New Documentary Black Girl in the Woods Seeks to Reclaim the Outdoors for Outsiders

This summer, Artists Repertory Theatre’s managing director Kisha Jarrett will hike for 1,200 miles and capture it on camera.

By Fiona McCann June 23, 2021 Published in the Summer 2021 issue of Portland Monthly

Kisha Jarrett has found new delight in the outdoors—and her upcoming documentary will prove it.

“I hiked up a glacier,” says Kisha Jarrett triumphantly, recalling her first solo vacation, a trip to Iceland in 2019. “I was just like, ‘I am a fat woman that hiked a glacier! I can do anything!’”

Jarrett, now 40 and the managing director at Artists Repertory Theatre, began hiking only after she moved to Portland in 2016. The glacier moment brought her to her latest project: a 1,200-mile trek she will document this summer in a film called Black Girl in the Woods. The documentary will follow Jarrett on her first-ever thru-hike, along the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail, which connects the Continental Divide in western Montana to the Pacific coast on Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula. If you’re feeling echoes of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, then Jarrett can make the difference clear: “[The project] is literally rooted in the fact that I am the subject,” she says. “I’m a bigger Black woman living with lupus.”

Black Girl in the Woods dives into issues Jarrett grappled with when she first connected with her new delight in the outdoors. Her joy spawned deep dives into movies like Free Solo and countless trips to REI, yet nowhere—not in the movies, the sportswear ads, the outdoor magazines—did she see herself. “And I just kept being like, ‘Goddamn! There’s got to be somebody that looks like me that does this.’”

The message? The outdoors was not for her. Jarrett’s response? Hike 15 to 20 miles a day through the rough terrain of the Pacific Northwest Trail for more than 60 days. Designated in 2009, the Pacific Northwest Trail is a relative latecomer among the 11 National Scenic Trails, which means it retains some real wildness, with Jarrett expecting “a fair amount of bushwhacking, large brush, scrambling, climbing up rocks.” She’ll be accompanied only by director and cinematographer Shawn Lee (a close friend) and sound designer Leslie Crandell Dawes (who’ll also double as the team’s medic).

In preparation, Lee, a producing director at Artists Rep who also codirected the short film Better Maybe with Jarrett in 2020, has been reaching out for mentorship from experienced outdoors filmmakers, and is seeking lightweight cameras—both he and Jarrett will carry one—that can be charged with solar panels. When they reach what he calls “stopover towns,” they’ll meet crews who will receive data dumps and help capture drone footage of the trail. After they’re done, they’ll edit hundreds of hours into a doc Jarrett hopes will find audiences like her, who never saw themselves represented in the outdoor recreation space. “If one person goes out or says that they can do that, because they’re a certain way, and it’s not the way that they see in Patagonia or Columbia or REI ads, then that’s what this was for,” she says.

The team sets out for the trail’s start in Montana’s Glacier Park on July 1. And then Jarrett starts walking. “She’s kind of a superhuman,” says Lee. “This is kind of like a superhero story, with no CGI or no special effects. It’s just Kisha against, you know, the Pacific Northwest Trail.”

Watch the trailer for Black Girl in the Woods below: 

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