Signal Boost

This Yearlong Program Provides a Platform for Black Filmmakers in Portland

Open Signal Labs provides everything from cameras and money to local acting talent and mentoring.

By Emma Mannheimer May 28, 2019 Published in the June 2019 issue of Portland Monthly

Producer Ifanyi Bell on an Open Signal Labs shoot

Portland’s rep as a Petri dish for creative types doesn’t fool Ifanyi Bell. When it comes to supporting homegrown independent filmmakers, the longtime producer for NPR and PBS says our city doesn’t deliver. “If you are successful and driven, you leave eventually,” he says. Especially harmful? The loss of black voices. “We can’t afford to lose African American creative talent. If we continue to pull stories from the same place, we’re not going to innovate. Innovation comes from broad diversity.”

Enter Open Signal Labs. The yearlong incubator—an initiative of local media arts center and public access TV station Open Signal (formerly Portland Community Media)—aims to give emerging black filmmakers a real reason to stay put in Portland. The project, which provides everything from cameras and money to local acting talent and mentoring, is the first of its kind in Oregon, and it doubles down on the nonprofit’s goal to provide the people least represented in media with the greatest access to the organization’s tools.

Bell first sought space for his fellow black storytellers in 2014, catalyzed by the police killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teen in Missouri. A primary reason for the dearth of diverse stories, as he saw it: a lack of access to resources. Bell set out to remove the barrier. He connected with Open Signal in 2016 and now serves as Labs’ executive producer.

Labs is one part nerdy dive into the nuts and bolts of filmmaking and one part philosophical symposium on the purpose of storytelling. The initiative launched last July with six pilot-year fellows, who each received a $2,000 stipend, access to industry-standard equipment and Artists Repertory Theatre talent, and mentorship from local and national pros, including Atlanta actor Keena Ferguson and Ime Etuk, an assistant director on Shrill and the recent Twin Peaks. Over the past year, fellows have worked as crew on mentor-led shoots, filmed music videos for regional artists, and met weekly for screenings, talks with showbiz authorities, and evaluations of their work.

In late January, Bell flew to Utah for the Sundance Film Festival. He met with industry heavyweights, including Surviving R. Kelly producer dream hampton and Terence Nance of HBO’s Random Acts of Flyness. The reception to Labs was electric, Bell says, adding that he sees national collaborations on the horizon.

For Portland-born fellow Elijah Hasan, the collaboration has been pivotal. “Everyone [has] their own specialty, so when we all come together it’s this really rich experience for me to be around people who are better at some things than me,” he says. “I can learn and really move.” Compared to the years he spent working independently, “the difference has been night and day.”

On June 14 at the Hollywood Theatre, fellows will debut selections from their in-the-works films, all either directly or tangentially about Portland, exploring topics from law enforcement to the apparel industry.

As the program moves into its sophomore year, Bell is plotting to tackle still-emerging fields like virtual reality—“to drive empathy,” he says, by allowing viewers to step into someone else’s shoes. “Instead of having a bunch of tech people in Silicon Valley defining how this works,” Bell says, “they’ll have to come to us.”

Open Signal Labs Screening

7 p.m. Fri, June 14, Hollywood Theatre

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