay inside without fear or guilt or anyone making them feel badly about it,” Lunan says. “I did hear some discussion around social interactions being more easily accessible, because the entire country, for the most part, had switched to Zoom and virtual socialization.”

See Me finds moments of joy in the agony of isolation, including a rhapsodic animated scene starring CL that was created by Aki Ruiz. “I did not see the complete animation until yesterday when I watched the complete film, and I will say, it did bring a little tear to my eyeball,” Lunan says. “Everything disappears in that moment—the agoraphobia, the fear, the pandemic, even. This person just gets to exist, albeit briefly and in a fantasy.”

That fantasy may be a distant hope for many people, but that hasn’t stopped Jarrett from looking beyond See Me (“I think that you’ll see perhaps a documentary coming out that I would be a part of, and perhaps a feature is in the future of Artists Rep”) and savoring the collaborations that led to the film’s creation and completion.

“It was kind of amazing to watch and see,” she says. “And then it was really fun to get to watch Dawn take it from something that was like this teeny-tiny seedling idea that was in my head into, ‘Holy shit, we have a film that’s going to premiere at PIFF’.”

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“See Me” premieres virtually as part of PIFF’s opening night shorts on Friday, March 5 https://cinemaunbound.org/events/see-me/

About the author

Bennett Campbell Ferguson is a Portland-based arts journalist. In addition to writing for Oregon Arts Watch, he writes about plays and movies for Willamette Week and is the editor in chief of the blog and podcast T.H.O. Movie Reviews. He first tried his hand at journalism when he was 13 years old and decided to start reviewing science fiction and fantasy movies – a hobby that, over the course of a decade, expanded into a passion for writing about the arts to engage, entertain, and, above, spark conversation. Bennett is also a graduate of Portland State University (where he studied film) and the University of Oregon (where he studied journalism).

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