In winter 2016, filmmaker Ifanyi Bell worked on a project called “Future: Portland 2" which explores how key stakeholders have shaped and will shape Portland while grappling with values, change, and nostalgia. Ifanyi spoke with Oregon Humanities Communications and Programs Assistant Julia Withers this winter to talk about making the film. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
IB: This film is a continuation of a project called Future: Portland that deals with issues of displacement and the feelings around what it means to be a person of color—a Black Portlander—amongst all the change that’s been happening in the city over the last fifty or so years, or at least since I was a child growing up. Initially I wrote an essay (“The Air I Breathe”) for the magazine that dealt with the feelings I had growing up as a Portlander, and in conversations with folks at Oregon Humanities, we realized a lot of those feelings are probably not unique to me. That started the process of the film "Future: Portland."
This new film continues the idea of looking back at a little bit of the history of Portland, but through a different lens and discovering what that might mean for the future of Portland. So it’s the second part; I call it the second page. I thought that because they’re short films, it’s like a single page in a very long story about how not just Portland has become what it’s become, but how a lot of other cities are experiencing a lot of the growth and change that's happening. One of the people I interviewed for the second film talks about nostalgia and how human beings generally have a need to feel comfortable in what is familiar, and how that process of letting go is difficult from a human perspective. And the first film was very similar in that regard—that these are people talking about really intense emotions behind something. That was something that I really liked about the film. It obviously was about gentrification, but what I wanted to focus on was how people would feel. People have had the conversation about gentrification, and when you hear the word “gentrification,” people catch feelings about it. And it’s not bad, it’s just that it also becomes distracting from the real conversations: how are we treating each other as people? How do we take a look at how our actions make people feel? There are moments in the film that become emotional, and I wasn’t looking to point any fingers; these are just people's opinions and feelings about what is happening to the city of Portland, and how it's growing, and what are the implications of the decisions that we make at every level of our little community here? All of us are stakeholders in that. I talked to particular stakeholders, and I wanted to know how they felt about it.
JW: You mentioned that this film is different than you set out for it to be. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?
IB: I was very ambitious when I started the film with that question, how do you build a building? And what I came to learn is that a lot of the processes about how we get things done may not be intentionally obfuscated, but they’re also not made transparent either. I learned that there may be somewhat of an active resistance to discovering what those methods are. I think that that creates barriers to equity in a certain sense. But generally speaking at that level—when you’re dealing with power at that level, and wealth at that level, and access at that level—people become very careful about what they say.
So because of that, this process has been a year, almost year and a half in the making, and setting out, I was bit naïve, because I was like, oh, I’m a journalist, I’m a storyteller, I’m a filmmaker. For a lot of my career, I was working in arts and culture and that was an environment where people would love to share what they're doing and how they do it. They invite you to come into their spaces and are very open about their process. And then, coming into this film is exactly the opposite. But I had this idea that I could get this film done in two weeks! I can get this film done in two months! We’ll have this thing wrapped up. But it wasn’t that easy. The broader vision of the film that I had, quite frankly, was that I wanted to be much more focused on a human being, a person, a single character. And when that wasn’t able to happen, I had to switch gears.
But in the end, I’m very happy with what we came up with. What resulted was something a little bit more complex, where you have to peel more layers off and pay a little bit closer attention. But I think that’s also very good because it’s a really good way to have a discussion.
JW: What else was challenging for you about this project?
IB: The biggest challenge was having to switch focus and reconstruct a different film. That was really hard… and then to be happy with it. Because I'm also an artist—I’m trying to tell myself that more. I wanted to be happy with it visually too; I wanted it to be a reflection of who I am. When I already had this preconceived idea of what it would look like, and then it didn't turn out that way, I had to re-channel my emotions around the whole thing and figure out if, when I view this particular sequence of edits, am I feeling the right thing? That was hard to do, especially leading up to the last few weeks of editing and stuff. I was like, am I happy with this? And I think in the end, I was like, yes. Getting to yes at that particular point was about accepting that it wasn't my original idea. But I am proud of it.
