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Portland media arts center is state's only recipient of Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences funding

COURTESY PHOTO: OPEN SIGNAL - Black fellows with Open Signal Labs, led by executive producer Ifanyi Bell (third from left), had screenings at Hollywood Theatre last year.The spotlight has been shined on Black artists during the social justice movement sweeping the nation, and the Open Signal media arts center in Northeast Portland has seen some early benefits.

Already supported by significant grants, Open Signal received an announcement July 28 of a grant from the Academy for Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences — the group that awards Oscars — to help fund Open Signal Labs and its fellowship program for Black filmmakers. The exact dollar amount was not divulged.

Ifanyi Bell, Open Signal Labs executive producer, said he is "grateful and fortunate" for the grant, but admits it is a bit of a sign of the times. People want to help Black people in many ways in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and the ensuing social justice movement.

The academy's funding comes from its FilmCraft program, which supports educational programs that identify future filmmakers from nontraditional backgrounds. The academy gave grants to 96 organizations across the country — Open Signal is the only grantee in Oregon and one of four in the Pacific Northwest.

"We are grateful and fortunate that the academy sees the impact of our organization on our local community," Bell said, "and how it reverberates onto a world scale.

"It's also a response to what is going on now. It's kind of bittersweet, that it takes this kind of action to spur this type of recognition. It's hard to disentangle that intentionality. The change that we're seeing now in society is the result of multiple different stimuli, but at the end of day it doesn't matter how it happens. It happened. ... I see this as a good-faith gesture. Hopefully, in turn, it brings attention from the community here."

COURTESY PHOTO: OPEN SIGNAL - Open Signal has a lineup of Black filmmakers working on projects.The academy grant is Open Signal's third national grant in three years, following awards by the National Endowment for the Arts and California-based media The Foundation Inc. Open Signal also has support from some local foundations.

It's the second year of the Black fellowship program within Open Signal Labs. Last year, filmmakers worked on movies, with screenings at the Hollywood Theatre. This year, projects include feature filmmaking, producing pilots, writing scripts. One filmmaker is working on a reality television show.

The 2020 fellows are Ansar El Muhammad, Joshua Hatkin, Simon Reta, Jordan Thierry, Kaylah Wilson and Masimbaashe "Cookie" Zvovushe.

The academy has long been criticized for slighting people of color. John Singleton was the first Black filmmaker to be nominated for Best Director, for "Boys in the Hood" in 1991. Others nominated include Lee Daniels ("Precious," 2009), Steve McQueen ("12 Years a Slave," 2013), Barry Jenkins ("Moonlight," 2016), Jordan Peele ("Get Out," 2017) and Spike Lee ("BlacKkKlansman," 2018). None of them have won; the films by McQueen and Jenkins won Best Picture.

At Open Signal, aspiring filmmakers just want opportunities, Bell said.

"The academy has had its issues with diversity and inclusion, and I'm happy it's going to do something about it," he said.

"We're going to push on what we're doing. When I first came to Open Signal, it was under particular circumstances, to support Black filmmakers. We had already had some recent awakenings to the plight and challenges to the Black community in everyday life, before what we're seeing now. Our decision at Open Signal to focus on this was not unintentional. It was a planned thing, and we were ahead of the game."

COURTESY PHOTO: OPEN SIGNAL - Open Signal Labs provides support for Black filmmakers, who are at various stages of their projects.The six Open Signal Labs fellows are "incredibly thoughtful filmmakers," Bell said. "We spend a great deal of time with our application process. I'm genuinely stunned by their motivation and drive."

Bell said Open Signal Labs doesn't want to operate as a school for instruction, but rather to support filmmakers on their projects.

So, what perspectives do Black filmmakers bring?

"What we see with conventional storytelling, it's from a white male perspective," he said. "I have a 10-year-old daughter, and we're just wrapping up the 'Indiana Jones' trilogy. As we're watching that, even she as a 10-year-old sees those tropes — such as celebrating a white hero — are so different than our current experiences."

He added: "There's a different way of going about telling the story and interpreting the action of the characters. That comes from experience, and in how we decide to tell the stories. That's what's missing from film and TV. I'm not saying Black filmmakers are 'better than,' but they are seeing it through a different lens. We have an opportunity to create different stories, through different unique experiences that are fresh. How many sequels are we going to get, how many reboots do we need? Let's see if we can find a different lens to tell stories. That's what the fellowship is all about."

But, don't necessarily call them "filmmakers." Bell said the Open Signal Labs fellows choose to go by another description.

"These folks are artists and want to be treated as artists," he said.

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