Without context, the thumbnail for the 2021 documentary "Riders on the Storm" — a trio of individuals walking along the shoulder of an interstate highway into a smoky haze — may lead viewers to wonder where the group is headed, as well as where they may have come from.
As for the first question, the people in the image may not have known the answer themselves. The trio of unhoused individuals had just been informed by an Oregon Metro employee that despite their multiple efforts to find the group temporary housing in Clackamas County amid the devastating wildfire season of 2020, they came up short.
"We can tell people where they can't be," the Metro worker explained to the camera. "But we can't always tell people where they can be."
This intimate look into the system of barriers faced by houseless individuals across the state was directed by Nili Yosha, founder, artistic and executive director of Outside The Frame, a Portland-based program providing filmmaking and documentary training to youth experiencing homelessness and other forms of marginalization.
Named "Riders on the Storm" after the 1971 song by The Doors which plays throughout the runtime, the nine-minute film was one of several documentaries made during the pandemic that OTF screened at the Hollywood Theatre in Portland on Thursday, Sept. 30 as part of a showcase of "good films about a bad year."
"The core of our program is just to provide opportunities for youth to make movies about whatever's on their heart, whatever they need to say," Yosha said.
"It's people getting to tell their own story on their own terms, usually stories that don't get heard otherwise," she added.
The Metro employees shown in the film were conducting waste disposal as members of the RID Patrol bag program, introduced in 2018 providing a way for unhoused community members to dispose of their trash.
Yosha said the film was put into motion after a RID Patrol member initially contacted OTF, which has partnered with the Metro program since 2019, to document the experiences of individuals living on public land, following Metro workers conducting waste disposal.
"A vast amount of the garbage that gets dumped is by businesses or people in homes, but the homeless community gets blamed for it," Yosha said.
She added that the sincerity of the documentary is a testament to the integrity of Metro's RID Patrol, the unhoused individuals depicted in the film and the OTF filmmaking team, which included program alumni Makayla Caldwell, program alumni Narci Smith and professional filmmaker Ben Bach.
"Part of the reason this documentary is so good is because they weren't performing for us at any point," Yosha said.
"What it is, is a story of civil servants, tirelessly trying everything they can to help the people that at best, nobody gives a s— about, and at worst scapegoats and criminalizes and abuses," she added. "What this movie shows is that we need 1,000 times more resources than we have. If we had more teams like Metro's... I mean, the fact that they have relationships with the people on the public land, and that they're treating them humanely is clear."
Caldwell, who said she was living in a tent within six months of moving to Portland in 2016, added that having a personal understanding of the barriers faced by unhoused individuals elevated her ability to tell the story.
"Having that experience myself, it really put me in a position to be on the ground level with people that have similar experiences, I feel like I'm able to connect with them," Caldwell said
Caldwell said it has been "incredibly empowering" to be a part of the OTF community, adding that she has gained not only filmmaking skills, but a support system as well.
"Living on the street in a tent, no one looked at me like I was a human anymore. They wouldn't make eye contact with me," Caldwell said. "Nili and the organization saw me. I feel so open to actually be myself in this community."
Since joining Outside the Frame in 2018, Caldwell has blossomed into a burgeoning talent in the film industry, freelancing on projects for the likes of HBO, Hulu and Cartoon Network when she isn't working projects with OTF.
Her film "Becoming Raven," which led off the Sept. 30 showcase, follows resource distribution efforts organized at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic by Street Roots, a nonprofit houseless advocacy group and media outlet serving unhoused communities in the Portland Metro area.
"We're artists, and art thrives during times of extreme pressure," Yosha said. "These very productive last few years are proof that the youth are doing their jobs as artists, getting in there on the ground, like our team is."
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