Strong Island’s Yance Ford Filmmaker Masterclass

by Kent Harris, Shumate Council member


Oscar-nominated filmmaker, Yance Ford, visited the Wex in October to lead a Documentary Filmmaking Master Class and shared technique and insight on his approach to directing the critically acclaimed Strong Island. The free masterclass kicked off the annual Unorthodocs. festival, providing filmmakers and enthusiasts a unique learning experience with a behind the scenes look at Ford’s process, trials and triumphs included.

I was struck by an early remark that in every film resides two works. “The first you share. The second belongs to you, and you alone.” Ford recognized the duality of filmmaking as not only a medium of storytelling to be shared with the public, but a personal journey to be privately eulogized.

Strong Island is a documentary about a black family in suburban Long Island intertwined with the implications of race, tragedy, and injustice. The film is a cinematic tribute to the life and death of Yance Ford’s brother, William Ford Jr., that brings memory to life through the delicate treatment of photographs as tangible objects. Ford spoke about the sacredness of photographs as living artifacts and the universality of the family photo as “personal archaeology.”

Yance shared clips from the film in which his mother emotionally responds to the reverberations that the family felt as a result of her oldest son’s murder. I wondered how Yance achieved such a level of vulnerability while interviewing his mother, given the controversy and intimacy of the subject. Apparently, it didn’t take much barrier breaking to get his mother to open up. He went on to explain that his mom was the type of person that you could ask one question and she’d talk for hours. I too, could relate.

For those wondering how to achieve a similar level of candor in their work, especially documentarians exploring spaces in which they can easily be perceived as “the outsider,” Yance shared an invaluable piece of advice: leave your camera behind, take a notepad. Learn about the environment, culture, and people you want to explore by talking to them. Establish trust. Authentic storytelling is first and foremost about building real relationships, everything else will follow.




photo: Nathan Davis

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