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Vin Shambry in front of the tree he, his mother and his younger sister slept under when he was a student at Beaumont Middle School.
Saundra Sorenson
Published: 29 August 2022

Five days into their film shoot, Vin Shambry characterizes director Ime Etuk’s set as “boring.”

“There’s an ease and a flow within everyone, and there is this moment where, yes, it seems as if the set is boring in a sense because they're so good at their jobs,” actor and writer Shambry told The Skanner. “Everything is in line, everything is great, everyone is working together, there’s no fights, there’s no arguments, there’s full communication. Even with 40 children extras.”

outdoor school film directorDirector Ime Etuke on the set of a previous project.
Shambry described how the working atmosphere lacked the explosive controversy or ego clashes that can characterize the Hollywood filming process. But there is no shortage of credentials in the production of Shambry’s autobiographical Outdoor School: Etuk was working as an assistant director on a Wieden+Kennedy Superbowl ad Shambry appeared in, an interaction that launched their partnership. Etuke, a graduate of the Directors Guild of America training program, brought along industry professionals to work alongside paid interns; he also partnered with Emmy-nominated producer Ifanyi Bell – who is also the producer of Outdoor School – to nurture the feature-length project in Open Signal Labs' Black Filmmaker Fellowship.

“I have a production company (Lion Speaks) and cameras, but better than me telling it is, what if we can get other up-and-coming Black filmmakers and let them learn while telling the story? And that’s kind of how we all collaborated,” Etuk told The Skanner.

As a result, he said, “73% of our crew is either BIPOC or women.

"And it doesn’t feel odd at all.”

Outside Learning

outdoor school film vin youngYoung Vin Shambry. As any Oregon public elementary school student will tell you, Outdoor School is a rite of passage. Each year, fifth- and sixth-grade students spend five nights in nature in what is a highly educational camp experience of sorts.

For young Shambry, it was a rare opportunity to feel like a kid: At 12, he had fled his abusive father and lived in Irvington Park with his mother and young sister. But his memories are surprisingly gentle, and even as he remembers the pressure he felt to be the man of the family at such a tender age, he recalls his mother’s strength and resilience – and resourcefulness.

“We had a routine all worked out: Showers at the local swimming pool, free breakfast at school, then we’d walk around with a shopping cart until dark,” Shambry said when sharing his experience at the Moth live storytelling event in 2017. “And we knew exactly when the police would patrol the parks, and when they were done with their rounds, we could safely crawl under the tree without being seen.”

But as a student at Beaumont Middle School, Shambry said his classmates remained unaware he was houseless. Many of them have since reached out expressing their surprise – often in response to casting calls for the film.

”There’s this beautiful scene in the movie, which is 100% accurate, of when I would always be late for the pledge of allegiance, because I would be in the bathroom brushing my teeth and putting on deodorant,” Shambry said. “But that was part of my routine: I would get my free breakfast and I would clean myself when people were already getting ready, and that was just part of my thing.”

Etuk, who was also born and raised in Portland, understood that balance.

“To be Black and poor in the 90s in Portland, you still present yourself well,” he said.

“Being homeless doesn’t mean you don’t look good, it doesn’t mean you walk around downtrodden, especially children. The human spirit lifts above circumstance, so I think by showing that reality, it doesn’t mean you’re not in a difficult circumstance, but it does mean you’re not necessarily defined by it.”

Key to Shambry’s efforts to fit in was a pair of Deion Sanders Nike Air Diamond Turfs gifted to him by a classmate’s father, legendary shoe designer Tinker Hatfield.

“These shoes meant the world,” Shambry said.

The shoes also act as a key plot element in Outdoor School, when young Melvin – Shambry’s on-screen surrogate – steps up to represent his school in a highly competitive game of tug-of-war, but agonizes over the possibility that doing so may just ruin his sneakers.

“It was this moment of, ‘Oh wait, I am a child and I can have fun. And I actually don’t care what’s going to happen in two weeks,’” Shambry said. “A lot of times when you’re in high-pressure situations, like in poverty or in trauma, there is no time to sit and be present. And I think it was a beautiful moment, even in the film, where he is allowed to be present even if something gets in the way, or if something that means a lot to him gets destroyed.” 

Working in Realism

Etuk praised his wardrobe crew for sourcing a period-specific pair of Nike Air Diamond Turfs for the production. Authenticity to the 90s – especially life in Portland at that time, as experienced by Black youth – was important to Etuk and Shambry.

And in depicting that era, they often depict realities that persist today.

“We know that Black children were in detention more than other kids, so you’ll see that in the film where Vin goes to detention, there’s not a lot of kids in there but of the kids, it’s mostly Black kids and the school is not a Black school,” Etuk said. “We’re definitely leaning into the truth of those realities of 1994 Portland.”

And as Etuk put his production crew together, he made sure that his team had more than a passing attachment to the project.

“I realized at one point that being a storyteller is not only in front of the camera; we can tell the story behind the camera,” Etuk said. “Which meant that we could intentionally train people who didn’t have access before, who didn’t have generational wealth to come and intern for free, but pay them to learn and team them with established filmmakers to help jumpstart their career if they wanted to go on this path and make that a reality.”

Etuk also wanted to give spots on his crew to individuals who understood young Melvin’s struggles.

“We partnered with Outside the Frame, a nonprofit that works with houseless youth to train them to be filmmakers, and some former houseless youth end up teaching other people to be filmmakers,” Etuk said. “So it was a natural partnership because they’re going to understand not only what we’re trying to do from an educational standpoint, but have a connection to the story, because they’ve experienced houselessness as well.”

Shambry agreed.

“It just gives even more justice to the actual story that we see on the lens,” he said.

“It’s exciting to do it, especially in a city that’s not known for diversity,” Etuk added.

“I think it kind of says to the rest of the world, if we can do this here, if we can successfully make this project and train people, you should be able to do this everywhere.”

Etuk extended this philosophy to financing the $2 million project. 

“One of the people we talked to early on was asking, what if I wrote the check for everything?” Etuk recalled. “I said the thing is, if no one who looks like us has an investment in this, they don’t get any of the future profits, and too often if you have a film that only has White money into it and it’s a Black story, then the people who lived the story won’t actually benefit from an economic place. And that’s something that was important to us too – we want to let people who lived this story own a piece of your story as an investor, so as this goes on to wherever its home is in the future, they get to be a part of that, not just from a shared experience of watching it, but economically as well. That's part of changing the narrative.”

Filming is due to wrap by the middle of next month.

Reflecting on the highly personal project, Shambry noted, “Outdoor School the movie is a double entendre. It’s really understanding that little Melvin in fact lived outdoors, before outdoor school happened. It was really more a realization that nature was his nurturer, and there for him all along.”

For more information, visit www.outdoorschoolthemovie.com.

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