In His Face: An Interview with Yance Ford on Strong Island (Web Exclusive)
by Scott Macdonald
In 1992, when Yance Ford was a college student, her brother William was killed during an altercation in Central Islip, Long Island. In the days following William Ford’s death, his family awaited a trial that would bring the killer to justice. That trial never took place and the family’s desire to confront the legal system about this miscarriage of justice was curtailed by subtle forms of harassment. The family was left to mourn not only their loved one, but also their loss of faith in governmental institutions, even their hope for a gradual return to the happy, middle-class, suburban life that they had labored so hard to achieve.
During the quarter-century after William’s death, Yance Ford worked at the Public Broadcasting Service’s POV series, helping to select and nurture creative documentary; he transitioned from female to male, and began work on what would be the years-long process of investigating his brother’s death and its aftermath. The result, Strong Island, is a remarkable interweaving of personal documentary and crime story that reveals the complexity of the events that left William lying dead in front of an auto-repair garage (while his killer was placed in a limo at the crime scene before being taken into custody) and their long-term impact.
Unlike most crime stories, this one is less interested in providing a convenient resolution to a mystery than in confronting our tendency to assume we know all we need to know and to move on. It gradually becomes clear that there was nothing simple about William Ford or his demise and its aftereffects.
During the opening moments of Strong Island (“Strong Island” is local slang for Long Island), Ford lays out the general situation and then, in one of the more memorable close-ups in recent cinema history, assures the viewer, “I’m not angry. I’m also not willing to accept that someone else gets to say who William was,” then warns, “And if you’re uncomfortable with me asking these questions, you should probably get up and go.” When I showed Strong Island to a large audience at Hamilton College recently, no one got up and left Ford’s frightening and strangely beautiful film. I spoke with Ford after that screening.—Scott MacDonald
Cineaste: I’m interested in knowing something about your years at POV.
Yance Ford: I made a joke one day at POV, saying that I should pay admission every day when I come to work! Essentially I was getting paid to watch hundreds of movies a year, and by the time I left, after ten years, we were fielding over a thousand requests for development funding, money for finishing long films, and support for short films.
I think I got the job because I was already confident in my ability to transfer my critiquing skills from the art studio to the documentary screening room. At Hamilton College [Ford matriculated at Hamilton in 1990 and graduated in 1994] I was one of maybe four or five sculpture majors, and we had a critique a day, for two and a half years! And we weren’t just criticizing, but interrogating intention, execution, form, impact, perception. When I started at POV, it turned out that my skill at critiquing translated well. And I got better at it over the years.
I also had access to the POV archive, which included the Maysles Brothers, and Tongues Untied [Marlon Riggs, 1989], early Michael Moore, and Jane Gillooly’s Leona’s Sister Gerry —filmmakers whose work I wouldn’t have otherwise known how to find. I was able to learn from the canon of POV, but also from the work that was coming through the doors in the submission process, which I was in charge of overseeing.
My job was to make sure that everything got eyes on it and I took this responsibility very seriously. There were certainly films that appealed to me, but a lot of what I was seeing was what I thought of as very traditional work, not the exciting work that had come through POV’s doors in the early 1980s—though some filmmakers did stand out.
I first met Laura Poitras when she did Flag Wars  with Linda Goode Bryant, and being able to watch Laura’s work develop was powerful for me. And Alan Berliner’s work, too! In May 2013, I told Alan, “Right now I feel like I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing, even though I’ve been thinking about this film for years!” Alan’s reply was, “Say things you’ve never said before.” He couldn’t have had any idea of how spot on that advice was going to be—I’d never talked about many of the things that are in my Strong Island interview.
At POV I was making decisions about what films got seen and helping to shape our national conversation about race, at least to the extent that it’s driven by public television. And yet, I had a story that was totally relevant to this national conversation that almost no one knew. When I told Cara Mertes, who was the Executive Producer at POV, about William, she said, “What are you waiting for?”
In time I was able to exorcise all of the excuses that had come to sound like reasons and get to the heart of the matter, which, of course, was fear. I realized that I didn’t need permission to make the film; I just needed courage. I was more afraid than I had been willing to say, and once I realized that my fear was a result of everything that my family had been through after William’s murder, I could put that fear in a place and identify it and know where it was, and I was able to more forward—even though I continued to be terrified every step of the way.
Cineaste: During the extended interview with you, we see your face in extreme close-up, and, especially projected large, that close-up is arresting. It occurs to me that I would not be able to get physically close enough to you to actually see the texture of your pores without a magnifying glass—but cinema, or at least digital shooting—makes this more-than-intimate view possible. The close-up certainly suggests that you’re confronting, head-on, the fear and pain that come with dealing seriously with William’s death.
