Members of an Outside the Frame (OTF) production team on shoot day in September. From left: Kendyl, a first-time production assitant; Kai Tillman, mentor and audio engineer; and OTF founder and director, Nili Yosha ’07.
Members of an Outside the Frame (OTF) production team on shoot day in September. From left: Kendyl, a first-time production assitant; Kai Tillman, mentor and audio engineer; and OTF founder and director, Nili Yosha ’07.

Changing the Lens

Nili Yosha ’07 empowers houseless youth through filmmaking.

By Amanda Waldroupe ’07 | January 6, 2023

“All right, everybody,” Nili Yosha ’07 said. Around her a group of young actors snapped to attention. “Butts in seats. You’re eating lunch, you’re talking, you’re chilling.”  

It was the second week of a two-week filmmaking intensive run by Outside the Frame, a nonprofit teaching filmmaking and storytelling skills to houseless youth.  

That day, scenes for a short film were being filmed in the rec room of a social service agency for houseless youth in downtown Portland.

A half dozen young adults—aged between 18 and 25—goofed off during a lull. But at Nili’s instruction, they took their places. Chairs scraped as they sat at two tables. They played cards, ate lunch, and drank coffee while one youth filmed and another recorded sound. 

As filming progressed, Nili stood in the back of the room, arms crossed. Much like a director or producer, she never took her eyes off of the youth. For the most part, though, she left the filming up to them. They were, after all, the directors and creators of this short film, and—she hoped the experience would remind them—the directors of their own lives. 

Nili is the founder and executive director of Outside the Frame, an organization that she built with the idea that houseless youth need more than just something to do and somewhere to be during the day. And she wanted to do more than provide an opportunity for houseless youth to pursue a creative outlet. 

The ability to make art—to express thoughts and emotions through abstract expression—differentiates the human species from other mammals. If art makes us human, then Nili helps Outside the Frame’s young participants regain their humanity. 

■ ■ ■

The day after the filming in the rec room, I arrived at Outside the Frame’s offices, located on the third floor of Union Station, the historic terra cotta-roofed train depot in downtown Portland. Nili met me in the foyer. She  almost immediately handed me off to Alex Blak, 22, a student in the intensive whom Nili  asked to give me a tour. 

Nili often does this: when I asked a question and a youth was nearby, she asked them to answer instead. It’s a strategy to help the youth feel a sense of empowerment and ownership in Outside the Frame (which she and the students call “OTF”).  

The day was dedicated to editing the films made during late September’s filmmaking intensive. During OTF’s two-week intensives, participants learn everything needed to make short films: using a film camera, audio equipment, and other technical equipment, writing scripts, conducting interviews, acting, editing. The youth conceive, shoot, and produce all genres of film: documentaries, music and rap videos, telenovela-style dramas based on their lives, even horror films.  “They decide the movies they want to make and what’s important to them to say,” Nili said. 

Starting in the foyer, Alex led me through OTF’s spacious offices: an equipment room and a fully stocked kitchen off a short hallway, which opens to the main office space—a large, open room, with tables and chairs arranged in a rectangle, reminiscent of Reed’s conference-style classrooms. 

There are couches and nooks for hanging out, relaxing. Lunch is delivered each day the youth are there. “It’s cozy,” Alex told me. A wall of shelves is filled with free dry food and medical supplies, and the shelves storing office supplies include fidget toys—small, handheld toys youth can play with when feeling anxious. 

A large television, used to screen and edit films, stands at the far end of the room. As Alex showed me around, two film editors worked on a documentary called Talent in the Hood. In the film, two intensive  participants interviewed houseless artists in downtown Portland about their art and creativity. The two filmmakers star in it, as well: one plays the guitar, another raps. 

Alex led me through the room, into OTF’s administrative offices, then successively through a dressing/interview room, an editing studio, and a recording studio with the capability to film against a green screen.

Standing in the recording studio, she told me about the film she planned to make that week, a horror movie set in OTF’s offices. It is the third film she has made since joining OTF in October 2020. 

“I’ve always been obsessed with film,” she said. In high school, she took a broadcasting elective each year. 

During her senior year, in 2019, both her parents died. She moved in with stepfamily, whom she says were abusive. One month later, they kicked her out. Alex was houseless for nearly two years before a social service agency helped her move into an apartment. The same agency told her about Outside the Frame.

The first film she made is a documentary about her life, her family, and what led her to become houseless. The process forced her to put a chronology to her life and examine events in a way she might not have. “My life was more traumatic than I thought,” she told me. “It made me really think.” 

