McKinleigh Lair knows a good story when she hears one. She knows a compelling interview subject when she meets one.

As a documentary filmmaker, she knows how to tell that story and make a larger public understand why that person’s story is important.

This is her job, and it’s her passion, and she’s made it her responsibility to show off her home state to the rest of the country.

That’s why Lair is the Oklahoma representative for the year-long PBS video project “American Portrait,” a national storytelling project.

Its goal: to weave a tapestry of U.S. diversity, showing through conversations with thousands of people across the country how we are different, but also how we are all connected.

“Being in Oklahoma is allowing me to do something that not many others are doing, and to tell stories that might otherwise go untold,” said Lair, a 23-year-old from Tulsa. “This program is such an interesting window to the world.”

Imagine “American Portrait” to be a national but communal voice, created through individuals telling personal stories of joy and hardship, and of triumphs and sorrow.

For each one, imagine Lair giving her subjects a series of prompts from which to tell their stories, such as: “I was raised to believe ...” and “What keeps me up at night is ...” and “Most days I feel ...”

National events — from race relations to a pandemic — helped to create an additional prompt: “Now is the time ...”

According to PBS: “American Portrait” will encompass publishing, classroom engagement, a web series, art installations and live events for the public and, in January, a documentary series.

Lair was hired to find five Oklahomans to profile for that series. She’s ambitious — she has now talked to a dozen people, and she’s not done.

“I wanted to pull together as representative a cross section of Oklahoma as possible, and that was just so difficult to do with only five,” she said. “It’s still difficult. You can’t represent all of Oklahoma in a dozen people.”

Especially considering the preconceptions that people have of what people from Oklahoma are like, Lair said.

In five years since graduating from Jenks High School (where she first won national awards for her documentary work), Lair has lived in Chicago and New York as well as studied abroad in South Korea, England and Sweden.

She has heard Oklahomans typecast in a certain manner a few too many times.

“I want to challenge them by showing people from Oklahoma who break the mold, and who are as diverse as possible,” Lair said, “because there is no stereotypical Oklahoman.”

A “more personal response than I was expecting”

On the American Portrait website at pbs.org/american-portrait/ (where the public can also submit videos), you can find videos by Lair speaking with people such as her younger brother and her high school teacher.

But there are also videos in which she interviews a Black artist painting a mural ahead of President Donald Trump’s Tulsa rally (“Those were some really emotional interviews,” she said), as well as rural residents living in the Grand Lake area.

Then there’s Jordan Mazariegos, a DACA recipient who talks about growing up in Tulsa and his family immigrating to the U.S. Lair first met him while she was in high school making a short documentary on immigration reform.

For “American Portrait,” Lair shoots and edits mini-documentaries about her subjects. They can be as short as one minute, averaging a couple of minutes. For Jordan’s moving testimonial, she went to more than five minutes.

“The goal is to elevate the perspectives of the people you are representing, and that one, I didn’t really want to edit that down,” she said of the powerful vignette.

She looked for people who would “represent the experience of those living in small-town Oklahoma. (I included) people with conservative and liberal viewpoints. There are different income disparities, sexual identities. I was trying to have as much representation as possible.”

She’s grateful to PBS to be able to compile these stories, and for their trusting her with creative decisions in doing work that she sees as both authentic and meaningful.

And occasionally surprising, such as her time spent filming Clifton Raphael, who leads the award-winning film studies/filmmaking program at Jenks High School and who has been a mentor to Lair for years.

When she asked him to complete the “When I step out my door” prompt for a video, he led her to his hosta garden at his home.

“He talked about these hostas that had come from his father-in-law who has passed, and talked about how someone can be with us even when they are not with us,” Lair said.

“I’ve known him as a teacher for a long time, and this was a more personal response than I was expecting, and I wouldn’t have gotten that kind of answer without asking him that kind of question (with the prompt).”

Another interviewee — a friend of Lair — “candidly spoke to their anxieties about not being good enough, or not working enough, or about coming into new periods of their lives. It’s helped me to get to know some of my friends in an even deeper way.”

“I could make art but also do good in the world”

As an outstanding youth tennis player, Lair won titles and played on a state championship squad at Jenks High School.

During her teens, she said, she appreciated the sport as “great exercise and a way to connect with people,” but she also saw tennis “as my job, as a means to an end of earning a scholarship to play in college.”

Then she discovered the power of film through the high school’s renowned documentary filmmaking program led by Raphael.

“Oh my gosh, it’s so wild how radically Mr. Raphael changed the trajectory of my life,” Lair said, “because he opened my eyes to a world where I could be creative. I could make art but also create it for the purpose of doing good in the world and helping people.”

“When I realized I could make it into a career, I knew that’s what I wanted to do in college, and he advocated for me in so many ways. I remember him staying after school so I could keep editing. He cares so much about his students, and I feel so indebted to him.”

She has used her documentaries to tell underrepresented stories, and that’s what she plans to keep doing.

Such as using her Oklahoma perspective and sports background to develop a new documentary in which she follows an Oklahoma City tennis program that supports under-served youth.

Or through her current film fellowship through Southern Exposure, in which she’s creating a documentary “to advocate for environmental justice on behalf of Alabamian conservation groups.”

Due to the pandemic, she’s been working on that project remotely from Oklahoma to schedule shoots, direct an on-the-ground filming team, and to edit the footage into a short film.

Consider her achievements already accomplished.

High school: In 2015, Lair won for her film “Dam it, Tulsa! Fix the River” the $3,500 first prize and a $1,500 second prize for fan-favorite film in the regional C-SPAN StudentCam competition. That’s in addition to helping students at Tulsa’s Eugene Field Elementary School create a short film.

College: As a Park Scholar at Ithaca, she majored in documentary studies and production, minored in anthropology, and her senior thesis documentary, “One Nation Under Guns,” was nominated for the 2020 College Television Award.

PBS: Her most recent film, “You Know the Drill,” about students training in active-shooter drills, premiered online this summer, and that’s in addition to her being the Oklahoma representative for “American Portrait.”

There are so many more stories for Lair to tell about people from her community, and especially those with backgrounds different than her own.

“I think I was aware that as I grew up I came from a certain degree of privilege,” she said. “My mom was my principal for a time and could look out for me. Attending Jenks, there was privilege in that, and tennis is a sport you associate with country clubs and expensive rackets. I was always aware of that.”

As a documentary filmmaker with a keen interest in anthropology, the world and its people and cultures are hers to further explore.

What have these studies taught Lair about her world so far?

“I don’t know what the answer is, but I’ve developed more questions, I know that.”


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Michael Smith

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