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IDA Emerging Documentary Filmmaker Award: From Gatekeeper to Storyteller - Yance Ford

By Lauren Wissot

Yance Ford. Photo: Jason Bell. Courtesy of Netflix.

Strong Island is Yance Ford's cinematic nonfiction exploration of racial injustice in the Long Island suburbs, told through the murder of the filmmaker's 24-year-old brother at the hands of a 19-year-old white mechanic 25 years ago. Nabbing the Special Jury Award for Storytelling at Sundance this past January, the film is as unconventionally riveting as it is emotionally searing. It's also been long in the making, having been on the indie film radar for over half a decade (or at least since Ford made Filmmaker magazine’s annual "25 New Faces of Independent Film" back in 2011).

Nonetheless, after entirely scrapping the first version of his film and returning to the editorial drawing board (in Copenhagen, working with editors at Final Cut for Real, rendering the doc a Danish co-production), Ford is now the rightful recipient of the IDA Emerging Documentary Filmmaker Award.

"I asked Joslyn Barnes, who had been an executive producer, to come on in the role of producer,” Ford explains, about how he brought his work to Denmark. "She is a prolific producer of an incredible body of films. And she worked often with Final Cut for Real in Copenhagen and with [Founder] Signe Sorensen. When I was talking with Jocelyn about restarting the edit from scratch, she said to me, 'There is something oddly Danish about your film, and if you are open to it I can approach Signe and see about what editors she knows.' That must have been the end of June. And by the beginning of August, Joslyn and I were meeting with Signe and Janus Billeskov Jansen in Copenhagen to discuss cutting the film and to watch footage and things like that. So that’s how we wound up a Danish co-production. It's because of Joslyn’s very deep and long lasting relationship with co-producers all over the world." Editor’s Note: Yance Ford emailed us with additional clarification of how the Danish co-production came to be:  “We met with Janus Billeskov Jansen in Copenhagen over a period of three days of mutual interrogation and ultimately decided to work together. Signe joined us a co-producer and was able to cover the cost of this, with the assistance of the Danish Film Institute and broadcaster DR. I then moved to Denmark for nine months to work with Janus, with Joslyn joining me regularly off and on throughout that time for edit sessions together with Janus; our assistant editor, Walterri Vanhanen; and Signe”

"The film was fully shot when I went to Denmark to start the edit," Ford continues. "My aesthetic was firmly in place, and it had been in place for a long time, because I was an artist before I came into this community. I think one of the things that we forget is that people come to this community with history, with prior careers. It's not just that everybody shows up—specifically in my case—and decides to be a filmmaker."

Yet it was a long, winding journey for this artist and photographer who happened to land a doc geek's dream day job. After studying at Hamilton College, Ford worked as a PA, took a Third World Newsreel production workshop, and eventually landed at PBS, where he spent a good 10 years as the series producer at POV. So how exactly did an aspiring filmmaker who moved back to New York with the intention of making a film about his brother's death end up on a decade-long gatekeeping side trip?

"It's funny how one becomes a gatekeeper," Ford allows. "When I joined POV in 2002, I didn't really think of it as becoming a gatekeeper. I think that term developed over the 10 years that I was at the series, but I had been involved in different jobs in film and television as a production coordinator, as a production assistant, and then I jumped off and worked at a foundry for awhile. I am a good multitasker, so as anybody who has ever been a coordinator or production manager knows, that skill is really transferable.

"So I was working as a welder at the Modern Art Foundry when it was just the end of a project, and I needed to make more money, frankly." he explains. "I saw this job advertised for a series that I had known and loved and watched, and I decided to go for it. And it took six or seven interviews to actually get the job because there were so many people interested in working at POV—and rightfully so."

"Honestly, I didn't know anybody at POV, and I submitted an application like everybody else," he continues. "It's really one of those unbelievable stories. I don't know if it really can happen anymore these days, with the doc community being so interconnected. But when I got there, it really was just like a fish to water. I was really accustomed to the process of critiquing work because I had been an art student, so looking at films and evaluating them on several different fronts for the series came really natural to me. So I spent 10 very happy years there."

His decade at POV and the contributions of his American and Danish teams notwithstanding, Ford points out that the look and feel of Strong Island are very much his own.  "I studied long and hard and developed my aesthetic over time," Ford maintains. "When I got to, for example, the point of working with my cinematographer, I spent hours with him just talking about shooting things like absence, and longing and loss—and how to make an empty house, or location, or the exterior of a house feel like a character. And I knew exactly what I wanted. That's why I think the film's feel—I think I have heard someone describe it as 'assured.' I think it’s because I knew what I wanted the film to look like. It was just a matter of maintaining the consistency of that look over the course of the production.

"If you look at the film, it's very formal," Ford continues. "It's got a lot of geometry, like lines and angles and things. The camera only moves twice in the film, and that's very deliberate. I think the aesthetic is so strong because I had the challenge of making a film that didn't have any 'original footage' in it. And the challenge of making a film like that feels urgent, and has some sense of charge to it.

"I think it works also because we had to approach shooting this film from an entirely different angle, because we didn't have any B-roll, frankly," he explains. "We only had a very short clip of wraparound—on-the-scene footage—but we had nothing else. So the entire world of Strong Island is created from the material that we shot over the course of the production."

Interestingly, Ford admitted that once he made the leap from POV to fulltime filmmaker, he stopped watching documentaries altogether. After having viewed thousands of films over the course of his PBS career, he said he was "eager to reset my talent. I didn't want to make my film by imitation—accidentally or otherwise. And I just needed a break from other people's aesthetic choices, which were their choices, and were not necessarily bad. But I needed to clear the brush for me, just see clearly back to the film that I wanted to make."

