Category Archives: GLBT documentary

“IS IT SAFE TO BE GAY IN THE U.K.?”— Homophobia in Britain

“IS IT SAFE TO BE GAY IN THE U.K.?”

Homophobia in Britain

Amos Lassen

Filmmaker Mark Henderson’s documentary shows us that homophobia is still very much alive in the United Kingdom. We see that homophobic hate crime are daily occurrences and on the rise in Britain through the conversations with victims who share their stories about being attacked. These crimes are both physical and verbal.

Even though it has been fifty years since the partial decriminalization of homosexuality, the graphic reality of homophobic attacks is exposed here and it is shocking. The moving testimonies given here show that it is not always safe to be gay in Britain.

Long-term partners James and Dain who open up about the pressure put on their relationship after they were assaulted in supposedly gay friendly Brighton; a brutal attack that left both of them with multiple injuries and Dain with a broken eye socket and wondering if he would ever be able to see again. Their story is far from unique and we see this as Jenny loving talks about her brother, Ian Baynham, who died of injuries sustained in a frenzied homophobic attack in the centre of London, having been kicked to death on the ground.

We hear Connor’s horrific tale of being habitually bullied at school, with the words “you’re gay – you should be dead” constantly being thrown at him. He thought that things would get better after he moved into his own flat, but he was attacked by another resident with a hammer with such force that it was still embedded in his head when the ambulance crew arrived. He was in a coma for four weeks while surgeons fought to save his life. They had to remove a quarter of his skull to relieve the pressure on his brain. Connor not only survived, but has since found love in the arms of boyfriend Dom. Yet once again he was not alone, as victim after victim recall painful memories of being kicked in the face until unconscious, of being repeatedly stamped on the head and so on just for being who they are. These victims and so many others cry out for justice to be served.

Alex and Becky have been groped, punched and slammed into a street light, on what was meant to have been a quiet night out. Justice was not served, with one defendant having fled to South Africa to avoid sentencing, leaving the couple struggling to move on from both the assault and the court case itself. And even though the man responsible for the vicious attack on Connor was duly sentenced to nineteen years for attempted murder, Connor is left unable to run or use his right hand, having to take medication every single day, with epilepsy and severe migraine now with him for the rest of his life. Jenny meanwhile is starting the restorative justice program in the hope of gaining peace of mind, whilst James and Dain’s relationship has notably changed and sadly not for the better, with their views of being out in public now at odds with each other.

We might think that we are living in enlightened times but we see here that it is not always safe to be openly gay and that homophobia hasn’t gone away. This documentary also questions the motives behind homophobia and it shows what is often overlooked; the repercussions of such unprovoked attacks on the victims, their families and friends; many mourning the loss of loved one and the void that is left behind. A film like this makes us angry as it should and we need to be outraged at the sickening reality that is still with us and that can get worse.

“MANOLO: THE BOY WHO MADE SHOES FOR LIZARDS”— Meet Manolo Blahnik

“Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes For Lizards”

Meet Manolo Blahnik

Amos Lassen

Manolo Blahnik is a self-confessed ‘cobbler’ and the man regarded by most influential fashion figures as ‘the best shoe-maker of the 20th and 21st centuries. I understand that Manolo only agreed to making this film if it was more about those who testify to his genius and not about himself. Director Michael Roberts does just that but he also manages to have Manolo, who is now 74, appear on the screen and we see him as quite an eccentric character who is obsessed with becoming the new Cecil Beaton who was famed for his designs for dressing film stars.

Manolo was born in the Canary Islands. His father was a wealthy Czech pharmacist and his mother was a Spanish plantation owner. They educated their son to be a diplomat, but he went to London and got his first job in fashion managing a boutique. Just two years later, in 1970, during a chance meeting with Diana Vreeland in NY (who looked through his portfolio of sketches) took him to his focus of designing footwear.

In 1972 he designed shoes for Ossie Clark’s runway show, which Blahnik admits could have been the end of his career. He had   harmed several of the models as he had naively omitted to put steel in the heels making the shoes pretty but dangerous. However they were a big success and soon he was designing shoes for a whole coterie of leading British designers of the day.

