OKP: Right, and what I actually really appreciated about the technique of the storytelling, because actually this really doesn’t look like any documentary that I’ve really seen. Like the way you use your family photos. I love that you had shots of you placing them on the table, or you looking at the photos through the loop and seeing the different color stocks and the different texture of the photos. I thought that that was really unusual, and really engaging to see as well.
A lot of times when you see documentaries use archival photos, they usually put it in a slideshow, or they use After Effects but I really like that you show yourself pouring through these photos. Was there a particular reason why you wanted to present them in that way?
YF: There were a few reasons. At first, when I used the photos, I had always envisioned the photos as being shot items. As being objects that existed as items, and how to present that they’re on their own in the film. I was never going to use After Effects. But when I first shot the photographs, I was doing this sort of very … in a static, slightly into the frame, running for 30, 40 seconds, then sliding out of the frame.
After my mother passed away, and the number of photographs tripled, and we needed to reshoot them. My producer Justin Barnes said to me that day, “She had to take it in as evidence. Handle them with care.” When I heard that, I realized that the interactions and the energy with which those photographs were charged, were something that could communicate a story to the audience without me having to say a word.
It shows that you’re talking about real life. You’re talking about real people. You’re not talking about statistics, which I think is something that gets forgotten when you talk about cases like this. William Ford Jr. was part of a family. Here’s evidence of that family. Here’s evidence of that love.
OKP: So yeah, that part, I thought was really well done, that you chose that approach.
YF: Thank you.
OKP: Your sister in the documentary said for a long time — and again this happened with my family as well — that no one really talked about everything that had happened. How were you able to get people to the point where they’re like, “Okay, yes, we can talk about this now?”
YF: By saying I’m making a documentary. Making Strong Island was the first opportunity that we had as a family to talk to each other about our experiences of William’s death. It was one of the unexpected benefits of making the film, is that it broke that silence. It broke that. And I think the silence is out of an instinct to protect each other from the depths of your own pains. The whole structure of the criminal justice system. How do you respond to the wholesale failure of that? You know, and how do you dig yourself out of the inevitable blame and guilt when after you’ve exercised all available options, you’re left with nothing?
Silence is inevitable. I think it is a response to that kind of systemic failure. But with the film, and being a storyteller, thankfully it provided my family with a way out. But with a way out of it together, as opposed to each person remaining in their silo. It became a way for us to talk to each other, both during the introduction, and even when the cameras weren’t rolling about William, and how we each survived his death in the same sense.
OKP: The whole time I was watching the documentary I was just thinking, you know, if the races were reversed, there’s no way that your brother would have walked. There’s just no way. It just really made me wonder, you know, is equality even something that’s on the table in this society? Is that something that is actually achievable? I don’t have an answer for that, and I think that kind of scares me that I don’t really know.
YF: Someone asked me the same question last night, about change or about justice or about reform. You know, I said to the person, the same thing that I’ll say to you. I wish I felt … optimistic, but I think that the situation in which we find ourselves, is one that’s beyond optimism and pessimism. It’s not about whether or not there eventually will be some sort of kumbaya moment where the systems will admit its fundamental flaws and move to fix itself. The system will have to be fixed from the outside, and it will take a critical mass of individuals to do that. Black and white, and frankly of all races.
I don’t know when that’s going to happen. I don’t know when we will reach that critical mass. I don’t know if it’s going to take many more lives to get there. But I can’t tell you that today, because of the verdict that was just handed down, in a case that I was frankly not familiar with. [Note: This is in reference to police officer Jason Stockley being acquitted in the 2011 shooting former St. Louis death of black driver Anthony Lamar Smith.] Because they’re happening with such frequency. When we lose track … it really affirms what black people, both color, and Native Americans have said about the disposability of their lives being the foundation of this country. That I didn’t know about this case disturbs me deeply, but doesn’t come as a surprise.
There’s one thing I do want to add. I don’t want people to walk away from Strong Island thinking that my goal is that they only have an emotional experience. With the challenge, with the understanding that not one question in the film is rhetorical. When my character asks at the end of the film, “How do we measure the distance of reasonable fear?” That is a real question. While I know that the film is moving, the film is not actually meant to only put itself inside of your heart, right? The film is also meant to put itself inside your brain.
I don’t want audiences to think that they’re going to come to Strong Island, have a cathartic cry, and then be able to move on about their day. This film is a call to action. And for those people who are familiar, and who are intimately familiar with this film. I want them to leave the theater feeling like I see you. In the very real and deep sense of what it means to see someone as their whole selves, in their complexity, in their grief, and in their desire to change their own conditions. That’s what I want.
Strong Island is currently available for streaming on Netflix.
Danielle A. Scruggs is a Chicago-based photographer and writer who runs the website Black Women Directors and is also the Director of Photography at the Chicago Reader, an award-winning alt-weekly newspaper. Follow her on Twitter at @dascruggs and view her site at daniellescruggs.com.