Q&A with 2012 Fledging Fund Fellow and Documentary Filmmaker Yance Ford

Ford's current project, Strong Island, provides an up-close and personal look at the far-reaching impact of violence.

Filmmaker Yance FordDocumentary filmmaker and producer Yance Ford has been awarded the 2011–2012 Fledgling Fund Fellowship at MacDowell. The Fellowship, supported by a generous grant from The Fledgling Fund, provides a residency for a filmmaker engaged in documentary work that explores entrenched social problems. A series producer on the PBS series POV, Ford is currently working on her first film, Strong Island, which investigates her brother’s violent death 20 years ago. Providing insight into the complexities of fear, guilt, violence, and criminal justice, Strong Island reveals the human dimension of tragedy and how easily things can fall apart. Ford, also a 2012 Creative Capital grantee, was named one of Filmmaker Magazine’s 2011 25 New Faces of Independent Film. She recently took time to talk with us about her film, her recent MacDowell residency, and the honor of being supported by The Fledgling Fund.

Q: You’ve been involved in the documentary film community for a while, but you’re currently working on your first film. How has that transition been?

A:  I’ve been at POV since 2002. I also have a background in the fine arts that few of my colleagues in the documentary field were/are aware of. As POV’s Series Producer, when I decided to begin production on my own film, my biggest concern was being taken seriously as a filmmaker. Thankfully, Esther Robinson — Strong Island’s Producer — had made a similar transition when she directed the documentary A Walk into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory. Esther knew what to expect and helped me navigate like a pro. I also had tremendous support from my colleagues at POV, who didn’t know until I began making the film that I had once had an older brother.

Q: Describe what your typical day at MacDowell was like while you were in residence recently, and how that might differ from your typical day in the “real world.”

A:  In the real world, I am chronically sleep deprived, I eat lunch at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, and I have my cell phone permanently attached to my hand. As you can imagine, my first few days at MacDowell were like walking out of the twilight zone and into the forest. When Martha Southgate suggested I turn my cell phone off, I nearly fainted! Once I settled in, the most startling difference I noticed was my internal pace. In New York City, you can’t move fast enough or work fast enough. My typical day at MacDowell felt twice as long as a day in the “real world.”

Q: Film differs from other disciplines supported by MacDowell in that most filmmakers don’t shoot their work while they are in residence. What do filmmakers do at MacDowell, and more importantly, what did you do?

A:  Many filmmakers come to MacDowell to prepare for post-production, or they edit while in residence. There is footage to review, audio to sort through, work that requires space to hear and see what your footage has to say. My film Strong Island is in production, so I spent my time at MacDowell very differently. I spent the first half of my residency shooting — in a black box I constructed. I used this light-tight space to experiment shooting images of brain imagery, film negatives, etc. A central question in the film is about memory and forgetting, and I’m interested in creating images that speak to my pursuit of potentially unanswerable questions. At MacDowell, I used my camera to try to “see” in a new way. I spent the second half of my residency charting a course for my character through the film. I ask my subjects to trust me. I ask some to be both vulnerable and brave. My ethics require that I do the same. MacDowell was the place where I asked myself the same hard questions. During my residency, I came to understand the nature of the risks I have to take in order to be a fully realized character in this film. The time I had at MacDowell made me a better director, and I think that will come through the footage.

Q: Which studio did you stay in, and how did that affect your creative process?

A:  I was in Heinz Studio for my first 10 days; it was the only space available to accommodate the black-box shooting studio I worked in. I have a background in welding and metal work, and when I landed in Heinz it was like coming home. I know how to navigate industrial work spaces — I love them! The familiarity of the space gave me the confidence to dive into shooting and let my curiosity lead the process, rather than following a shot list. When I moved to New Jersey Studio for the second half of my residency, I scaled down my black box and spent my time reviewing footage, writing, and listening to the wind.

Q: Strong Island is such a personal story. Was it difficult for you to confront as an artist? 

A:  I knew I was going make a film about my brother in 1996, four years after his death. I studied fine art and was making photographs, performance work, and sculpture before he died. I had often used personal narratives in my work to explore larger issues so that wasn’t new. The intensity and complexity of what his death meant to my family was the difficult part, and the film had a long gestation period because of it. If I had tried to make it in 1996, it would have been impossible; not because it was too emotional but because I hadn’t lived enough to know where his story fit into the history of violence in our country. A few years ago, when I began development on the film, I knew the text and the subtext of the film (and of his death). The tension between these two places is where the story lives and it is from this perspective that it will be told.

Q: The Fledgling Fund chose to support your film because it addresses “an entrenched social problem.” What kind of social impact do you envision this film having?

A: I’m humbled that The Fledgling Fund found that Strong Island resonates with their mission. I hope the film provokes whoever sees it to question, among many issues, the prevalence of gun violence in our culture.

Q: Any plans for distribution, audience engagement, etc.?

A:  The distribution plan is still evolving, but we plan to target niche audiences like national support groups for families who have lost loved ones to violent crime, law enforcement agencies, and restorative justice initiatives. We have U.S. broadcast interest, and will be pursuing festival and community screenings as well.

Q: How do you see MacDowell fitting into the film community and the broader ecology of support for filmmakers?

A: Filmmakers spend so much time raising money or sticking to a production timeline that there is very little time to ask, “Am I making the film I want to make? Is this what I want my film to be?” A MacDowell residency can allow filmmakers, whose subjects allow for a pause, to step outside their process and answer these questions. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to ask myself the tough questions about my motivation, my creative decisions, and my expectations for the film. I also benefitted tremendously from conversations with writers and artists who work in other mediums. Those conversations — that feedback and the time I’ve had to myself — have been priceless.

Q: Anything else you’d like to share about your Fledgling Fund Fellowship at MacDowell?

I realize that I arrived at MacDowell expecting to have a super-cerebral experience; as if I would sit down at my computer and generate page after page of brilliant insights. The truth is that I was plunged into a crisis of confidence soon after I arrived. I’ve never had a crisis of confidence about anything. I’m fortunate that at MacDowell, I spent time with people who encouraged me to take the pressure to “produce” and put it on a shelf for a little while. I did, and wouldn’t you know I eventually got to work. I’m grateful to The Fledging Fund for awarding me its Fellowship at MacDowell. I’ve been “home” for a month and everyday — referring to some problem I’ve solved or a risk I’ve decided to take — I’ve said, “That’s MacDowell!” The full gift of this residency is going to reveal itself over the course of completing Strong Island, and I owe a debt of gratitude to The Fledgling Fund for making it possible.



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