Portland Playhouse Highlights Local Artists in Film Festival

Return to Wonderland, a Portland Playhouse-sponsored short film festival, showcases four local artists’ work.

“But my sensitivity is what makes me real,” says Olivia Russ, a Conestoga Middle School student and aspiring poet, in Petals and Thorns: A Spoken Word Journey. “I stand up for my introverted brothers and sisters, my beautiful and delicate feathers.”

Petals and Thorns is part of Portland Playhouse’s second short film festival, titled Return to Wonderland, and offers a glimpse into the worlds of four Portland creatives. And like many of the films in the festival, it truly does capture the beautiful and delicate feathers of our community.

Petals and Thorns follows LaToya Hampton MSW, aka The Poet Lady Rose, as she leads a poetry workshop for Black Portland youth in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the story centers on the empowerment and development of the workshop’s students, Hampton begins the story by stating, “At some point in this process, I realized that this story was just as much mine, the storyteller, as it is theirs.”

The audience watches four high and middle school students, Nathaniel, Aaliyah, Olivia and Alyssa, step into their own poetic voice ahead of their public reading. From visiting the only Black-owned brick-and-mortar bookstore in Portland, Third Eye Books, to the students’ discussion and evolution of their poetry, this story highlights Black excellence and storytelling in a unique and captivating documentary.

Another highlight of the festival is Larry & Joe-Joe, which opens with a quote from Malcolm X: “If violence is wrong in America, violence is wrong abroad.” Writer and director La’Tevin Alexander asks how Black Americans can defend themselves in a country with institutions that fail to protect them. Victor Mack’s awe-inspiring performance emphasizes the relationship to representation and justice in our country, as he asks two professional criminals, Larry and Joe-Joe, to take matters into their own hands and kill the white men who murdered his son.

Every aspect of this short’s production screams perfection. Larry and Joe-Joe explores the ugly depths of racism in America through beautifully composed shots courtesy of the film’s director of photography, Joseph Matos, and inspired writing from Alexander. My only thought following the film’s close was, “I want more.” Alexander and his production company, Confrontation Theatre, promise to be worth watching in the coming years.

Meanwhile, Return to Kingsley: A Retrospective offers a glimpse into the discography of Portland pop artist Kinglsey. Through singles “All Me,” “I’m Fine” and “Therapy” Kingsley creates what she and director Kamryn Fall lovingly call the “Kingsley Cinematic Universe.”

Interspersed with commentary from Fall, Kingsley and producer Riley Lozano, Return to Kingsley celebrates Black joy and creative expression, filmed throughout various Portland locations like Holocene and Leach Botanical Gardens. The short’s creative take on everything from fairy tale princesses to the Jonas Brothers delights in beautiful composition and humor.

Finally, in Walla Walla, we follow Kayla (Sammy Rat Rios) and Tori (Afomia Hailemeskel) as they cross state lines in search of access to abortion. Writer and director Hayley Durelle pulls no punches in this hilarious dramedy, while examining the real effects of the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

Driving six hours each way in a beat-up sedan lovingly named Sabrina, Rios and Hailemeskel breathe life into the realistic genius of this story. Durelle’s Walla Walla is exactly what you’d expect from a classic indie short: originality, beautiful cinematography (by Kirk W. Johnson), and a human-centered story.

WATCH: Tickets to watch Return to Wonderland virtually are available through Sept. 25 via Portland Playhouse.