By Nancy Tannler
Nothing captivates our attention more than listening to a great story. When Vin Chambray presented his short story, “Outdoor Camp” for The Moth four years ago, his spoken word touched a lot of people. “After my story aired there was a flood of response from people everywhere just wanting to check in,” Chambray said.
Not only was the general public moved to respond, but it came to the attention of Ifanyi Bell, Executive Producer Open Signal, and Ime N. Etuk, the famous Nigerian/American producer and director. Their interest started a creative journey that would lead to “Outdoor Camp” becoming a full-fledged movie called “Outdoor School” that will be filmed in Portland this fall (outdoorschoolthemovie.com).
The Moth Community Program provides the space, tools and expertise for people to practice the art and craft of personal storytelling. Chambray’s presentation was a personal story about being 11 years old and living on the streets with his mother and little sister in order to escape a domestic violence situation. The era 90s in Portland.
Melvin–his given name–quickly became “the man” of the family. During the day, while his mother was working, he and his little sister went to school and afterwards searched for cardboard to sleep on at night and a sheltering tree to sleep under. Their main choice was a special Douglas Fir tree.
Fortunately for them all, Chambray was a natural born hustler and knew how to get what was needed to survive. It was important to him that they keep up appearances so their fellow classmates never suspected they were homeless.
It was when his sixth-grade class goes to Outdoor School that Chambray first experiences the transformative power that nature and the care of stable adults can give to a young child. “This was a week when I got to feel what it feels like to be a kid,” Chambray said. He realized that the poverty he was experiencing did not have to define him or what he wanted in life.
One of Chambray’s anecdotes about camp was the tug of war that ensued between the different cabins. He was reluctant to participate because he did not want his prize possession–a pair of did Deon Sanders Nike shoes–to get dirty. But for once he was able to set aside his adult-like vigilance to take care of what little he had and join in the fray even if the shoes got dirty. He helped his team win the tug of war. It was after attending Outdoor School that he dropped the Melvin from his name and he became Vin.
Chambray’s family eventually got back on their feet and he went on to college, pursuing a career as a published writer, acclaimed storyteller, international actor and director. It was 20 years later that he decided to submit his personal story to The Moth, thus opening the doors of opportunity to make this movie.
After viewing Chambray’s storytelling performance of “Outdoor Camp” on The Moth, director Etuk immediately wanted to make a movie. Instead, they let the idea incubate for a few years.
In 2018 Etuk, Bell and Chambray founded Lion Speaks, a 501 (c)3 non-profit movement striving towards racial equity in the fields of STEM, film, media and entertainment industry here in Portland. Chambray describes this as “a beautiful collaboration with other partners.”
Lion Speaks offers underrepresented communities of teens and adults educational opportunities to achieve long-term economic stability and career success. The movie will employ their production team from the students of this program, giving them the opportunity to work alongside professional mentors and learn from the best while being gainfully employed.
By waiting on the movie production, the partners garnered nationwide support for the project from various sponsors. Chambray’s story was used to help the organization Outdoor School for All pass a bill in Salem to get more funding for the film. “It’s especially important that kids of color and disadvantaged youth have this opportunity to experience nature,” Chambray said. “The hope is for this to become a nationwide program for school kids.”
In the search to find a little Chambray for the part, the team cast a wide net from LA to New York through the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). They had narrowed the search down to 15 professional young boys but then the principal of MLK Elementary School contacted Chambray with a kid he wanted him to meet. It didn’t take long for him to recognize that this 11-year-old boy was an archetype of his younger self. He was the one.
The African proverb that says, “Until lions learn to speak, every story will glorify the hunter,” best sums up what Etuk, Bell and Chambray are striving toward in the production company, Laugh Cry Love Entertainment. The times are propitious for waking up the sleeping masses and telling the whole story. It is time people of color are given equal voice in all industries. It is also time for people to remember how important the natural world is to everyone.
Photo of Ime Etuk (left) and Vin Chambray (right) on set by Sebastian Rogers