Alex’s experience, Nili said, is not unusual. Filmmaking requires telling a story with a narrative an audience can follow. Stories must have a beginning, a middle, and an end; the ability to say this happened, then this happened, then this happened. Often, Nili said, the process of making a film helps the youth make sense of their lives, and allows them “to finally move on.”  

It is estimated that 1,500 to 2,000 youth between the ages of 16 and 24 years are houseless in the Portland region, according to Portland and Multnomah County’s Homeless Youth Continuum. Teenagers and young adults become houseless for myriad reasons. Some are escaping abusive parents or untenable foster care homes. Others are kicked out by their families because of their sexual or gender identity. Young people who identify as LGBTQ are overrepresented among Portland’s houseless youth: some estimates put the number at well over 50%. 

In their teens and twenties, many of OTF’s students wear drawn and worn expressions and look older than their ages. “They’re just staying above water,” Nili said. “It’s important to stay alive, but it’s not enough for you and me, right? We all want to thrive.”  

When asked what they most enjoy about OTF, all the youth I interviewed gave a similar response: “I get to express myself.” 

“You get so hung up on survival,” Joey Wander, Outside the Frame’s peer mentorship coordinator, said. “Where you’re going to camp that night, where you’re going to get food that day. You forget about creativity.” 

Joey, a wheelchair user often clad in a jacket covered with patches and pins, fingered a fidget toy as they spoke of becoming houseless at the age of 17.  

Joey is non-binary, and their sister outed them to their parents, “very much a vindictive thing,” they said. Growing up in a conservative, Christian family, Joey “was consistently reminded that my existence was abhorrent.” They were kicked out of their church’s youth group, then their church altogether, then out of their home after their mother saw them wearing a French tip manicure. “I don’t need this under my roof,” Joey remembered her saying. 

Now 33, Joey spoke about what happened next in dualities, nuance, thoughtfulness—the same kind of distance and perspective Nili says many of the youth need to tell the stories in their films. “That stuff was out of my control,” Joey said. “Then I made my own mistakes.”  

Three years of instability followed: Joey moved into an apartment with a friend, then started abusing opiate prescription drugs, which eventually led to their eviction and houselessness.  

Wander’s participation in Outside the Frame coincided with a period in their life in which they found housing and a job, became sober, and rebuilt their life. As a child, they played guitar and wrote. One of Outside the Frame’s first participants, Joey said making films helped them “remember I could do art.”  

■ ■ ■

“What do you mean ‘why’?” Nili shot back.

We sat on a park bench outside of Union Station on a sunny fall day. I had asked why she chose houseless youth as the group Outside the Frame would serve. Her response, I quickly found, was characteristic of her penetrating and irreverent intellect. 

“It’s a crime against humanity, that’s why.” 

“They’re so tough and awesome,” she said of OTF’s youth. When making their films, they show a degree of “vulnerability and bravery and willingness to face their shit” that Nili says is remarkable. “They look at themselves honestly in a way that most of us wouldn’t, or couldn’t.”

Art’s ability to advocate for and further social justice was instilled in Nili throughout her childhood. She was born in Israel, and her parents, Yaki and Dorit Yosha, are among Israel’s most acclaimed filmmakers. They produced and acted in Israel’s first antiwar film, Shalom. The film was released in 1973, soon after the conclusion of the Yom Kippur War (also known as the October Arab-Israeli War of 1973). Her parents, Nili said, were certain that within weeks of the film’s release, peace would come to the Middle East. 

That, of course, did not happen.

After high school, Nili refused to do Israel’s compulsory two years of armed service. Instead, she did a year of community service, working as a counselor in the political youth group Noar Meretz, the youth wing of an Israeli social democratic party.   

During one meeting, the members were asked to envision “the ultimate humanist school.” She imagined a school with a beautiful campus, with small classes, engaged teachers, where grades didn’t matter, an egalitarian, trust-based community, where there were “people with brains that you could talk to, you know?”

When the Second Intifada began in 2000, Nili found herself making a similar decision to  the one her parents had made years eariler: to leave Israel. She moved to New York City the day before September 11. “There are some things you can’t run away from,” she thought, reflecting on the political and social violence she had witnessed throughout her life. 

She left New York, and while living in Arizona with her godmother and figuring out what to do next, she spoke on the phone with an elementary school friend, Betsy Breyer ’05 . Betsy excitedly told her about the college she attended: Reed. “Why don’t you come?” she asked.

Nili arrived on Reed’s campus in September 2002, with “just me and Betsy and my suitcase.” 

