A portrait of strength

Family ties: Yance Ford and her family use their voices and photos to string together her brother William’s life

Family ties: Yance Ford and her family use their voices and photos to string together her brother William’s life

In the tradition of renaming the boroughs and neighbourhoods of New York City, Long Island was somehow rechristened Strong Island, from which this heartbreaking portrait of a family gets its name.

It is not quite clear what the “strong” refers to, although there was a burgeoning Long Island rap movement in hip-hop’s golden era from which the nickname emanates.

Yance Ford’s documentary takes this public persona of the island as the representation of the American Dream (nice houses with backyards, somewhat integrated) and turns it inward.

In 1992, Ford’s brother William dies in a confrontation with employees of a panel-beating concern who were holding on to a friend’s car for too long. When William approaches the shop and cannot immediately recover the car, insults are exchanged and frustration boils. William leaves, only to return some days later. On his return, he is again frustrated by their attempts to hold on to the car, but he spots the guy who insulted his mother in the earlier meeting. Walking into the shop to confront him, Williams is shot with a 22-calibre shotgun and later collapses outside the panel-beating shop.

What follows is a travesty of justice that is sadly commonplace in the United States, with devastating consequences for the trajectory of Ford’s family. The ubiquity of this narrative is exactly what highlights the strength of her storytelling abilities. Ford takes the documentary as a form, deconstructs it into its constituent pieces and then rebuilds it from scratch, in her own image. Her style, it seems, is custom-built to highlight the singularity of her family’s story, beyond the narratives of race and political intransigence.

For example, Ford’s mother and younger sister are filmed seated, but they are not mere talking heads. Mother Ford’s narration of her family’s living history comes alive with gestures and vocal inflections, oozing palpability with every syllable. To call her a wordsmith is oxymoronic because the term does not match the humanity flowing through her body. An educator by profession, she is a natural poet for whom speech is a sensual act.

Ford’s sister too. Although more reserved than her mother, Ford’s younger sister, affectionately called Kato by the deceased William, has idiosyncrasies that make you forget she is relaying the story from a static position. Like most documentaries, Ford relies on still photographs but these are not floating in the ether, one photograph dissolving into the next thanks to editing software. The photos are held by hand for scrutiny, arranged on the table for our perusal, creating a sense of intimacy between viewer and narrator.

Ford’s narration is not mere prose. She dips into the mind state of her brother through readings from his diary, she intersperses free-form verse and dynamic thought, expanding the everyday into the surreal.

By calling on William’s friends, and even legislators, Ford is determined to celebrate her family despite the pain brought on by the demise of her brother.

As the chief narrator, Ford is in our faces in the form of variously angled close-ups, her own face relaying unspoken layers of her family’s history. Astounding.

Strong Island will screen at the V&A Waterfront on Sunday June 11 at 5.30pm

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo studied journalism at Durban's ML Sultan Technikon before working at Independent Newspapers from 2000 to 2003. In 2005, he joined the Mail & Guardian's internship programme and later worked as a reporter at the paper between 2006 and 2008, before working as a researcher. He was the inaugural Eugene Saldanha Fellow in 2011. Read more from Kwanele Sosibo

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