Even on video, the wall color at MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility tells a tale. The wash of charcoal, blue and white might intend to inspire tranquility, but it comes off as clinical, imposing. Remember exactly where these walls start, the color palette seems to say.
The antidotal shade, it turns out, is green. During the past two years, a cooperative of Portland nonprofits has led filmmaking workshops at the Woodburn facility for male youth. The project, now dubbed Echo Productions, yielded several films, including one particularly ambitious break-dancing short made possible through DIY green screen. The MacLaren students improvised a half-prism out of paint, tape and refrigerator boxes that were high enough to envelop a breaker's body but wide enough to digitally imagine new dance floors. In Phoenix Rising, we see four incarcerated break dancers move from forest to tropical beach to astral plane. The implication is unmistakable as the environments evolve: for the duration of this dreamscape, they are free.
With its streaming premiere July 9, followed by an RSVP-only Q&A with the incarcerated filmmakers, the 40-minute compilation of their work is a deliberate balance of performing arts documentary, squirrely sketch comedy and poetic arthouse montage. The mood shifts aren't just for their own sake. The audience is simultaneously confronted with the physical and psychological walls of incarcerated life while encouraged to see their hosts simply as goofs, hobbyists, aspiring professionals and people.
"These guys are really funny," says Jeff Oliver, an Echo Productions instructor and Open Signal's programs facilitator. "I think comedy is truth as much as drama is truth. I knew it would balance itself out if [we] gave them a chance to just be real."
Portland nonprofits Open Signal and Morpheus Youth Project—both seeking to empower underserved communities through media production—spearheaded the classroom at MacLaren, while the nonprofit Hope Partnership built the bridge for outside arts curriculum at MacLaren in the first place. The nearly two dozen students range in age from their late teens to early 20s, serving sentences that are a couple of years long to multiple decades. Their crimes were often serious, says Morpheus Youth Project executive director Carlos Chavez, but he's quick to note both the ages at which the offenses were committed and the pre-existing trauma he's observed across multiple incarcerated populations, which hampers critical neurological development.
MYP's arts programming aims to directly combat those psychological struggles, and adaptability in instruction proved critical during the Echo Productions workshops. Chavez had earned the trust of the MacLaren students; Oliver's standup comedy background helped him hold the floor for production demos; and Open Signal director of new realities Taylor Neitzke gravitated toward animation and experimentation one-on-ones with quieter students.
"Engagement is totally different," Chavez says of the MacLaren classroom. "[Normally] you have a classroom with one class clown who ultimately gets removed from the classroom. In our classroom at MacLaren, everyone is that kid."
Neitzke says no matter how powerful or novel the media tools, building genuine relationships was the bedrock of the films premiering this month. With those interpersonal connections now established, the future of the collaboration could involve more immersive video technology, she predicts, making their cardboard green screen only the beginning.
"It's powerful to be able to leave your current situation when you're incarcerated and build your own world," Neitzke says. "No matter what, we'll continue to have a presence [at MacLaren]."
Perhaps the most topical piece of Echo Productions media didn't actually make the final compilation, simply because they ran out of time to finish it. Chavez describes an interview project in which the MacLaren students speak directly to an outside world feeling numbed or sapped by COVID-19 lockdowns.
"Instead of complaining—and they're in the best position to have complaints—they offered some advice to those struggling with isolation on the outside. To me, that showed the deep compassion these young people have for other people."
SEE IT: The Echo Productions Watch Party and Q&A take place Thursday, July 9. 6 pm for the films, 7 pm for the Q&A. The films stream on Open Signal's social media platforms. RSVP at opensignalpdx.org for a Zoom link and login information to the Q&A. Free.