Ford: Exactly, yes. In fact, the focus in that close-up is so narrow that during the time that we shot I probably had the best posture of my life—I couldn’t move without going out of focus; it was like sitting in a witness box. I couldn’t move and I had to respond to blistering questions from Robb Moss or the Sundance Institute’s producer, Joslyn Barnes, while being in this state of extreme stillness. I think that’s what gives the interviews so much tension.
Cineaste: How did Robb Moss become involved?
Ford: When I was at the Sundance edit lab in 2013, Robb and I spent a lot of time talking about the larger organizing themes in Strong Island. Robb helped me flesh out what I refer to as the “rails” of the film: that is, what each character was grappling with and what themes the film raises: memory/forgetting and knowledge/consequence. On the societal level, Strong Island is a film about a murder and its aftermath, and the question of reasonable fear. On a more familiar level, it’s a film about dealing with gaps in knowledge and memory.
I never knew in advance what I would be asked. That decision was important, first, because the people I interviewed never knew my questions in advance and, second, each person was taking a tremendous risk answering these questions for the first time on camera. Their revelations are powerful because these are first ever conversations captured as they happened. Similarly, my character is so charged throughout the film because I am reacting to questions in real time.
Cineaste: We were talking about the implications of your super-close-up.
Ford: Actually, the close-up is about a lot of things. It’s about having a conversation with the audience, about a lifetime of having my face misinterpreted, about the lifetime of stoicism that I inherited from my father. I meant that close-up as a confrontation, a provocation, but also as an invitation, because some people are going to see my face who have never seen a black face that close—maybe it’s something they’ve wanted to see.
There are some people for whom the proximity to my face will be uncomfortable, and that discomfort is part of the fabric of the film. The experience of Strong Island is meant to be one of disruption and instability. We shot five interviews over three and a half years; they averaged five to six hours. During the interviews, I was combative, I was sarcastic, I was annoyed.
At one point during the interview, Robb asked me to convince him that my parents were afraid after William was killed—I think he knew this would piss me off. “You fucking want me to convince you?” “Yeah, I do.” And that’s how we got my story of the phone calls and the car sitting outside our home at night for months after William’s death—a time when we all grew more and more afraid.
Cineaste: The camera was literally in your face and your close-up is “in our face.” But the close-up also suggests a mirror: it’s the kind of look you have when you’re in a complex situation and you go to the john and look in the mirror and think, “What the fuck am I doing here? What exactly is happening here?”
Ford: Exactly, exactly. I’ve been accustomed to looking at myself. I can remember moments of looking in the mirror like that when I was an elementary-school student, and saying to myself, “Who the fuck am I?” Looking back now, I think perhaps my looking in the mirror was about gender identity, my knowing on some level, a level I wasn’t yet able to articulate, that something I was seeing was not quite fully there, or that there was something there that I couldn’t yet fully see.
In fact, before I first shaved my head, I went through a process where I would look at myself in the mirror and couldn’t see myself; it felt as if I was looking at a stranger.
Cineaste: Strong Island is a gritty story, a crime story—but it’s also visually elegant, and often beautiful. There’s a shot of the window of an empty room that evokes a James Terrell installation. Throughout the film, until that last, riveting upside-down shot, you locate this tragic, unresolvable story within a beautiful world.
Ford: I was thinking about what would be the aesthetic signature of the film before I found my cinematographer, Alan Jacobsen, I’d worked with two different people who didn’t quite give me what I needed, and was lucky to find Alan.
As we were shooting, Alan would say, “Usually in a documentary we would do this,” and one day I said to him, “Okay, one of the ground rules here is that we’re not ever going to do what you would usually do.” I know from talking to Alan that this gave him the freedom to relax into the kind of filmmaking that he’s really drawn to, but has rarely had an opportunity to make.
Why was I interested in the film being beautiful? For one thing, I had no “original footage”—no movies of my family. I needed to create an entire visual world, and the truth is that part of that world was really beautiful for a really long time. Until the bubble burst.
Of course, my parents realized that they were living in a red-lined neighborhood, and we had been sent to private Catholic schools. My parents busted their butts working overtime so us kids could get a good education. But their faith in civil institutions—the legal system, the system of policing—didn’t burst until my brother died. So in Strong Island there are at least two worlds: a daytime world where things are beautiful and a nighttime world where there’s always a sense that something is a bit off, a bit sinister, subtly ominous in a way that the audience might not necessarily be able to put their fingers on.
As we were shooting, we didn’t ever try to create shots to go along with specific parts of the interview. From the beginning I knew I wanted to do interviews and I knew I wanted what I call “scenics.” I always said to myself, “There’ll be no B-roll in this movie, nothing that’s just background.” Alan and I experimented, and developed a shorthand for our work together. We’d be playing around with things, and I would be like, “That!” Or we’d be packing up the car and I would notice that there was mist around the streetlight, and I’d say, “Alan! There!”