Though that didn't mean Ford didn't rely on his already established filmmaking community. "As far as the production went, I'd made a lot of friends," he says. "Of the filmmakers who came through the doors at POV, the ones that I did reach out to for guidance or advice, they were all really generous with their time and recommendations. I met my DP through Marshall Curry. I met my sound recordist through Third World Newsreel, which is where I took their film production workshop, and is the only formal film training that I had. And otherwise I got recommendations for production assistants, for example. I was really committed to hiring young people of color for the production, particularly young men of color.

"And so I hired a lot of production assistants through New York City's Production Assistant Training Program," he continues. "And also just because, like I said, I had been a coordinator, I had been a production manager. Just from those years, I knew a lot of folks. And of course everyone who comes on to a production has got their list of favorite grips and their list of favorite PAs."

Still, I wondered about the risks, both emotionally and financially, that Ford took on in transitioning from objectively critiquing others' films to creating such astonishingly personal work. He made it all sound a bit too smooth and easy. "I have to be honest with you—William, my brother, had been dead for 15 years when I started making the film. So there wasn't so much of an emotional risk for me in telling the story. In fact, at that point the risk was in not telling the story. It had become harder to remain silent about my brother's murder than it had been to deal with the prospect of making a film about it.

"I left my day job after we got a grant that was big enough for me to carve out a very meager salary for a year," he adds. "I had no idea what I was going to do after that year was up, but I knew that I couldn't continue to work on the film in the way that I had been working. I left in 2012. I'd started shooting with Alan [Jacobsen] in 2010. So for two, two-and-a-half years, I had been shooting nights, weekends, vacation days, holidays. I had literally been working nine or 10 hours at POV, and then coming home, having dinner, spending time with my partner, and then going to work on the film until one or two o'clock in the morning. Sleeping for a few hours and then getting up and doing it again.

"Leaving POV was the ultimate act of faith in my own ability to make this film," Ford emphasizes. "And I knew that if I didn't step away from my day job, I was never going to get it finished. POV is not some place where you can work and only do your job halfway. I am really proud of the 10 years that I worked there because I know that I helped a lot of people make their films better, even if they never made it onto the series. But that's an all-in kind of job. And I needed to have that brain space, that think space, that critical eye. I needed all of those tools that I had used in the service of other people. I needed the full resources of those tools for myself.

"Otherwise you are just depleted," he sighs. "It's not even about being divided—it's about being depleted. You just don't have the energy. And it also meant stepping away from people I had been working with for a long time; camaraderie and friendship was a huge part of my life. But honestly, I needed to do it because it was like a calling. I think that everyone, or at least in the creative field, feels like there is something that they have to do. At least for me, this was what I had to do before I could move on to what I wanted to do.

"I think it's really interesting what people bring to the film," he notes. "Because for me it was less a labor of love, and more a labor of obligation. Because of a kind of swirl of events—by that I mean the shooting deaths of unarmed black Americans. I knew that I had a story that would lend some historical perspective to all of these shootings. I knew that I had a story that would sort of help to authenticate, because the experiences of black Americans constantly need authentication.

"That narrative of the 'scary black man' being the justification for disproportionate use of force, and the use of deadly force," he sighs. "As an African-American, I needed to make sure that my brother's story got put into the popular discussion about race in America, as a way of helping to really peel back the layers and say that this actually has been going on for a long fucking time.

"It's about time that people start believing what African-Americans say about their experience of violence in this country," he asserts. "And also it was an obligation that I had to my family, honestly. I am the storyteller. If I wasn't going to make this film, then my brother would have died in obscurity. Any inherent sacrifices would have been for naught, with the exception of the life that I lead and my sister's life, the one that she leads. I could not let my parents' sacrifices, and everything that they had done for us, fade away. I wasn't ever going to let that happen."

“This film has been a long journey—and I never thought I would use that word without rolling my eyes,” Ford reflects. “But it has been perhaps the journey of a lifetime—or at least the journey of a former lifetime. And having the creative team around me that I have had with the beginning of the film, and then transitioning to another phase of the film and deciding to start over… And ultimately living in Copenhagen to cut this film from the beginning—to start over again was perhaps the most difficult but necessary decision that I had made in the entire process of making this film. It meant leaving my home. My partner did not relocate with me. I was away from my family.  But I was also visited frequently by my producer working very close to me, my co-producer.

"I had an incredible team and they really powered me through some of the most difficult moments in this film," Ford continues. "And putting myself into the film in much greater amounts is the thing that would be really difficult, watching myself day in and day out in the edit. And referring to myself as Yance or Y.F., the character Yance…figuring out in all those spaces how to get around talking about yourself in the first person, not using 'I' is only something that I was able to do because the people around me supported it."

Emerging Documentary Filmmaker Award Honorees

2003: Alex Rivera
2004: Jonathan Caouette; Jehane Noujaim
2005: Marshall Curry
2006: Christopher Quinn
2007: Ted Braun
2008: Stefan Forbes
2009: Natalia Almada
2010: Jeff Malmberg
2011: Danfung Dennis
2012: David France
2013: Zachary Heinzerling 
2014: Darius Clark Monroe
2015: Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe
2016: Nanfu Wang

Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at both Documentary and Filmmaker magazine. Her work can also be regularly read at Salon, Bitch, The Rumpus and Hammer to Nail. Currently, she serves as the international features programmer at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival.