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‘Strong Island’: Yance Ford’s Journey to Find the Cinematic Voice Necessary to Tell the Story of His Brother’s Murder – Toolkit Podcast

"It was always my intention to give the characters in the film the kind of authority that black characters don't typically get in documentary film," said Ford of his Oscar-nominated Netflix film.

Yance Ford in "Strong Island"

Yance Ford in “Strong Island”

Courtesy of Netflix

The story of director Yance Ford’s brother William’s homicide quickly disappeared from the public view soon after he was killed in 1992. Long Island newspapers wrote less than a combined 3,000 words about the violent confrontation and subsequent court case, while Ford’s parents dropped their pursuit for justice after his killer was acquitted. “In order to bring a civil suit for wrongful death you have to assign a dollar value to somebody’s life and my parents refused to do that,” said Ford when he was a guest in IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit Podcast. “So in the absence of any other due process, in the absence of any other recourse, the choice that I had was to make this film. My producer Joslyn Barnes says it really well, ‘personal filmmaking is the language of the dispossessed.’ When you are left with no other recourse this is the path that you take.”

It was through this lens that informed many of Ford’s choices of how to use the camera in telling the story. His shot compositions were design to give the perspective that his interview subjects – mostly William’s family and friends – were in control of the frame. “It was always my intention [to] give the characters in the film the kind of authority that black characters don’t typically get in documentary film, which is to take a step back to allow these characters to inhabit their space [and] to put them in particularly meaningful spaces,” said Ford.

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For example, Ford shot his mother in the middle of her kitchen – the center of the home – and from a slightly lower angle so that we are looking up at her almost with reference as Ford establishes her as a voice of moral authority. As for what Ford refers to as his “Yance character,” he went into the process far less clear about what his screen role would be in the film, but never did he imagine he would address of the audience in the intense close-up that create for some of the film’s most gripping moments.

“I certainly wasn’t thinking we would begin the movie with, ‘I’m going to ask these questions and if you aren’t comfortable with them you can get up and go,'” said Ford. “[There was the] question of how do you make a story about a murder that happened twenty-five years ago dramatic. How do you bring tension, how do you bring suspense – all the things that are vital and necessary to filmmaking – how do you bring those elements to a film when you don’t have any archival material? You don’t have any surveillance footage, you don’t have any body-cam footage because none of that existed in 1992. This sort of direct camera engagement was the way to create the kind of tension that otherwise been made possible with different elements and material we just didn’t have.”

While these moments weren’t designed to make the audience feel comfortable, they were filmed in a way that kept Ford off-balance as well, as he was put behind a wall of sound blankets isolated from the rest of the crew. “My lighting is a very contained cone, my focus is very tight, so [it] made it even difficult for me to move,” said Ford. “So I’m as uncomfortable as I physically can be. I’ve got two tape marks on the lens that is poking through the blankets and that’s all I see.”

Shooting "Strong Island"

Shooting “Strong Island

Joslyn Barnes

On the other side the blankets were Barnes and Robb Moss (credited with a Special Thanks), both of whom Ford refers to as master interviewers, asking questions designed to get Ford to reveal things he had never said out loud before.

“There’s this whole soundtrack that I’ve had my entire life of things that I’ve never said before, things that people don’t know – like my brother’s room being this sanctuary as a queer kid, reading his playboy magazines,” said Ford. “But getting to the place where you are willing to tell the truth like that, or getting to the place where you are willing to say, ‘but he looks like every white man I’ve ever seen,’ requires a level of provocation by the interviewers. It was real. When I’m mad in those interviews, I’m genuinely angry at Robb for asking me those questions, or I’m genuinely angry at Jocelyn for asking me the questions.”

“Strong Island” is available on Netflix.  

The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, OvercastStitcherSoundCloud and Google Play Music. Previous episodes include:

The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.

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