The upside-down shot you mentioned is presented in the film in the order in which it was shot. That footage came back from Alan with a note that said, “Editor, please flip.” When I saw the footage, I thought, “Hell no, we’re not flipping that!” In that shot you lose gravity; there’s this sense that absolutely everything is wrong.
Cineaste: That the world is upside down.
Ford: Yes! I saw that shot and remember thinking, “I think we’re getting close to the end of the film”—though it was actually four years before we were done.
Cineaste: In general your imagery of Central Islip tends to be metaphoric. The nighttime shot of the lit doorway of the garage where William was shot evokes a movie screen.
Ford: That empty garage door really is the screen on which the drama of my brother’s final moments played out. We go back to that empty space again and again as a way, we hoped, for the audience to try to see into that garage as they were hearing people talk about William, to imagine what the space inside might have been like, and what exactly might have happened. What does it mean to go through that door and around that corner and then hear a pop? You have to face the question of reasonable fear every time you see and think about that doorway. If William was frightening that night, was he frightening enough to justify murder?
Cineaste: There are different threads that run through Strong Island and one of the more unusual is the assistant district attorney, David Breen, who got shot during a mugging—at first it seems a total outlier, but later I wondered if maybe we shouldn’t have heard his story earlier.
Ford: If we had been able to figure out how to bring David in more simply or more clearly, I think we would have tried to do that. Deciding when you would learn what about William was difficult. In films about a person, made by someone who knew that person, there’s always the accusation that you’ve tried to make someone look like an angel. I was insistent that we be absolutely transparent about William’s behavior during the incident when he threw the vacuum cleaner in the garage, and that we not excise the fact that William was starving himself to try to get a job—that he was a fallible human being.
It’s a sleight of hand to bring in David, who we introduce as a legal expert on the Grand Jury process—and then bring him back, making people wonder why am I hearing this from this guy again? David functions in several ways. He’s the only person in the film who can tell us what it’s like to be shot, and Strong Island is, at least in part, concerned with William’s corporeal experience. You can only create so much human connection to an autopsy report.
David’s story is moving—as, in another way, is the story of the police shutting down the Brooklyn Bridge to get him to a hospital. Some people get the Brooklyn Bridge shut down for them when they get shot, and other people get to lie on the ground as they die.
Nevertheless, David’s appearance at first doesn’t quite connect; what’s this white guy doing in the film? That William saw David being shot and captured the shooter creates a surprise connection that is then expanded when we see the documentation of William’s trips to court to testify for the prosecution.
Do I think that we got the order of our revelations about William one hundred percent right? Probably not. But remember, this was my first edit of a feature film.
Cineaste: And, of course, to make things clean and perfect and “resolve the mystery” is precisely what this film is not about.
Ford: Exactly. How do you walk the line between ambiguity and clarity, and what does “clarity” mean in a film like this, with a case like this?
Cineaste: Had you made any films before Strong Island?
Ford: I’d started a 16mm film about my father that I never took to Duart for processing and now Duart is gone, so the film is sitting in a box, probably disintegrating. I never made films as a student—though I did take a lot of photographs, which later on helped me know how to compose the shots that I wanted. Maybe doing photography helped me love long takes. During the shooting of Strong Island, I’d tell Alan, “Roll a full minute on everything.”
Cineaste: My academic training, way back when, was in English literature, and when you analyze enough literary texts, you tend to start reading people’s lives as if they were texts—sometimes a dangerous proposition, so forgive this question. It seems like two things happen in your life simultaneously: you go to Hamilton college and come out as Queer. Then your brother is killed and you undergo a transformation, not just in terms of what you realize about the world, but in how you identify yourself: you transition to male. To what extent do you see your transition from she to he as a way of—
Ford: Keeping my brother alive?
Cineaste: Yes. I ask in part because of that electrifying scene near the end where you re-enact your brother’s fall to the ground in front of the garage, imagining what he might have been thinking to himself as he died.
Ford: I think that many people have wanted to ask me that question, but haven’t—so thank you. I knew that I was gay, and identified as “gay,” in the fifth grade. I had never had any interest in boys and I was severely crushed out on one of my women teachers—and understood exactly what that meant, though I never breathed a word to anybody. When I got to college, I felt able to be out for the first time.
