A Conversation with Yance Ford About STRONG ISLAND, Grief, Injustice and Wonderment

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yance ford headYance Ford has been an influential member of the documentary film community for some years, working as a programmer for POV and commissioning the works of others. With Strong Island, he turns his smarts and skills to making in a highly personal documentary about the murder of his brother and the impact that heinous event had on his family. He sat down with me to discuss Strong Island, rage and grief, injustice and wonderment.

The year was 1992. Yance was barely 20 years old when William, age 24, was shot to death by an auto repair shop owner who’d failed to deliver on contracted services. The shooter claimed he was afraid for his life and was protecting himself. Authorities and the Grand Jury believed him. He was a White man, and he went unpunished for the murder. William, who was unarmed and was in training to become a police officer, was Black.

At the time of William’s death, Yance was a sophomore at Hamilton College, studying art. And, he was female. Yance’s transition is barely mentioned in the film, except when Yance says sorrowfully that he;d not been able to share his true self and sexual identity with his brother, or with his father, who died from a massive brain hemorrhage shortly after William’s murder.

Some 25 years after the murder, in our discussion about Strong Island, Yance Ford tells me, “I know that if my brother had shot and killed Mark Reilly, William would be in jail to this day.”

Jennifer Merin: If it were not you making this film about your brother’s death and the grief and injustice suffered by your family, how would the film be different?

strongislandposterYance Ford: Well, I think it depends on who the maker of the film would be. Some of the things that exist in Strong Island in the ways that they do, are because I simply let the characters exist. One of the things that happens in film is that black characters are often not treated as fully human, and that happens because there’s some sort of generalized perception that there’s an alchemy to black humanity — when, in my experience, it’s actually very simple. You just sort of assume that any person shares your humanity and is fully present and aware of the circumstances in which they live. And, then, you shoot them like you would shoot yourself. It’s very very simple. The tricky thing of making this film if you’re not me, is how to portray ‘a black family’ as simply ‘a family.’

Merin: Is that essential to Strong Island?

Ford: Yes, it’s the essence of this film. That’s why we begin the story with my parents falling in love and starting a family and moving to New York. It does not start with the murder. Someone else making the movie might mistake the point of the movie as being an investigation about what happened. Because that’s actually very simple. It might be about what, as opposed to why and what are the consequences. Because that’s really where the meat of the story is. Why did this happen? Why was he able to shoot my brother and get away with it? That’s where the really complicated truth about racism in America that lives on a daily basis with ordinary people come into it, and for as much as people have been writing about this film – based on the trailer – as a true crime film…

Merin: It’s being marketed that way….

Ford: Well, people need a frame of reference. And I think what’s going to happen is that people will be surprised. Because it is true crime – but it’s the truth of the crime. as opposed to a detective story. yance ford sundance Because the truth is that I don’t have access to evidence, I don’t have access to the file, to notes. Everything that I discovered was either public record or with the help of ptivate investigators or with me just asking people questions and getting them to answer them. If it weren’t me making the film, it might take you on a journey that didn’t span 20 years, it might have missed the point that the film is actually not just about the crime. It’s about the fallout. It’s about the 20 years afterward and the implications of what happened to my family and to the families of those who are being killed now. It’s like when I show this film and I talk to audiences, one of the things that I try to be really conscious of is saying that because of social media and cameras, the kind of support that is able to gather around families now, and to have watched this avalanche of death over the last ten years become more and more public has been really a sort of sick kind of serendipity. Like when Travon Martin was killed, I can’t tell you how many emails I got saying ‘your film is so important and ‘now, more than ever, we need your film.’

Merin: We’ve always needed your film.

Ford: The truth is that my brother’s death is a point on a line. It’s no more or less important now than it was five years ago, or will be five years from now. And that’s why I had to make it. Partly because it also became this thing that was heavier than the fear was strong. If that makes any sense. We work in this community where people are used to turning the camera outward to look for the truth, sometimes assuming incorrectly that nobody in the community may have been affected by these subject matters. In my former job at POV, I played a very public role in judging whether people were good enough for POV or belonged at POV, do you fit the mission of the series or do you not fit the mission of the series, or just trying to help people. But they never knew, and with this film, I am saying to them and to everyone, this is what it’s like to live with it, this is what it did to my family.

strong island

I have a dead brother that I have never mentioned to you and we’ve known each other for five or six years, and what is it about that silence, about that shame…

Merin: What do you mean by shame? I don’t understand that. I can imagine the rage you must feel. And I, as a person who is part of and engaged in our overall culture, feel my own rage, and think I’m entitled to that rage. And I’d like to express that rage, but I am not granted that opportunity. I feel as though I am not allowed to feel rage because I have not been in your circumstances and if I express my rage, that expression may be rejected or thought to be illegitimate. Would it be more legitimate if I were Black? If I were Black, I’d still be me.

Ford: Yes, you’d still be you. Absolutely. And, I think I understand what you mean. And I think that’s actually one of the things that shifted in the editing of Strong Island, and you know that I relocated to Copenhagen and I started the edit from scratch. We’ve decentered empathy as the primary reaction of white audiences in Strong Island. And, we have centered something else as the thing we want you to respond to. I think you would have to be inhuman not to be angry. I think you would have to be inhuman to not to on some level relate to the grief.

Merin: And the injustice.

yance ford head 2 Ford: And the injustice. But there are going to be some people who see the film as having a specific liberal agenda and they are going to find justification for my brother’s death because somehow they make Black people complicit in their death, and that’s where the silence and the shame come into it. Especially in 1992, before cell phones and before social media and in the absence of all that, there was that silence, and what rushes into that silence is the very insidious and slow but steady process of self-blame – crushing self-blame that expressed itself twice as catastrophic brain injuries in both of my parents.

I respect your rage and I am glad that you feel it because at this point in our history as a nation and when so many people are dying I want you to actually use your power. I respect your rage but I want you to go beyond that and I want you to use the privilege and power and access you have to make a change – because we know, and history proves this to be true – that Black people are, on the whole, not believed about their own experience until there’s data, until the experience can be corroborated by White people. White people. And then it becomes a problem that needs to be solved. Then it becomes an issue that needs to be addressed.

Merin: Yes, I see what you mean, and that’s simply not acceptable…

Ford: Unfortunately we have a president who thinks his primary goal in life, because he was embarrassed by White House correspondents, is to undo every iota of progress, specifically in the criminal justice realm, which came far too late in my opinion during the Obama administration, but at least there was some progress. This is my primary responsibility to my family to stop this reversal of reforms.

Yance FordWhat’s so ironic is that my mother opened a school inside a prison, and my brother was becoming a police officer. My mother opened Island Academy and Rosewood High School on Riker’s Island. I don’t know if Rosewood High School exists any more. I think Guiliani came in and closed it down. Island Academy is still there because it’s mandated by the state to have education there school age inmates. I have no idea of what’s going on in the women’s facility there. It’s like poof.

I think what’s going to be the challenge when the film is released is that I want audiences to understand that they need to be moved beyond empathy. If anything is going to change, and if people are going to be held responsible for their actions, empathy won’t cut it anymore.

Merin: I agree. I think we’ve been numbed and dumbed into a complacency that’s likely to be our demise.

Ford: Absolutely. And when you think of what happened in Charlottesville, and I’m shocked that none of the media has been brave enough to say this, but when you realize that there was a coordinated nonresponse on the part of law enforcement that allowed that rally and counter demonstration to spiral into violence that took life. There was a coordinated nonresponse. Picture after picture, video clip after video clip show cops just standing there, letting people fight in front of them, in front of the police station, That is a direct response to people agitating for police reform, and no one has had the courage to say it.

Merin: Well, you’re saying it right now, and it will be part of our interview…

yance ford with mich

Ford: But nobody has had the courage to say it in the media. And in the absence of morals in our leadership, another mother of another dead young person has to fill in the void. Because we don’t have leaders who are brave enough to state it plainly, to tell the truth. That’s one of the things that Strong Island had to do. It had to be truthful. It had to allow my mother her anger. It has to allow my character anger. It had to allow for complexity. It had to allow for ambiguity. And at the end of that, it still had to ask ‘how do you measure reasonable fear?’ It had to challenge that when we return to that garage if you think it’s reasonable to have an argument with someone in March and three and a half weeks later, shoot them, kill them, and claim that that argument three and a half weeks ago scared you to death. And that’s why you shot him. If that had been my brother, the shooter, that would be the litmus test to end all litmus tests…if that had been my brother, he would still be in jail and we all know it. We all know it. And the fact that we seem to have forgotten that the standard is not simply fear, the standard is reasonable fear. Is it reasonable fear to kill someone three weeks later? Someone you only interacted with twice before in life. I don’t think so. But, other people may arrive at different conclusions watching the film, but I wanted to make a film that is as blistering and difficult to watch as the past 25 years have been to live. And when you look at the devastation that the aftermath of my brother’s murder brought to my family and the injustice –my mother kept saying ‘wait until we get to court.’ Not ‘wait until I’ve got a gun,’ but ‘wait until we get to court.’ The failure of that system to provide justice, to even provide the opportunity for justice, is what tore my family apart.

Merin: Have you seen a film – a narrative feature – called A Time to Kill?

Ford: No, I haven’t seen so much in the past ten years. I don’t know it. Why do you ask?

Merin: I’d be curious to know your reaction to it. It’s set in the South and Samuel Jackson plays a man accused of killing the White boy who raped his preteen daughter but was acquitted. Jackson’s character seeks justice, hiring a White lawyer to defend him. I think it’s a provocative film. And I’d like to know what you think of it – maybe even to play as a double bill with Strong Island.

A Time of Kill. I will look for it and watch it. That’s interesting because I’ve also been reading about The Rape of Racy Taylor, Nancy Biurski’s new film. I haven’t seen it yet.

Merin: Nor have I, but I, too, am very interested in it. It’s another chronicle about fighting for justice. But does a film – any film – really satisfy that goal in an individual who is fighting for justice. I mean, with STRONG ISLAND, does having made the film relieve the devastation and the pressure and make life better for you? Does it bring you back to a sense of normalcy? What does this accomplish for you?

Ford: You know, Jennifer, fortunately I didn’t look to Strong Island to remove my grief or to change my grief. Or to be an outlet for any kind of catharsis or any sort of massaging of my own emotions. Because the truth is that my brother had been dead for fifteen years when I started making this film. And over that time, I incorporated his death into my life. I’m lucky enough to have met my partner 21 year ago. She has lived with this film for as long as I have. And I am fortunate to have a sister who is dear to me. And have a chosen family that has always been supportive and has seen us through very dark times. And that chosen family is of all races and religions, and includes my mother’s oldest friend – my mother had two very dear old friends, a Black woman named Mrs. Christopher, who passed away, and my mother’s other oldest friend, Teddie, is White and Jewish and a psychologist living on Long Island. And were it not for people like that coming into our lives, I think the film might have been an exercise in catharsis. And I think if it had been, it would not be as effective as it is.

yance ford swing

Yes, I think you’re right.

Ford: Because the catharsis and the change and the way in which you incorporate someone’s death and the injustice of it happens on a daily basis. It happens when you wake up in the morning. Like yesterday, I woke up feeling very different than I do today. And that’s just because that’s the way grief works. And I’m also very glad that I didn’t try to make this film when I was younger.

Merin: How old are you now?

Ford: I’m 45. My brother died a week before my 20th birthday. I was an art student and I started making art student quality work about my brother’s death.

Merin: Do you still have it?

Ford: I have a lot of it, yes. Actually I didn’t lose my negatives, I left my negatives at Hamilton and when I go back there in September, I hope someone still has them. My photography professor is still there, so she might have scooped them up and put them in a box. I don’t know.

But having lived with this for so long on a daily basis is what, I think, allowed me to let the film be angry, allow it to be ambiguous. And not ask rhetorical questions. There’s not one single rhetorical question in the film. To allow myself to be on camera, screaming bloody murder. Because something that I have feared all my life and on some level have always known is confirmed to me while the camera is rolling. And, God bless him, my cinematographer – because he was sitting so close to me he could have reached out and touched me – he’s six feet tall, from Montana, Alan Jacobsen, and he’s a fucking brilliant cinematographer – and he, throughout the process of making this film, did the impossible. He didn’t reach out to comfort me in that moment. He went to my mother’s ICU bed and I blocked out shots when I realized that she was going to die, and he shot her in the hospital and then, the upside down shot in the film, happens in the sequence in which those shots appear. He went from the ICU to his car because he didn’t have any of his gear. He’d been shuttling my aunts, who’d been coming from out of town, from the airport to the island. We were terrified to leave my mother, so he was driving to all of the airports on Long Island, and he didn’t have any of his gear. He turned that camera upside down, knowing as he does his cameras so well, he turned that camera upside down and shoved it in between the dashboard and the windshield and he drove. Because he needed to drive. In that moment, Alan Jacobsen, who loved my mother, needed to drive. And something beyond Alan was at work in that moment because that shot and actually for the entire drive, we see people walking there. It’s as though there’s no gravity and it is the perfect visual metaphor for what my mother’s death meant to all of us. My mother’s death turned my world upside down, A week before she had her hemorrhage, we were trimming the hedges in her back yard. Together.

Merin: How old was your mother when she when she died?

Ford: She was 70. She lived exactly 20 years after my brother’s death.

Merin: Did the day coincide?

Ford: No. The day didn’t coincide. He was killed in April. She died in November. I miss her terribly. I am constantly looking for older, wiser people to meet. I learned a lot about myself during this process. I knew that I was generous. I learned that I could be even more generous. I knew that I was kind. I learned that I could be more kind. I knew that I had – Well, I wouldn’t call it bravery…

Merin: Lack of fear?

Ford: Maybe it’s lack of fear. Yes, I think it’s lack of fear. Or maybe it’s just determination to do it in spite of the fear. Because I’m terrified about what’s going to happen when this film is released.

Merin:Why are you terrified?

Ford: Because of the car that sat outside my parents’ home. Because of the phone calls I answered that summer.

Merin: That fear still lingers?


