‘Outdoor School’ Film Brings Together a Diverse Portland Creative Team for a Story of Hope and Homelessness: Here is Oregon

It’s a hot day in late August as the cast and crew working on the movie “Outdoor School” rehearse and shoot a scene inside an Oregon City school district building. Director Ime N. Etuk is working with young actors who play high school students, who talk while sitting on a staircase.

Standing nearby in the dark hallway of the school, taking it all in, is Vin Shambry. An accomplished actor who has performed in Portland and across the country, Shambry is intimately familiar with the story told in “Outdoor School” because it is based on his own youthful experience.

It’s a story that Shambry has told simply and eloquently in an appearance on The Moth, the live storytelling showcase. In the performance, which was also broadcast on public radio stations, Shambry recalled how his mother chose to escape a difficult domestic situation. He took 12-year-old Vin and her younger sister and, fearing they would go to a shelter where they might be separated, the family slept under a tree in a Portland park.

The film expands on Shambry’s memories of pretending not to be homeless by showering in an area pool and eating free breakfast at her high school.

That routine, which made young Vin believe it was his job to take care of his mother and sister, was shaken when Shambry attended Outdoor School, the environmental learning program for sixth graders. Sleeping in a bed with clean sheets, eating hot meals regularly, and enjoying the outdoors made Shambry feel like a child for the first time.

In the Oregon City school building, even low voices tend to echo in the hallway and on the stairs. So, Shambry walks into an empty classroom to talk about “Outdoor School.” The walls are decorated with 1990s-style posters (“DARE to resist drugs and violence”), to reflect the period setting of the film, and Shambry settles into a small chair at one of the student desks. .

The details of the time he spent sleeping under a tree in Irving Park, and trying to hide the fact that he was homeless while attending classes at Beaumont High School, the school Shambry actually attended, sound heartbreaking.

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But Shambry, 40, remembers those days as “an incredible and joyous time with my family”, when he, his mother and his younger sister shared moments of happiness “being together, being one. We were a unit.”

Although spending five days at the YMCA Camp Collins Outdoor School site was transformative for him, Shambry says, he was aware that, as a young black man, he was in the minority. “There were a lot of white kids camping all the time and they had the gear.”

Shambry is well aware of the notion that black people don’t spend time outdoors for reasons that can include feeling uncomfortable or unwelcome. He wants to emphasize the rewards of going out to rural areas.

“This film shows the black joy in nature and how we are one with nature. My whole family goes hiking,” says the married father of two. “We go to Mount Hood every summer and go camping.”

It’s important, says Shambry, to see yourself represented, which is one of his goals for the film.

BEHIND THE CAMERA

In addition to making the story about a young black man the center of “Outdoor School,” Shambry, who is an executive producer, and other members of the production team made it a priority to include people of color in the behind-the-scenes roles.

Director and co-writer Ime N. Etuk is black, as is fellow executive producer Ifanyi Bell. Shambry, Etuk, and Bell graduated from Portland high schools and knew each other before collaborating on “Outdoor School.” Bell is also an Executive Producer for Open Signal Labs, a social impact incubator and content studio aimed at bringing professionals and community members together to tell socially relevant stories.

Both Open Signal Labs and Lion Speaks, a non-profit organization founded by Etuk, share the goal of helping empower underserved racial groups by providing opportunities to work in the media and learn professional production. “Outdoor School,” says Etuk, is an example of that philosophy at work.

Etuk, whose nonprofit organization Lion Speaks is named after an African proverb that says, until the lion learns to speak, every story will glorify the hunter,” estimates that about 70 percent of the people who work at “School outdoors” are women and people of color.

“We are telling stories in front of and behind the camera,” says Ituk. “We are here to help people learn.” While some TV and movie settings can be ruthless, in environments where time is money, “we are leading with love and compassion. You don’t have to take a beating on a set. I want people to feel liberated, I want them to feel collaborative.”

Paying workers and not expecting them to be unpaid interns was particularly important, says Etuk. “In order to intern, you have to have a certain level of generational wealth, which a lot of people don’t have.”

Etuk learned from her own experience how challenging it can be, and how rare it often is, to see people of color in professional media positions. The Portland native, Nigerian-American, had been working in broadcast journalism when he heard about a Directors Guild of America assistant director program.

“It was kind of a two-year paid apprenticeship program,” says Etuk. “You get a chance to join the syndicate at the end of it. It is very competitive to enter, but it is a professional jump. They get 14 or 15 people a year from thousands of applicants.”

Etuk was accepted, started the show in 1999, and for years was busy as an assistant director in Los Angeles, working on projects like “Training Day,” “Crash,” and “Six Feet Under.” Since he returned to Portland, “a better place to raise a family,” Etuk has worked on “Grimm,” “Everything Sucks!”, “Trinkets,” “The Water Man,” “Shrill,” and more.

In addition to providing paid job training to people who would otherwise have a hard time breaking into media production, Etuk says “Outdoor School,” which had a shooting schedule of about 20 days and a budget of about $ 2 million, it’s an opportunity to explore Portland. in a way that goes beyond the quirky “Portlandia” stereotype.

“A TRULY BLESSED JOURNEY”

Shambry’s story “resonated with me, because I lived through those times,” says Etuk. “I think about what Northeast Portland was like in the ’90s, and a lot of people don’t realize how crazy it was going on here, with the gangs and the violence. People are seeing how bad it’s gotten recently, but that’s something we deal with then.”

Etuk recalls how, in the 1990s, Portland was dealing with drug problems, the gentrification of traditionally black neighborhoods, and the aftermath of what members of the black community said were incidents of racial harassment by police in New York. Portland.

Now that filming for “Outdoor School” is nearly complete, the next steps involve post-production, editing, and finding distribution.

“This was filmed to be shown in theaters,” says Etuk. He hopes the film will be shown at festivals, and then “we’ll go with whatever option means most people can see it and are affected by it.”

“It’s been an amazing experience,” says Etuk. “It’s been a truly blessed journey to see him come together both in front of and behind the camera.”

—Kristi Turnquist

503-221-8227; kturnquist@oregonian.com; @Kristiturnquist

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