JW: There are some parts in the film where the absence of certain voices points at equity.
IB: When I started this film, I wanted to know certain things and so I literally looked at who the people were that are making the biggest changes in the urban landscape of our city. I went right to the top: who are the people that are making the most noise? And I wanted to ask them questions. And there are a lot more people who I wanted to talk to who either didn't respond or weren’t available. From a stakeholding point of view, when it really comes down to it, the people at the table are a very particular group of folks, which is for a very particular kind of reason. I wanted the film to stay there and to be focused there. I'm grateful to the people who agreed to do this, but there are a lot more people who I think could’ve represented these ideas with a lot more potency and a lot more immediacy.
Like you said, if you’re paying attention, you will definitely see who is not there. If you feel that absence, you should ask the question: who is not at the table?
JW: Speaking of power and who has a seat at the table, what does ownership mean to you? What is the significance of land ownership to you?
IB: I actually don't believe in the ownership of land. It doesn’t make any sense to me and it’s not practical from an economic or social standpoint. It’s not sustainable that any individual should own anything. I see our role as human beings as stewards of the land and more as people who are here to protect it and to safeguard it, not to keep anyone else from it. There’s a larger philosophical and economic rationale for that. It doesn’t make sense to say this person owns this for x amount of time and that’s just going to be the way that it is, and no one else can have it. You cannot continue to take from the bottom and put it on the top.
JW: What would you say to people arguing for more equity in landownership within the system right now?
IB: I’d say they’re arguing for the wrong thing. Here in America, in Western conceptions of living, both people of privilege and those who are underprivileged or marginalized—they both tend to accept that single narrative: that this is the way things go, and I've gotten the shitty end of the stick. Or, I’ve pulled myself up by my bootstraps—when in fact, both groups of people are aiming for the wrong thing.
A lot of people who are poor or more disadvantaged are looking to be the people who then marginalize and exclude other people. That’s not the prize, and our eye is not on it. A long time ago, when you look at some of our folks who were involved in arguing for and establishing our civil rights, they understood very clearly that equality or equity was a stopping point in the road—a place to arrive at in order to reconsider how to actually live as people together. Not that this was it. Not that once we level the playing field, we’re good. No, once we level the playing field we can begin to have a conversation about how to live, about whether or not we should actually own land, about whether or not technology should support everybody instead of a few, to re-examine our entire existence.
JW: If you don’t really believe in land ownership as a principle, what about belonging?
IB: It creates unnecessary divisions, like drawing arbitrary lines that divide one state from another, or one country from another. It's that whole concept of, where am I able to be? Where am I allowed to be? We need to really change how we conceive living on a planet together with people.
The truth is, we belong anywhere we can live, and we can live anywhere where the land is able to support us. Even as refugees, we’re taught to go some place and wall off your space. Go there to exist, but let’s think about what it means to begin to perpetuate exclusion—and we do that at every level of our existence. Once we get something for ourselves, we wall it off. And we say, you can't be this; or you can't have this; you can't go there.
JW: What do you hope that other people will leave the film thinking about?
IB: What I hope this film forces people to do, or at least guide them into doing—is to look at things from a different viewpoint. And I don’t mean just by taking off rose-colored glasses or anything like that, but changing or at least being open to the idea of looking at land ownership, looking at urban growth, without considering those buzzwords like “gentrification,” for example. Don't think about it that way. In the film, I intentionally used terms and was not very specific about certain things so that people will ask questions first. Well, what does he mean by that? And then they’ll be forced to consider what I'm saying. In the opening of the film, I didn’t say, this was Lewis and Clark who led to the development of Oregon as a state, because when you see “Lewis and Clark,” you think of this whole set of things. So I said, these are some US army soldiers who were sent on a reconnaissance mission.
That is important because Lewis and Clark is a well-worn narrative in all of our lives—not just about Oregon, but about how we live as people. If we can look at this idea—of who gets to participate, and who are the people that decide what happens, and how they end up in the positions to decide—if we can do that without falling back on what we think we know, that's what I want people to do.
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