Take the myriad definitions of ‘documentary’ and throw them all out for this: the form, at its core, is about the translation of human experience, with all the complexity that implies. A mode of filmmaking commonly associated with the observation of the external, documentary is often most potent when it concerns itself with the psychic or, more directly, with the way the outside world and our interior lives interact. The realities that are often most strikingly captured are those we imagine or those we can’t escape.
Strong Island director Yance Ford knows the potential of the nonfiction form well. For a decade, Ford worked as a series producer for POV, the essential documentary strand in American public broadcasting, screening hundreds of films a year. But in 2012 he left this prestigious post to make a film about the killing of his older brother 20 years earlier. The shooting of William, by a 19-year-old white mechanic named Mark Reilly, was such a cataclysmic event that it essentially tore Ford’s family apart. Another black man had been shot down by a white man and resulted in no conviction; Reilly wasn’t even charged.
Ford’s film, which took home a Jury Award for Storytelling at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival – for which I served on the US documentary jury – concerns itself with the shattering trauma behind the ‘statistic’ of another young African-American man killed by gunfire. Using a singular style, Ford tells his family’s wrenching story while also carefully deconstructing the narratives we build around the deaths of black men. Much of the film consists of close-ups of Ford’s own face – and his self-aware, penetrating and uniquely crafted documentary performance creates rare pathways for understanding.
Ford had to start and stop the film several times over the ten years he worked on it – once even scrapping an entire cut – all while transitioning from a woman to a man. He has faced some confusion from viewers and critics over the structure and performative elements of the film, while still picking up awards all over the world. It sometimes feels as if Ford had to create a new kind of cinematic memoir to communicate a pain so unspeakable it took years for it to reach the air.
“For four years, working at POV, no one even knew I had a brother,” Ford says when I interview him. “I was talking with a colleague and I said, ‘I have this story I want to tell.’ It was the first time I had told anyone this had happened to my family. And she said, ‘What are you waiting for?’ Despite all the fear of retaliation, and all the fear of what it would mean to face these demons and the doubts, that ‘what are you waiting for?’ question was like… I couldn’t answer it. There was no good reason anymore.”
To begin the difficult process of making the film, Ford had first to unlearn some of the muscle memory that naturally comes with being a programmer, especially considering the relatively conventional fare that often gets shown on POV. “I am not going to make this film by imitation,” he recalls thinking before making the leap. “I’m not going to make this film with the unarticulated influence of the thousands of films I had watched by the time I left POV.”
Ford, who went to art school at Hamilton College in upstate New York, wanted to get back on the wavelength of being an artist, but first he had to take one important step. “I stopped watching movies. I just stopped,” he says. “I started reading the Greeks. I was reading Antigone, all of James Baldwin, the Oresteia, Judith Butler. I was reading Malcolm X and Martin Luther King; all of these things that were both about divine authority, but also first-person experiences with American racialised violence.”
This allowed Ford to start over and go back, in a sense, to a former self. “I’m a formalist,” he says. “I’m a flat-out fucking formalist. Give me geometry, give me long takes. I can take this idea from [working in] still images and stage performances into film and not fucking fail.”
In Strong Island, Ford’s interest in formalism is evident in every frame. With stark, often delicately disquieting images by cinematographer Alan Jacobsen, Ford (working closely with editor Janus Billeskov Jansen) crafts something both elusive and penetrating. Ostensibly a personal narrative uncovering the procedural facts surrounding William’s killing and its billowing aftermath, Strong Island eventually reveals Ford’s deeper cinematic interests. While we viewers are considering the case, it becomes increasingly clear that Ford is provoking us, through his own performance and a tricky structure that plays with our expectations of William as a ‘character’, to consider our own hurtful prejudices. William is initially represented as an unquestionable victim, while Ford subtly strokes unspoken doubts we – or maybe we liberal white people who make up a large chunk of the audience – might have about a family’s ability to be ‘objective’ when talking about the death of an only son.