Ford: Yes, that fear still lingers. I have had very serious concerns, and Netfilx has taken my concerns very seriously. I do not know where the man who killed my brother lives. I did not look for him. I started to when I thought the film was about what happened, but then I realized the film was about why and what happened after, I stopped. Because I realize that Mark Reilly has said everything he needs to say to me, ever, in life, by pulling the trigger on that gun, by showing himself in an argument in which he was not involved, in a situation where my brother didn’t know he was there. And then claiming that he was somehow afraid. He said everything to me in that action. So he’s treated as he should be treated, as a catalyst for circumstances that deserve investigation. And that’s what I want to do.

Merin: And he is not more or less than a speck of dust….

Ford: Yes, he is a speck of dust. That’s what he is, a speck of dust. And the thing about change—like, I’m really skeptical about documentary film’s ability to change society. I think that, like good art, documentary film can change hearts. Right? I’ll never forget the first time I saw – and actually it was the first time I’d been to France, to Paris, and I studied art history as an undergraduate – and the first time I saw the Nike of Samothrace, which is at the top of a staircase in the Louvre, I burst into tears. When you come through that hallway of Italian sculpture and you begin to ascend those stairs and you realize that you’re seeing just the beginning tip of that statue – that statue and the revelation – I mean that statue is not at the top of that staircase by accident…

Merin: No, it’s not.

Ford: It’s not, right? That staircase is there for that statue, and we know from Richard Berge’s film, The Rape of Europa, that that statue has always been at that staircase. Always. Because it was evacuated when they invaded Paris during World War II and they put it back where she belonged when they reentered. Because like any good art, STRONG ISLAND’S responsibility is to change hearts and to affect laws. Changing law and changing policy is the work of human beings in real time, in real life.

Merin: So, you began your life as an artist, expressing your heart, and intellect and beliefs and dreams and wonderment and all the good qualities we have as human beings through art. So, how does that event that was your brother’s death impact your impulse, your ability, your inspiration, your interaction with wonderment through which you channel and express your art?

Ford: You know, I think when William died, I was in some ways an artist, and I’m lucky that I was as young as I was because I was able to sort of bisect my relationship to wonderment. I was able to use my art for two years simply as an interrogation. Right? And I was eventually able to come back around to wonderment, to curiosity, to exploration, to the unknown, As a college student, my art functioned, I think, as a way for me to process what was happening in my life, but also I was exercising some muscle. I think it is the muscle that is reflected in the formal composition of the film…you know, the framing and the exclusion of what’s outside of the frame, the upward glance, which is really the film being a stand in for me, as opposed to a surrogate for the audience – I was able to exercise that muscle while the other muscles healed. As the grieving process becomes part of your life, as it becomes the norm, which is the sick thing about these deaths – is that they reshape your life and it becomes the norm….

Merin: That’s what I mean – has it transformed you?

Ford: You change, and then I honestly think that you change again. I think there is a process. I’ve lived it. I think that different people live it in different ways. There is a process of digesting grief in a way that you have to digest a heavy meal, like a raw vegetable meal. I sometimes see people eat a raw vegetable meal and think they’re going to get a massive stomach ache, and it takes so much work to digest. But it’s something that has to work its way through your body. Right? And it’s something that your body has to break down, that your mind has to break down. It something that you heart has to break down into digestible pieces that can be stored, and once you’ve done that – I think, for me, I get to the place where wonderment returns. Curiosity drives the inquisition.

Merin: If we’re all evolving as human beings through our experiences good and bad, hopefully evolving for the good and not towards our own extinction, do you think that adversity furthers an individual’s evolution? To have a greater capacity to become a more human version of yourself? How does this effect your art?

Ford: I don’t think I’m driven by adversity. I’m competitive. So, I want my film to look a certain way, and in general, I want to do things as well as I can. No matter what it is – whether it’s mowing the lawn or cooking breakfast, I want to be the best fucking breakfast chef in New York. But in terms of figuring out how to be a better human being, I think that’s something I live every day, and I think I learn about my own failings every day and I learn how to be a better person every day. And I hopefully won’t ever stop discovering things about myself. Because I live in real time in relationship to the world and I evolve as the world evolves, and right now, we’re in a place where we desperately need evolution…we need more people who are willing to stand up and say things that nobody wants to hear. And we need other people to stand up and protect those people, Heather Heyer’s mother stood up and said something extemporaneously that only she could have said, and she moved us out of a very dark place. At her daughter’s funeral. Her only chlld. We need more people like her. I don’t think it’s the adversity that makes her a fantastic human being. I think that it’s the adversity that gives her the opportunity to show what a fantastic human being she is. She’s always been that person. Unfortuantely it took the death of her daughter for her to show who she is in public. Unfortunately, the death of my brother is going to bring my mother into the public, but she’s the one I want the world to know anyway. And I think the world will be better for it.

Merin: I think you’re right. And thank you for a most enlightening conversation.

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