I was a butch-dyke in the traditional sense that Leslie Feinberg was a butch-dyke. I bought my clothes in the men’s department. When I got dressed up, I would always wear slacks and a shirt; by the time my brother died, I had one dress left. The very first time I saw the word “transgender” was in 1995—as part of an inscription in a book, S/HE, by Minnie Bruce Pratt. My partner had brought Minnie Bruce to a community center that she’d opened in Brooklyn and where I worked—that’s where we met—and Minnie Bruce wrote an inscription to me on the title page of Chapter 6, which was titled “S/he Who Must be Wrestled With or Embraced.” So in 1995 I have “transgender,” and am happily dating the most amazing woman I’d ever met. I’m wearing suits and ties when I go out to see my mom, and she’s critiquing my tie selection and saying I need to buy better suits.
To go back to your question, I think my transformation at Hamilton was less about keeping William alive in the sense that now there’s another male Ford, than it was about keeping William alive as part of my pursuit of who I wanted to be in the world. During my last conversation with William, I felt that he was talking to the real me, whether he was conscious of that or not—and I cherish that conversation.
Fast-forward to the production of Strong Island: I’m wondering, do I do hormones now or later—a private process I think everyone who’s considering transition goes through. I realized I couldn’t start hormones until we were done with postproduction, and by the time we wrapped, I was concerned with how to be my authentic self in the world by the time the film was released. A friend asked, “What would help you feel most ready to release this movie?” And I said, “Top surgery.”
Cineaste: Top surgery?
Ford: Yes, a double mastectomy with male contouring at the end of the procedure. That happened in January of 2015.
Cineaste: When did you shoot the sequence where you enact your brother falling?
Ford: November 15, 16, 17, 2013. I got off a plane and drove from Kennedy to the garage, where the crew had been setting up all day—
Cineaste: At the actual place?
Ford: At the actual garage. The Datres sold that property a year after my brother was killed and moved their operation down the road into Brentwood. We inquired about the new owners, the Vogels. They were lovely people who had no idea what had happened in the building that they had purchased. They allowed us to shoot there three times over three years.
Part of why I wanted to go back to the garage was because I couldn’t get any crime scene photographs: everything in the case is sealed, since the Grand Jury returned a No True Bill, but I also I wanted to go back to see if there was anything of my brother left in that space. The disappointing thing was that it didn’t feel special or charged; it was just a grimy garage that’s always been there on a street that everybody uses as a shortcut.
Cineaste: Altogether, how long did you shoot, and how long did you edit?
Ford: We shot for six-and-a-half years. My last interviews were recorded in February 2016, after my mother died.
I had a full-time job at POV until April of 2012. So part of why Strong Island took so long is that I was shooting on weekends, sick days, and holidays. In October 2012, I got a grant from the Ford Foundation, so I was able to shoot full-time.
Cineaste: At the time when your brother died, when you were still a college student, were you already thinking about doing a film about his death?
Ford: I was! And it’s funny because I’ve been hearing from high school friends of mine who remember me talking about wanting to be a filmmaker even before that. I’m like, “I was?!”—my parents understood that I wanted to be a neurosurgeon! Clearly I had two narratives going on, which is typical of the Queer kid.
Cineaste: What is next for you?
Ford: What’s next for me? I don’t want to do another crime story. And I’m not interested in making movies about slavery; I’m not interested in making more movies about the past. I want to make work that imagines black people into the future. It’s important that we be able to imagine the kind of future that we want and that kind of future exists in the work of Octavia Butler, Philip K. Dick, and other, emerging writers, some of whom are working in the young-adult novel space. I do want to keep making the kind of film where the images and the script are not shot in one-to-one parallel. I want always to be someone who goes looking for the images that speak to me, and then works during the edit to figure out where these images belong in the story. It worked out okay for Strong Island and it think it will work out for the next project.
Cineaste: Last question. You list Laura Poitras as an executive producer on Strong Island. What was the nature of her involvement?
Ford: It was twofold. Over the years, Laura has been an advisor and a friend. When I was facing moments of insecurity, I somehow always found myself emailing Laura, asking if she was available for Mexican food and margaritas. Laura’s somebody who is very certain of the things that she knows in a way that gives you confidence. She said to me one day, “Courage breeds courage.” Laura continues to advise me informally.
Then, Field of Vision, which Laura created with Charlotte Cook and A. J. Schnack, gave us a grant, so that’s how she came on formally as an executive producer. Laura’s been an invaluable source of support and a role model. It doesn’t get more legit than Laura Poitras.
Strong Island is a Netflix release.
Scott Macdonald is the author of Avant-Doc: Intersections of Documentary and Avant-Garde Cinema, Adventures of Perception: Cinema as Exploration, A Critical Cinema 5: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers, and, most recently, co-author (with Patricia R. Zimmermann), of The Flaherty: Decades in the Cause of Independent Cinema, among other books.
Copyright © 2017 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XLIII, No. 1