Ford allows these doubts to linger – ‘What are they not telling us?’ – just long enough for us to notice our culpability as viewers. Then, later in the film, Ford reveals William’s aggressive actions towards his killer just before the shooting (and, crucially, his own guilt over knowing about those actions and seeing his brother as a “badass”), incidents which were later used as evidence for an all-white grand jury to determine Reilly acted in self-defence. The structure Ford deploys forces us to ask where we stand on this non-indictment. Would we feel threatened? Would we turn a large black man like William into the character of our nightmares? Would we murder him?
The conception of his viewers was in the forefront of Ford’s mind as he was constructing Strong Island. “The film had to function on two frequencies,” he explains. “It had to talk to the [African-American and minority ethnic] people who are familiar with this experience, and for those whom this film would be an affirmation. ‘No, you’re not crazy, yes, it’s always been about race, and I’m going to say it, and we’re going to say it together.’”
It was also crucial, though, for the film to speak to that aforementioned white, liberal documentary audience, characterised by Ford as the viewers who are “satisfied with ‘Isn’t that sad? I feel so bad for that family. Maybe I shed a tear or two, and then I go home and I don’t think about my privilege in relation to fear of blackness.’”
Ford’s canny, provocative structure has indeed produced some mixed responses. In his otherwise positive Variety review, Owen Gleiberman writes of feeling a little manipulated by a film that starts with the viewer believing William Ford was murdered “in the most disgusting and arbitrary way possible”, before introducing information one hour in that complicates the tale. This is an altercation that took place between Ford and the killer three and a half weeks before his death, suggesting that he might be capable of sudden anger.
“It raises a question: on the night of the murder, could William – possibly – have behaved in a threatening manner?” Gleiberman writes. “Our answer after the first hour of Strong Island would be: No, to even ask that question is an act of racism. Our answer by the end of the movie is: we don’t know, but maybe it’s in the realm of possibility.”
This “vagueness” that “leaves a hole in one’s outrage”, as Gleiberman puts it, is a typical complaint about documentaries – ‘The film creates complex feelings in me and I’m looking for easy empathy’ – and is exactly what Ford is challenging with his careful structure. “You know the story,” Ford says. “Reilly said he was afraid. And the thing that happened exactly three and a half weeks before he killed my brother scared him. That’s another part of the narrative – white people get to be afraid all the time. Things that go bump in the night can be things you shoot.”
Legally, it certainly matters whether or not a group of white people could perceive William as a threat, but ultimately Strong Island makes a deeper moral case. It remains tragically true that Ford was killed and Reilly was never charged with a crime. The film details how Reilly and the police successfully turned William into a character in an all-too-familiar story.
“Mark Reilly killed my brother because he could,” Ford says. “There’s this reflexive action on the part of Reilly where he sees a black man and he knows black life is easy to take. If a black man is out of line in any way, there is justification for you taking his life. And that is a narrative Reilly stuck to and the one the police adopted in the investigation, and it never went away. There was no way to crack it. William was ‘large, black man, scary’ and when angry black men are around, you can shoot them. Boom. End of story.”
With the film, Ford offers a way to ‘crack’ these narratives: by processing them through a controlled visual language that elevates personal pain to the realm of the spirit and creates a deeper psychological understanding of the political and social predicaments that produce that pain. Strong Island is evocatively measured and unnervingly enacted, and at its heart is an incomparable nonfiction performance by Ford himself. Throughout the film, he returns to a close-up interview where he seems to be talking directly to us.
“I’m not angry,” he says haltingly, straight into the lens, before pausing and changing his expression, as if waiting for a comeback. “I’m also not willing to accept that someone else gets to say who William was. And if you’re uncomfortable with me asking these questions… you should probably get up and go.”
