A short film shot in southern Oregon premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last week. “You Go Girl!” follows Audrey Jenkins, a New York stand up comic, exploring Oregon’s outdoors in remembrance of her mother. Shariffa Ali is the director and co-writer for the production and joins us to share what she hopes audiences can take away from the film.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. A short film shot in southern Oregon premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last week. It’s called You Go Girl! It was directed and co-written by Shariffa Ali, a longtime theater director who turned to filmmaking during the pandemic. Shariffa Ali, welcome back.
Sharriffa Ali: Thank you for having me. It’s so good to be back.
Miller: So, this film started with a grant from the Oregon Made Creative Foundation and Travel Oregon. They wanted to support BIPOC filmmakers who were making films shot in Oregon’s outdoors. Why did you want to apply?
Ali: Well, the tagline really drew me to this grant. I felt as if it was speaking directly to me, that notion of the outdoors being for everyone. And I couldn’t resist. We had actually been filming our previous film Ash Land at the time and we’re wondering “Oh, would Ash Land be eligible for a project like this?”And we learned very quickly that because Ash Land had already been produced and we had just finished filming, even in the midst of the exhaustion of filming Ash Land, I knew that I wanted to make film again, and I had to try and replicate the same conditions.
So I put together an application just as we were wrapping my first short film, simply because I felt, again, it was speaking directly to me, the idea of the outdoors is for everyone.
Miller: This new film focuses on one woman in two very different places. I imagine you don’t wanna give away the ending. But can you give us a sense for what happens?
Ali: Yes. At the beginning of the story, we’re introduced to a young woman who we know as Audrey. Audrey is about to embark on a journey, an uphill journey, quite literally and metaphorically. We witness her at the very base of a trail in one scene, and we also witness her backstage in a Brooklyn comedy club as she surveys the house nervously, about to embark on what will become an uphill journey of winning over her audience. It’s kind of implied that she’s new to stand up comedy. And it’s also implied, when we witness her hiking, that she’s new to the great outdoors.
Miller: Let’s hear an excerpt from the movie from when Audrey is doing this stand up show in Brooklyn.
Audrey [movie]: Me and my mother couldn’t be more different. She lives in Oregon, of all places Oregon, mhm. Do you know any Black people who live in Oregon? I sure don’t. She’s now what you call an outdoor enthusiast. She’d get her little backpack and her little thermos and get to walking up the mountain like a Black mountain Barbie. And let me be clear, on this day, and in this club, the only time you’ll catch me playing in dirt is when I’m dead.
Miller: We do find out from the very beginning of the film that she is playing in dirt. So something has happened that we won’t give away here, but something has happened that’s changed that.
We hear a little bit about Audrey’s mom there in the clip, and we get to know her a little bit better, but we never meet her. Can you give us a sense for the presence that Audrey’s mom, who doesn’t appear in the film, has in this short film?
Ali: Absolutely. Throughout the story, we are haunted by and we get better acquainted with Amelia, Audrey’s mom, who informs a great deal of who Audrey is today. Audrey often, in more of a complaining way, drags on her mother throughout the set for all the ways in which her mother is different from her. And it’s all set off by the fact that her mom is late for her comedy set. And so, Audrey goes on this tangent about her mom constantly being late, her mom being a great outdoors person while she is not an outdoors person, her mom having the perfect physique, and considered very attractive, whereas Audrey may not have the perfect physique. So we learn about how the relationship and dynamic between mother and daughter informs the comedy set.
And we also learned that Audrey has, let’s say, a bittersweet relationship with her mom. On the one hand, there’s admiration and respect. And on the other hand, that notion of having a mom’s presence constantly on your mind and mom’s approval constantly on one’s mind can draw out a little bit of resentment. But of course, it is a comedy set. So it’s all told with a touch of humor.
Miller: Do you see parallels between a comedy set and climbing a mountain?
Ali: Actually, when you think about the structure of a comedy set, the idea of how jokes and stories evolve taking on a upward trajectory, like in Aristotelian drama, where you maybe plant a seed and you keep talking, you keep talking, you keep trying to win over, and then maybe you tell another joke. Yes, it’s definitely akin to climbing a mountain. I haven’t done much stand up comedy myself, although I’ve spent a lot of time around comedians as a creative director and producer of comedy in college. I started to notice that winning over an audience can sometimes feel like climbing a mountain. And when one gets to the very top, if one is lucky, it can feel so rewarding to get that applause and laughter.
