An Incubator for Black Storytellers Emerges With Open Signal Labs New Fellowship Program

Participants, who get access to professional equipment and mentors, will showcase their work this week.

(Sam Gehrke)

In 2002, Dustin Tolman walked out of Mt. Hood Community College with a degree in television production. The inescapable question of "Now what?" awaited him, and the demographics of Portland's film scene didn't help. What was an aspiring black filmmaker, who revered Spike Lee, didn't want a job in television news and noticed a lack of people who looked like him in the local industry, supposed to do next?

"I didn't have someone in my life to say, 'You can do it. This is attainable. You just need to do the work,'" Tolman recalls.

That moment of uncertainty—of invisibility—is where Tolman returns when he reflects on his past year as a participant in Open Signal Labs' Black Filmmaker Fellowship. Would he have taken a 10-year break from the camera after graduating if a local incubator of filmmakers of color had existed then? It's hard to say. While Tolman wouldn't undo the subsequent decade spent in New York City, the start of his family or a successful run as a freelance videographer, he knows his younger self would have craved the guidance provided by people like Labs leader and Emmy-nominated producer Ifanyi Bell, or the program's Hollywood-tested advisers, such as Ime Etuk (Shrill, Twin Peaks).

"Even though I still feel I need a mentor, I know there are so many layers on the onion to peel back," Tolman says. "I'm really adamant and interested in helping other creators find their voice and their path."

This summer marks the conclusion of Open Signal Labs' pilot year, during which six black fellows received access to industry-standard equipment, small stipends, editorial guidance and a sounding board for project ideas. The result of their work will screen Friday, June 14, at the Hollywood Theatre, and film producer Kamal Sinclair of the Sundance Institute is scheduled to appear. While the lineup is still being finalized, the fellows' documentaries and narratives explore topics like gentrification, black police officers, African identity, music and more.

Tolman says his past year was perhaps most defined by a new angle on a familiar subject: street fashion. As a videographer who's worked with Foot Locker, local footwear design academy Pensole and New York-based media platform Complex, which reports on style trends, he turned his attention to untold histories and racial inequities within the sneaker industry. Tolman researched the genesis of the shoe-lasting machine, a device that shapes and attaches the body to the sole patented by black inventor Jan Ernst Matzeliger, and spoke with contemporary designers of color, examining breakdowns in the would-be reciprocal relationship between black culture and shoe culture.

"I guarantee you not 1 percent of the [billion-dollar industry] is going back into Brooklyn where all that culture is coming from," Tolman says.

The documentary itself needs years of further work, but the space to pursue something weightier than a live music video or branded content featurette was how the fellowship best served Tolman's career.

"Without this program," he explains, "that spark would probably never have come."

That said, it was a quick-moving year for Tolman and a true pilot program for Open Signal. After the June 14 celebration, the nonprofit will take the summer to assess the inaugural year and consider what a second go-around might look like while still aiming to support its freshman fellows.

Similarly, Tolman cautions that evaluating the program is more complicated for him than simply claiming victory at the formation of a black creative circle. For one thing, he says, the six fellows are profoundly different people—of different ages, industry ambitions and experience levels. They're interested in theater, in black queer culture, in music, in the documentary as hard journalism. In search of keystone takeaways from the fellowship, Tolman settles multiple times on listening.

"In environments where there aren't black people, you're often the voice for them," he says. "But being together, everybody's version of the right answer is different. [I had to] understand how important it is for black people to be in a space and learn about each other. Blackness is fluid…growth isn't all sunshine and dandelions."

SEE IT: Open Signal Labs' Black Filmmaker Fellowship screening is at Hollywood Theatre, 4122 NE Sandy Blvd.,, on Friday, June 14. 7 pm. 6:30 pm pre-show DJ set by VNPRT. $10 general admission, $75 VIP.

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