This direct-to-viewer performance feels radical, even if it’s best understood as an evolution of documentary enactment seen in films ranging from Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason (1967) to Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012). Crucially, though, what Ford is doing can’t easily be dismissed as pure performance, because the most performative elements were actually produced as interviews, albeit using a highly unorthodox method. “There’s a wall of sound blankets between me and the entire crew,” explains Ford of the cocoon-like setup he concocted. “And I constructed this environment where I could be alone and still be on a film set.”
Over the course of six years, this setup was used repeatedly, so interview moments we may perceive in the film as happening concurrently were actually filmed over many years, in many different emotional contexts. The camera was staged so only the lens poked through the insulating blankets, creating a tiny tunnel into which Ford’s gaze could turn.
From outside this space, a handful of collaborators – all of them white – would shout out questions for Ford to answer. Many of these interviewers, from producers Joslyn Barnes and Esther Robinson to fellow filmmakers such as Robb Moss, wound up playing a kind of role themselves.
This created a pseudo-dialogue between Ford and his likely white viewers, which was a kind of artistic payoff for the years Ford spent cultivating that audience at POV. “Robb became the voice of white liberal America,” Ford says. “He was also this provocateur. One time Robb phrased a question like, ‘Convince me your family was afraid.’ And I was like, ‘You want me to fucking convince you?’ and I was so fucking pissed at him for asking me that question that I was able to answer it from this place of, ‘How fucking dare you question my fear? Black people have always been afraid.’ It was brilliant.”
This method allowed Ford to blend raw interview and a sharp, thoughtful style of ‘acting’ that elevated both emotional and rational truths. “Those two camera lenses… I stopped seeing them as lenses and I started seeing them as portals straight into the cinema, straight into someone’s face. I did not want someone to be able to escape my gaze, to escape my questioning.”
Performance as a means of psychological expression is something Ford has been cultivating as an artist for years, and as a student he produced several provocative pieces. “I made a cage,” he says, describing one of his works. “I suspended it – you know how colleges have those square cutouts that look on to the floor below? I suspended the cage from the floor above and I climbed in. The campus ground to a fucking halt. I had people bringing their entire classes to watch me hanging in this cage.”
In a scene that can’t help but evoke what’s happening in Strong Island, Ford sat silent in this cage for more than eight hours, wearing only a sheet, making eye contact with any of the mostly white students on the campus willing to engage. “The fact that I didn’t say anything meant people were able to project whatever they thought was happening in my brain on to me, the image of a black body. It was the first experience I ever had creating a whole environment into which the audience enters.”
Ford next staged a performance called Have You Seen Mark Reilly? directly using his brother’s death as material. “I invited people into an empty room,” he explains. “I had a starter pistol and a strobe light, and I had a simple set of questions. ‘Have you seen him? Does he look like you?’ and every time I asked a question I would fire the starter pistol at another person.”
This performance background may be most deeply felt in Strong Island during a powerful climactic scene in which Ford creates a kind of living statue with his own body on the spot of his brother’s death. But performance permeates the entire film – which has led to some questioning of what exactly is going on.
“I think when people see me and think of me performing myself,” Ford says, explaining some of the pushback he’s received, “I wonder who they think I am when the camera stops rolling. That quote – ‘If you don’t want to hear this, you can get up and go’ – wasn’t me performing. It actually came out of Yance’s mouth.”
In Strong Island, Ford uses this conceptual style as a kind of blunt object designed to rupture the everyday recycled spectacle of violence against black people, and in turn creates a truly modern, profoundly felt cinematic experience.
“Black America is fully aware of the narratives that have been written about it, and is fully capable of deconstructing those narratives,” Ford says. “But it is the deconstruction of those narratives that people are scared of. And it’s because they’re scared they say they’re not real, and because it’s performative, because I determine what the light will be, what the gaze will be, because I’m an artist… and because it doesn’t seem like it can possibly be this true, it has to be fake. ‘There’s something about this that’s unreliable’. And it’s just like, ‘No, it’s not unreliable, it’s just that you refuse to see it. You fucking refuse to accept it.’”