There's something joyous about short films. For every one you take in, you get a glimpse of an artist's perspective—and since shorts often represent a creator's early steps, there's a solid chance their perspective feels new, even when presented with rough edges. We can always go to cinemas to catch a slick blockbuster, but short films are where the filmmakers of tomorrow are being born. 

Despite being a theater, Portland Playhouse—the community-focused nonprofit in Portland's King neighborhood—also elevates local film. In 2020, they held a virtual film festival called Wonderland that showcased four local shorts from different artists. Now, they’re following that up with a new installment, Return to Wonderland, which will screen a collection of shorts from four new filmmakers.

“Yes, we do plays," Portland Playhouse's Producing Director Charles Grant told the Mercury, "but we wondered: How else could we do things to have a direct impact and respond to issues happening in our communities?"

Presented in a single program, the curated shorts run a little over an hour and vary in genre from documentary to fiction and music. There's a number of recognizable local movers on the list, like La'Tevin Alexander and Poet Lady Rose. Here's a little about each short:

Larry & Joe-Joe by La'Tevin Alexander 

An excerpt from a larger piece, this short is a scene from a series that centers on aspiring Kingpins of a crime syndicate who still find themselves grappling with the injustices of white supremacy and police brutality. The core conversation of the short centers on a man named Otis (Victor Mack) who is desperate for justice. He comes to the titular Larry (Elijah Sims) and Joe-Joe (Isaiah Sims) to seek their help. The scene serves as a showcase for Mack, in particular, who gives an extended monologue that overflows with quiet rage.

“One of the things that we have never had was someone to defend us," the short's director La'Tevin Alexander said in a video announcing the shorts. "Larry & Joe-Joe begs the question, what if we had someone to defend us from these racial attacks and police brutality?”

Walla Walla by Hayley Durelle 

The most expansive of the four shorts, Walla Walla follows characters Tori (Afomia Hailemeskel) and Kayla (Sammy Rat Rios) on a lengthy road trip from rural Twin Falls, Idaho through Eastern Oregon to Walla Walla, Washington. 

Talking and joking with each other, their natural chemistry juxtaposes a heavy journey to gain access to abortion care. Comparing Walla Walla to the early work of Kelly Reichardt isn't an overstatement, as it approaches the story with a poetic minimalism that masks a melancholy while still being something all its own.

“On Thursday, August 25, as Kirk and I were working towards our final edit of the film, Idaho’s trigger law went into effect, moving the film’s premise out of the realm of speculative fiction. Now, it more literally reflects the political reality of this time and place,” Durelle said in an artist's statement. “I wish I had a tidy way to make sense of these events—something, for example, that would put an insightful button on the end of this story. But I don’t, not yet. In the meantime, I’m grateful for the opportunity to share with you the short film Walla Walla, created for Return to Wonderland at Portland Playhouse.”  

Return to Kingsley: A Retrospective KAMRYN FALL

Return to Kingsley: A Retrospective by Kamryn Fall 

Grant described Kamryn Fall's Return to Kingsley as a “hybrid documentary with a music video format, commentary, and interviews.” Both joyful and sentimental, it takes a deep dive into the creative process of filmmaking, and simultaneously serves as a sendoff for Portland musician Kingsley—who will soon be moving to London—giving her the opportunity to reflect on her career and work. 

Petals and Thorns: A Spoken Word Journey by La'Toya Hampton (aka The Poet Lady Rose)

This documentary tracks the journey of four high school students, as they take part in a week-long writing and spoken word workshop with artist La’Toya Hampton and give a performance at the end. 

“While my spoken word has been previously used in other film projects by other creators, this gives me an opportunity to combine it all for myself,” Hampton said of her film. “The impacts of the world’s events on our youth have been largely overlooked and underestimated. I want to provide youth with the opportunity and the platform to not only center their voice, but to validate and elevate it.” 

Return to Wonderland screens at Portland Playhouse, 602 NE Prescott, Sat Sept 3, 7 pm; Sun Sept 4, 2 pm; Fri Sept 9 & Sat Sept 10, 7 pm; Kennedy School, 5736 NE 33rd, Sept 8, 7 pm; Cinema 21, 616 NW 21st, Sept 10, noon; ticket prices are sliding scale with a suggested price of $15, tickets and info here. Video on Demand available for purchase between Sept 10-25.