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'ASH LAND': Short film documents life 'in this moment, in this skin'

Separate the word “Ashland” into its syllables and deeper meaning emerges — encompassing history, honoring space and introducing an internal journey undertaken by the main character in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s recently released short film, “ASH LAND.”

This portrait of a Black woman, portrayed as “She” by Kamilah Long and “Her” by Cyndii Johnson, explores notions of returning to the self in the midst of isolation brought by COVID-19. OSF and AliAlea Productions released the short film, written by Banna Desta, earlier this month.

The theme of rising from ash — from a place of spiritual barrenness — to a reclaimed sense of self love is a sentiment director Shariffa Ali and production partner Adrian Alea integrated by leaning into the people, places and circumstances surrounding them during an unusual Ashland summer.

“If you commit as an artist to being present, and to being fully present with your surroundings ... there are diamonds waiting to be unearthed,” Ali said. “There are diamonds that are waiting to be kissed and left in the ground where they belong.”

Inspired by the magic and history of Southern Oregon’s landscape, the vulnerability gifted by fellow theater-makers and a willingness to create art through a new medium, Ali said she considers the “moving and transformative experience” a success.

Alea said honoring local artists and the land were top priorities in the filmmaking process. In this film, “nature is the third character.”

All filming locations are within the ancestral homelands of the Shasta and Takelma peoples, who were displaced from the area in the mid-1850s.

“The spirits, the history, the bodies, the feet that have tread the land before us were also present in the film,” Ali said.

For Alea, a planned 10-day visit from New York City to Ashland morphed into a two-month production venture, while live theater endured a substantial downturn nationwide.

Ali said she was surprised by the seamless ease with which her team’s skills transferred from on the stage to behind the camera. Ali remained in Oregon in March after working on another project with OSF due to discomfort about traveling while the pandemic raged. By July, with no sign the public health crisis would ease, Ali offered the natural sanctity of Ashland to her friend, Alea.

On a jog through Lithia Park, Alea discovered the sapphire waters of Ashland’s fairy ponds — a hidden oasis that became a central location for main character development. For both creative minds, the landscape presented the ideal setting for an exploration of visual form and narrative.

“The world has all the storytelling available for us to use and it gives us the moments right in front of us,” Alea said. “As artists, we just need to have the faith that the story will reveal itself over time. That’s how we get the most authentic and genuine storytelling.”

The coronavirus pandemic has emphasized the fragility of the world today and challenged artists to present truly human, vulnerable stories, Alea said.

This film documents a moment in time when the face mask draped over the main character’s arm and COVID-19 case numbers blaring from the television are just as relevant to the character’s internal conflict as the historical truths that form what it means to be Black in Southern Oregon today.

“Until the lion learns how to write, every story will glorify the hunter,” Ali said, reciting an African proverb by J. Nozipo Maraire.

As a Black woman and Latinx man, Ali and Alea recognized many stories can go missing in a world where marginalized people are given fewer opportunities to capture what it means to be alive in their bodies at this moment.

The film’s script is a coalescence of personal experiences within the production group — feelings of isolation and running away from oneself, and thoughts about how the pandemic offers an opportunity for mending the soul, Ali said.

From Cyndii Johnson’s nurturing demeanor off the set to Kamilah Long’s coming out on screen, without makeup to conceal her skin, to noticing the calmness of the bees, each person brought something raw to the finished product.

As primarily theater-makers, Ali and Alea are accustomed to the ephemeral nature of live performance, but producing a piece of art that will outlive its creators carried its own irreplaceable value, they said.

“People who may have never even met me, in hundreds of years to come, will know what it was like to live in this moment, in this skin, in this body, in this vessel,” Ali said.

The deep connection the main character comes to acknowledge between her former self and present self is an exercise in total acceptance inclusive of one’s wounds, Ali said.

The final message of the film, “We Black. We in Oregon. Look at us,” stems from an understanding of Oregon’s history. A snapshot of the present consciously incorporates awareness of history’s impact on worldviews and tensions today, which we are only beginning to understand, Ali said.

Understanding that sundown towns, segregation and violent practices toward people of color were prevalent in Oregon’s past shed light on why Ali had to ask, “Where is the Black community?” when she first arrived in the state, she recalled.

As Ali fell in love with the land and the mountains hugging Ashland, history brought its own bittersweet tang. The film is a celebration for people of color who make art in Oregon today — those who create in a space previously claimed by whiteness, she said.

“When you defy design, when you defy the architecture of what history has laid out for you, you are in fact doing something radical — a quiet, radical act,” she said.

Contact Ashland Tidings reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com and follow her on Twitter @AllayanaD.

Cyndii Johnson & Kamilah Long are shown in a moment from the short film 'ASH LAND.' (Photo by Tyler Maddox)