Elijah Hasan is a man of many talents. “Photography is my drug of choice and definitely informs my filmmaking techniques.” He’s also a composer, director, and producer too. But his first love? “I’ve been writing the longest. I was writing before I was doing photography, and I’ve been in a dark room since I was nine years old,” he explains.
Born and raised in Portland, Elijah now brings his decades of industry experience to local youth as a teaching artist. His work strives to push us all to think deeper about community issues and our roles in addressing them. He sees this work as part of his core purpose in life and he’s driven to continue it.
Elijah jokes about this perspective: “I grew up around people who were way better than me, way more talented. But a brick fell from the sky and hit them while I’m still here!” This easygoing sense of humor is matched by an awareness and persistence that can’t be stopped. Meet Elijah…
You can claim a variety of artist roles. Can you give me a quick rundown of your journey into filmmaking?
The first film I entered in a festival was Is That Me. It was the 2009 Northwest Filmmakers’ Festival and my short won a couple awards. That’s when I found myself on stage for the first time being called a filmmaker. The next year I got the Oregon Media Arts Fellowship (formerly administered by OMPA) for COINED—my second stab at animation. I felt honored but also inspired and validated.
It reminds me of a memory from Lincoln High School. I was always in the Advanced Literature classes. This one test came that I didn’t study for or read the book. I actually got a B and good feedback from my teacher. But once I had my teacher’s attention, I realized I needed to show up now because someone was watching. That’s kind of how it feels when I receive an award or grant.
You’ve done some really incredible hands-on projects with youth. When did teaching and giving back through art come into the picture?
I’ve worked with POIC (Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center), Caldera, and various schools. I’ve always enjoyed giving back and working with people, especially young, black children. I need to complete the cycle. Black youth need to see black artists like myself doing what they want to be doing. I think I might get more out of the exchange than them!
[I ask for more details about a community photography project called What Connects Us. The program paired students at HB Lee Middle School with officers from the Gresham Police Department, who come in as visiting artists. Elijah explains some of his inspiration for the project.]
There are so many stories of cops killing black people. I felt like I was on the defense. As an artist, how do I deal with this? How do I make a world that I can deal with? Because I can’t accept this.
I did this program two years in a row at the same school. It creates a non-confrontational experience for youth to interact with police and change perspectives on both sides. The young people actually told me themselves that their ideas and opinions of police have changed because of it.
What are you working on currently, or what’s coming up next?
What Connects Us and Where the Heart Is are making their rounds on the festival circuit. Where the Heart Is premiered Feb. 24 at a Portland local library. We had a really great turnout, including most of the cast. You work on something over and over for so long you kind of become numb to it. Then you put it in front of an audience and find out how other people react to it.
I’m very excited to be working on a documentary about law enforcement, but I’m keeping it pretty hush-hush right now. I will say these conversations that I’m having are vital. I’m shooting and interviewing people every week. I have to give a shout out to Open Signal Labs’ Black Filmmaker Incubator. It’s huge to have most of the support and gear you need covered.
What or who inspires you?
For film: Early on it was Spike Lee and [John] Singleton, now [Ava] DuVernay. I wasn’t interested in the directors until I saw black directors on screen. Before that it was just the film itself.
What do you enjoy about living and working in Oregon/Portland?
This is the only place that I’ve lived. It’s my city, my home. It’s been a blessing to be here. My social conscious of the environment and sustainable practices all came from living here. We have it because of leaders who came before us, and it’s my responsibility to continue that.
My grandparents came here to find a better life… my grandfather worked in a shipyard. I know that it takes—and took back then—a special black person to come here and stay. That continues. If you have the patience, tenacity, and spirit to stay here and make connections, you’ll do OK.
What do you want to say to young people considering a career in this industry?
Learn all you can. Especially learn the peripherals. If you want to be a filmmaker, learn editing, learn photography, sound. That allows you to move faster and not have to wait for people to do your work. And it makes you aware of the people you do work with and tap for this, whether or not this person can do what you want them to.
Don’t be afraid to take web design or graphic design. You’re gonna need that stuff! If you’re not working full-time, you could be making money helping other artists.
If you’re serious about being an artist, you can’t be a one-trick pony. Put both feet in.
Currently binge-watching: Just finished The Kingdom on Netflix
Required reading: I’m really not too endeared to diving in and reading entire books. It’s too much of a commitment for my wandering brain’s attention span. I prefer reading art and media magazines as well as the news reports and periodicals written by talented journalists describing challenges and triumphs in contemporary life throughout the planet.
Personal hobbies: I love just carrying my camera around with nothing to do and shoot. I love shooting at night, finding shadows. I like to cook too. And I like a good cigar with a good bourbon!
Recap: 2019 Annual Meeting