Making good art as a person of color in Portland can be a lot of work. The advocacy and extra effort required to create room for these stories can sometimes overwhelm the entire project, turning an artistic vision into a PSA.
And then there's Dawn Jones Redstone.
The queer Latinx director, who makes films about Portland for Portland, got her start by renting a camera from the NW Film Center. Her goal was to tell stories about women of color she rarely saw onscreen. Jones Redstone did exactly that with her 2016 breakout short, Sista in the Brotherhood, a semi-autobiographical, day-in-the-life story about a female carpenter of color working on the Sellwood Bridge remodel.
Jones Redstone followed that with 2018's We Have Our Ways, co-written with former editor-in-chief of Bitch magazine Kjerstin Johnson, which focused on women's resistance in a dystopian future. Sista went on to be screened at union meetings and has even become a part of job training at a few construction companies. Our Ways built on the positive momentum she saw gathering around her work following the 2016 election. Both films were produced with crews made up entirely of women—mainly women of color.
With her third short, Magnificent—which premieres this week—Jones Redstone strips away the social constructs she typically analyzes to present a story centered on human nature. In the trailer, we see two women meet for a blind date and venture into the woods. There are shots of the duo moving through the dense leaves and pausing to look out over the Sandy River's serene currents. Then the tone shifts as harsh words are exchanged while the song "Forest Fire" by the Cabin Project crescendos to a drum solo. Although there's mystery, and possibly even ominous foreshadowing, it's clear from this tease that unlike Jones Redstone's previous work, the conflict grows from inside these characters instead of the outside world.
"Emotions are often treated like clutter, something to be KonMari'd and cleaned up because we can't control them," says Jones Redstone. "But these emotions, they are the stuff of life. They bring meaning and joy to drive us through the hard times—perhaps like how this moment in time feels for me with such a dark, dark world."
Although she adheres to an artsier, more nuanced style of cinema, Jones Redstone hasn't abandoned her efforts to diversify and set a standard for fellow filmmakers to do better. As with her previous projects, crew members were female or nonbinary. And by highlighting characters we rarely see elsewhere, perhaps this more realistic, relatable narrative can make a bigger statement about representation.
"I really wanted to make a queer film where characters were not shown to be suffering for their sexual identities," says Jones Redstone. "These are two women, albeit on an unusual date, who happen to be queer."
The most striking difference with Magnificent is the removal of society. Just two women in nature, away from their lives and rhythms of the city. Filmed at Oxbow Regional Park on the eastern end of Gresham, the gorgeous treed vistas take on an eerie nature—familiar and reassuring yet unpredictable and threatening as the sun sets. But when it comes down to it, stranding humans in the wild tends to make the most poignant points about civilization. Additionally, placing the project in the great outdoors introduced another dimension to the short.
"The challenges of filming away from electricity were apparent," says Jones Redstone. "We also wanted to capture the salmon run as part of the story, which was also not without difficulty. Woman versus nature is a literal and metaphorical theme in the film."
SEE IT: Magnificent screens at Q Center, 4115 N Mississippi Ave., dawnjonesredstone.com/magnificent.html, on Wednesday, March 20. 7 pm. Suggested $5 donation.