■ ■ ■

At Reed, it did not take Nili long to recognize the college she had dreamt of in the  youth group. “This is my school!” she exclaimed. 

One day, she encountered Prof. Geraldine Ondrizek [art] as she unloaded her car. Nili offered to help. Then, Nili heard a siren. Without thinking, she stood at attention. In Israel, sirens are sounded for two minutes on Holocaust Remembrance Day and other important holidays. Citizens—no matter where they are or what they are doing—stand at attention, Nili said, “and remember.”  

“It’s a train, Nili,” Ondrizek said. “It’s okay.” 

“Coming from Israel,” being 20 years old and a non traditional student, “it was nice to have a Jewish teacher that gets it,” Nili said.  

She “gravitated toward the art department,” but steered far from her parents’ legacy. “I wanted to sculpt naked women,” Nili said. “From marble.” She took an independent course on stone sculpting from Ondrizek, who gave her “the worst grade ever.” Nili eventually became interested in photography. “I was gonna be different than my filmmaker parents. Only one frame per second.”

Nili took her first photography courses in Reed’s art department and transferred to the San Francisco Art Institute to finish her undergraduate coursework. (Prof. Lena Lencek [Russian literature and humanities 1977–2022] edited Nili’s artistic statement numerous times, sending it back, Nili remembered, “covered in red ink.”) She stayed in San Francisco for graduate school, earning a master’s in comparative literature. Then, during an utterly mundane moment, her life took a turn.  

One day, as she walked down the sidewalk, a poster taped to a window caught her attention. It showed the decline in federal dollars used to build and subsidize low-income housing, cut by more than two-thirds in the mid-1980s, from a peak in 1978.  Contrasted with the decline was an equally steep increase in homelessness.  

Nili was transfixed. 

She found herself in a “historic red building”—the offices of the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP), an organization advocating for the civil rights of houseless people. She met the executive director and asked how she could get involved. He explained that WRAP was protesting a proposed city ordinance to segregate houseless and housed children into separate schools. They needed a poster. He asked Nili, “Did I have any art?”   

Homeless Go Home was Nili’s answer. In it, a child carrying a stuffed backpack walks down a sidewalk, presumably to school. He is flanked by national guards, recalling Norman Rockwell’s painting of Ruby Bridges, The Problem We All Live With. Like her, he passes a wall of graffiti. The black letters read, HOMELESS GO HOME.

But where is home? The child, wearing shorts and a t-shirt, and with a backpack, was not obviously houseless. Or was he? 

The proposed ordinance failed. The experience made her realize “one frame wasn’t enough”—that an artistic medium allowing for more complexity was necessary to tell the stories of houseless people.  

She moved back to Portland, landing a job at a social service agency working with houseless youth. “When I came back to Portland, I was like, there’s teenagers living outside, and it’s raining and cold,” she remembered. “You walk around the neighborhood, and you want to cry.”

She also met and married her wife, whom she met through Miriam Jagle ’06. The couple have two children, whom they wanted   to grow up seeing “their parents doing what they’re supposed to.” Thinking of the houseless youth to whom she had grown fiercely loyal, Nili wondered, “What can I do with them that’ll matter to them and show the world how amazing they are?” 

The answer, by then, was obvious. “You can’t escape your destiny,” Nili said dryly. “Movies was it.” 

■ ■ ■

Nili founded Outside the Frame in 2015. In its first year, it produced 13 movies—an astounding output. “We didn’t know it was impossible,” she said. When it came time to screen the films, she remembered a vow she had made the summer before. 

She had taken a group of houseless youth to the Portland Art Museum on a day offering free admission. When they met back up, Nili asked what they thought of the museum. One youth responded, “we were followed around by security the whole time.”  

“Next time you walk in here,” she promised them, “it’s going to be on a red carpet.”

Outside the Frame’s first films were screened at the Portland Art Museum’s movie theatre, the Whitsell Auditorium. Before the screening, Nili went to a carpet store. “I was like, ‘You got any trim?’” Much like the Reed seniors who walk through the library during Renn Fayre, OTF’s students walked into the Whitsell on a red carpet. 

The second year, OTF “honed it in” and made only six films. The third year, OTF made a feature-length film, The Lost Boys of Portlandia, a retelling of Peter Pan from the point of view of street kids. 

The organization quickly expanded from offering only two-week intensives to hosting workshops and open labs twice a week. Instead of restricting programming during the COVID-19 pandemic, OTF expanded. 

