Portland Documentarian Reed Harkness Explores His Half-Brother’s Childhood in “Sam Now”

“I think the film honors him as a person. Hopefully, he will take it as a gift.”

Before little brother Sam was Reed Harkness’ documentary subject, he was his movie star. In a series of annual short films captured by Reed’s Super 8 camera, Sam’s onscreen persona developed into the Blue Panther: a squirrely, charismatic teenage hero in a wetsuit and a lucha libre mask.

One year, with a burgeoning documentarian’s instincts, Reed pitched a daring new direction for their franchise to then-16-year-old Sam: “How about we make a film about the Blue Panther finding his mom?”

Reed had broached the elephant in the room, something no other members of his Seattle family wanted to openly discuss: that Jois (Sam’s mom, Reed’s stepmom) had disappeared three years earlier without a word. With Sam’s blessing, the brothers set off 1,000 miles down Interstate 5 to find Jois. That’s when the Harknesses’ many films became just one, 25 years in the making: Sam Now.

Sam Now, which will have its Portland premiere Aug. 5 at Whitsell Auditorium, is both an uplifting and heartbreakingly ambiguous portrait of the Harknesses. In the film, Reed (a Portlander since 1999) tries to make sense of why people hurt each other—and whether reconciliation is possible when personal histories blur within a family.

Immediately, one of Sam Now’s most intriguing dimensions is that the Harknesses are a problem-burying clan, but with a journalist in their midst. Many times, Reed appears to alter the course of his family’s history by asking loved ones to speak on camera about things otherwise unsaid.

“For me [the camera] made it easier,” he tells WW. “Without that, it is not fun at all to have those difficult conversations. You can see in the movie it’s a balance of light and dark. It’s mine and Sam’s magical thinking and fantastical filmmaking crossed with the reality and gravity of the situation.”

Making space to understand absent mothers, resilient sons and reticent fathers, the film captures how familial roles can seem predestined yet mutable. Still, no one evolves more subtly than the filmmaker hiding behind the camera.

In Sam Now, Reed goes from delivering a harrowing plea for communication in his early 20s to being a professional documentarian committed to fairness. In recent years, he’s helmed projects like the House on Fire series (which interviews Oregonians about what they’d save in a blaze) and the forthcoming feature Integration (which examines psychedelic therapy).

“It gets really hard being the person that intakes the information and not being the person that is venting or exhibiting” their feelings, he says. “I wanted to represent all those different voices so that they could hear each other.”

Sam’s own growth is by no means linear. When he reappears in Sam Now as a Seattle social worker in 2015 after years off-camera, he doesn’t seem his old happy self, but has certainly gained greater insight into that self.

“I’d love to see Sam on a panel sometime with a bunch of other documentary subjects explaining what that’s like,” Reed says. “I know for a fact that every documentary ever made is an exploitation of somebody, something. You have to in order to get the story out. I think the film honors him as a person. Hopefully, he will take it as a gift.”

The movie’s end makes clear that even though Sam Now was influenced by Michael Apted’s long-running Up series, there likely won’t be a seven-year check-in or a Sam Later. Yet the film achieves something closer to therapeutic evolution than narrative closure—and Reed says he remains unsure whether its impact is even measurable during this generation.

Of course, if one of his four kids ever wants to make a movie about the family, he has thoughts. “I would tell them to go for it. But it’s the hardest possible filmmaking you could ever do. You’d be better off doing an animated feature; you’d get it done quicker,” he says with a laugh.

If the encouragement and caution in that answer are slightly paradoxical, so is Sam Now. It may be a film about an act of brotherly filmmaking that comes full circle, but it’s also about a search for a happy family that courses endlessly, unrecorded through decades and bloodlines.

SEE IT: Sam Now plays at PAM CUT’s Whitsell Auditorium, 1219 SW Park Ave., 503-221-1156, pamcut.org. 7 pm Friday, Aug. 5. $12.