Miller: We’ve heard on this show a number of times in recent years that it is not at all uncommon for people of color to be made to feel like they don’t belong in nature. That’s not Audrey’s experience when she actually sets out on the trail. Everyone she encounters, including both white trail runners and white hikers and black snowshoers, they are kind to her and they are welcoming. Why did you make that choice?
Ali: For me, I was depicting my own lived experience in the trails of Oregon. When the theater shut down and the pandemic was at its worst during 2020, I found myself stranded in Southern Oregon, unable to return to New York for fear of my immunocompromised body. And so all of a sudden, I had all this free time and all these hiking trails that surrounded where I lived. And so I began to casually begin hiking, although again, feeling very apprehensive, because it’s not often that you see people of color in nature in film or animation or even in general. I don’t see Black people lining up at the REI Store to get their hiking gear.
And over the course of the pandemic, I found myself becoming more and more and more immersed in nature and enjoying myself. And the culture of hiking and nature lovers is such that it is extremely friendly. There is an extreme sort of sense of courtesy in sharing the great outdoors, and I wanted that to be reflected on screen to not only showcase what life is really like, but perhaps to pose an invitation to any person of color that is considering that notion of getting out into nature. We all deserve to be stewards of the land, and we all deserve to reap the benefits of quiet time, of being out in nature, of getting in touch with parts of ourselves that we wouldn’t ordinarily get to meet. And so I hope that that’s what we achieved in the project.
Miller: We actually talked almost exactly a year ago, in early February of 2021 about another film you made for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a short called Ash Land. Now you have two of these films under your belt. What has it been like to shift from theater to film, now that you have some time to reflect on it?
Ali: I feel very blessed to be an artist who has gotten to create during a time of this great pause. For me, the making of these two films has certainly been the thing that has saved me and kept me sane and humble throughout the time.
What I notice about theater, because you spend a lot of time in a rehearsal room building a story from the ground up, there’s more room for relationships rather than transactions. And I found that in film, the process of creation is done in different phases, phase one being the writing and pre-production. Phase two being the shooting of it, and phase three being the post-production. It’s almost like you tell the story three different times with, in some cases, three different teams. So as much as possible, I tried to evoke a sense of continuity and relationship based making in the film sector, by doing things like warm up games, or land acknowledgments, or meet and greets among the creative and technical team members. So film can be very transactional. But what is similar in both mediums is that it relies heavily on the director to create the ethos and the atmosphere and the culture of the rehearsal room and the set.
Miller: In the past, I’ve heard theater actors say that when they switched to tv or movies, they have to sort of turn down the volume on their performances, because what works on the stage can sometimes be too big for the screen. Does your directing have to change as well?
Ali: Well, certainly, in that I feel I have more of a hand in shaping the narrative of a film, because it’s simply not reliant on the written word. The written word is a huge component of a film, but the image, the visual image, the picture of what it is that we’re saying and seeing, can be largely informed by a directorial eye. And so in that way, I feel like perhaps in theater, I’m more of an interpretive artist, where I’m interpreting the words of an incredible playwright and helping artists and actors interpret the words too, here in film, I am interpreting, but I’m also putting putting out imagery and proposals to the world in the work. It’s really interesting. We don’t have the option of zooming in or closing up on something in theater. So we’re constantly directing the audience’s gaze. And so I found it really interesting, all of a sudden, to be able to pull all the way in, to go miles and miles away. So I find that the picture is definitely a huge component, whereas in theater, first it is the word, and then we go from there.
Miller: But as you noted, you turned to film as a kind of creative lifeline. This was something you could do when you couldn’t continue on with theater. Theater wasn’t happening. That’s changed now. Theater is coming back and in fits and starts. Do you intend to keep making films?
Ali: I 100% intend to keep making films. It’s so interesting to now say that films are my passion and theater is my survival job. It’s usually something else that’s more obscure as the survival job and theater being the passion. I’m now excited to have a survival job that I love that has embraced me, that has taught me all that I know, and a passion for this new form of storytelling that has a wider reach, a deeper and broader impact, because the barriers to entry and access are different.
Miller: Where will people be able to see You Go Girl?
Ali: So, we just finished our Sundance run. The desire is for us to continue the festival circuit, share the work with the world. So look out for your top tier festivals. You Go Girl will be screening there. And then ultimately, we will do our victory lap and come home to the O, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s digital platform. Our incredible artistic director Nataki Garrett, who’s also an EP on the project, has given us a home, a landing page for You Girl Girl, so that it can exist as part of the offerings at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
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