Films have reached international audiences: most recently, five were screened in Venice as part of an art exhibit Ondrizek invited Nili to participate in (see “Change Agents,” September 2022). During a symposium about the exhibit in late September, many viewers were touched by Nili’s determination to “honor their minds and their hands and their creativity, because that’s actually what will make you a human being,” Ondrizek said. 

After taking Hum 110, Nili said she “was not afraid to read any book.” She brings that same doggedness and fearlessness to being the executive director of a nonprofit. “She is an unstoppable force of a person,” Joey said.

When OTF made Lost Boys, Nili applied for a grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities. Lencek provided a recommendation letter. She wrote of Nili, “I see in her the combination of steely determination, idealism, pragmatism, and sheer talent that is the formula of success.”  

OTF didn’t get the grant, but Nili keeps the letter in her office. “It’s the kind of letter that you pull out in the dark night of the soul,” she said. 

“She saw stuff in me before I did,” Nili said of Lencek—and of her entire Reed experience. “That’s what I try to do with these kids,” holding them to the “highest standards, pushing the envelope and seeing their potential and their best selves.”

“Reed expects so much from undergrads,” Nili said. “That attitude is the same spirit of what I do at Outside the Frame.” She tells the youth: “Yeah, you’re living outside. Yeah, all the odds are against you. Yeah, people think you’re less than nothing. But not in here. Let’s make some movies. What do you got to say?” 

A lot. No matter the genre—documentary, music video, drama—the aesthetic, which Nili calls “OTF style,” is one of deep humanity, the stories simultaneously intimate, provocative, and raw.   

“I just can’t get over the fact that I’m allowed to do what I want in my space,” one student says, reflecting on living in a new apartment, in a documentary about their life. Super Queer Force: Miss Gendering is farcical, yet almost heartbreaking. In it, a group of queer superheroes, similar to the Care Bears, appear and use their superpowers to banish binary pronouns after the filmmaker is misgendered in a grocery store.  

There is something radical, even subversive, about showing films narrating the life experiences of the houseless, young filmmakers in Portland’s most elite artistic venues. 

“The best way to change a person’s mind is the interaction with the fellow human being. The next best thing is a piece of art that moves them. We provide both, together,” Nili said. “Film is an emotional medium. [Viewers] feel something, which is the only way to change anyone’s mind.”  

■ ■ ■

The editing of Talent in the Hood continued into the afternoon. Indian food was served for lunch. Students ate, checked their phones, looked on as the editors worked. 

While the editors worked on the intro track, Nili watched, and noted the beginning lagged. “Give me the best stuff up front,” she said.   

A youth walked up to Nili to tell her he was leaving for a job interview. He wore a white button-down shirt and khaki pants. The pant legs were cuffed. “It’s casual looking,” he said. “I’m not used to wearing formal pants.” He cuffed them a second time. “No,” Nili said. “It’d be too short.” 

He unrolled them entirely. “Does that look good?” he asked.  

Nili suggested cuffing the pant legs once. “It looks better and you’ll feel more comfortable,” she said. She ran to her office and returned with a business card. “You can list us as a reference. Go get ’em.” 

Many of OTF’s alumni have gone on to get short- or long-term jobs in Portland’s film industry. They work as production assistants, in wardrobe departments, and even as camera operators. For others, participating in OTF gives them the motivation and confidence to finish high school, test for a GED, apply to college, or jump through ever-expanding hoops to find permanent housing. 

Joining Outside the Frame, Alex said, “re-sparked everything.” 

“I had a really low point and was depressed,” she said. “Film helped me pull out of that.” Now she is working to finish her high school degree and apply to college.

“When these kids are on stage premiering their film to a full house who’s giving them a standing ovation . . . they won’t see themselves the same anymore,” Nili said. 

■ ■ ■

That proved to be the case with one of the intensive’s students.  On Friday, October 21, the rough cuts of the films were screened. None of the scenes from the rec room made it into The Same Things Happening to Me All the Time. The silent film cut between different moments in the filmmaker’s life:  hanging out with their friends at a playground; in the evening, spreading out an issue of the Portland Tribune with the headline “Homeless Not Heartless” on the cover before lying down to sleep next to a brick building; then scenes of them in a new, nearly unfurnished apartment. Then the film showed images of the apartment vandalized, the walls covered in inked graffiti and stains. The filmmaker’s former partner caused the damage. 

The assembled youth applauded after the film finished. Afterward, Nili said making the film helped the filmmaker “face what happened, take responsibility,” and help  the landlord clean the apartment.  

 “If houseless youth can make movies,” she said, “they can do anything.”  


Tags: Alumni, Books, Film, Music, Diversity/Equity/Inclusion, Editor's Picks