America beckoned him and his creations were carried by Bloomingdales and it did not take long before his clientele was a who’s who list of fashion celebrities. Of course, he received a tremendous push by “Sex and the City”. Today women are happily paying $1000 or more for a pair of his shoes and Blahnik lives the life of a semi-reclusive English aristocrat.  He is a man who loves fame but who also avoids any personal intimate relationships beyond his collection of close friends. These include Blahnik’s very good friends John Galliano and David Bailey, Naomi Campbell, Paloma Picasso,  André Leon Talley and Rihanna, and they all pay tribute to him here.

“HOUSE OF Z”— Zac Posen’s House of Style

 

“House of Z”

Zac Posen’s House of Style

Amos Lassen

Zac Posen, was barely a teenager when he started making dresses for friends and then drafted his entire family to help him launch a haute-couture business, the a House of Z. Immediate success caused growing demand and the stress plus Posen’s “enfant-terrible” persona was the cause of serious tension within the Posen household which led to a very public breakup.

Film director Sandy Chronopoulos had access to every member of the Posen family to and their video records from which she has constructed a compelling film that takes around the Posen’s Fall 2015 collection. This collection was considered to be Posen’s “make-it-or-break-it moment”. We also see the fascinating back story to Posen’s career. Posen is a gay, dyslexic outsider with a talent for fashion. His family supported his dream of becoming a designer and he launched in their Soho loft. His friendships with famous women, including Claire Danes and Natalie Portman, helped catapult him to fame. At just 21 years of age, his work was being talked about and The “New York Times” announced that he was a new star that must be watched. It did not take long before Posen’s dresses were being worn on red carpets everywhere. Hip-hop mogul Sean Combs joined his team and provided music for Posen’s fashion shows. As his fame and ego grew, so did the distance between him and his family. This affected his artistry and he was soon known as “the former boy wonder.” When Posen’s meteoric rise ended, he struggled with depression yet plotted a comeback and his friends were on his side. Posen is an exquisite craftsman and showman and filmgoers will love this look at him and this story of familial love, determination and redemption.

Posen documents himself throughout his young fashion career and we quickly understand that his rise in the New York fashion world was aided by privilege and connections. Posen first made waves in fashion during his time at the Brooklyn arts high school Saint Ann’s School, where he met New York fashion insiders like Paz de la Huerta and Claire Danes, and it was then that he began his entry into the competitive fashion world. Posen shares what it was like to grow up in a family that is wealthy and supportive of his talent. (He is the son of artist Stephen Posen based in an artistic Lower Manhattan neighborhood). Posen also enjoyed the early support from Vogue editor, Anna Wintour.

Posen’s talent for design and self-promotion were apparent even from an early age. After photographing his designs on friends like de la Huerta and Danes, he went to London to attend the prestigious Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design. Even in these early stages of his career, it’s clear that Posen loves the spotlight, and we see how his brash personality and photogenic presence came together at the right time and greatly helped his meteoric rise in the fashion industry. After his first runway show in 2001 at the age of 21, we see Posen having already conquered the fashion world.

From there, the film follows a conventional rise-fall-redemption documentary structure, with Posen at a crossroads as the world deals with the fallout of the 2008 U.S. recession.. Posen is open about the creative, business, and personal mistakes he made during this stage of his life, and is compelling as always as an interview subject. But the missteps that he made during these collections are expected for anyone who find success at an early age and he did not suffer a profound existential crisis as some thought. We see that he refined his taste in tailoring and he put emphasis on the value of his hand-crafted approach to fashion in an industrialized climate. Through these sequences Posen shares the details and process behind every stitch of his work. The film is at its best when Posen speaks through his work. From what we see in this film, it is very clear that Posen knows exactly how to work an audience.

“MAN FOR A DAY”— A Workshop

“Man for a Day”

A Workshop

Amos Lassen

Diane Torr is a legendary gender activist and performance artist. For the past thirty years, she has focused on an exploration of the theoretical, artistic as well as the practical aspect of gender identity. Katarina Peters casted and observed a Berlin workshop taught by Diane Torr, in which a group of open-minded women came together to discover the secrets of masculinity and to find answers to the questions of what makes a man a man and a woman a woman? When and where is gender identity formatted? How much is nature and how much nurture? Each of Torr’s workshops represents an open-ended laboratory experiment in social behavior in which the question is posed. The viewer receives an intimate view into the lives of the participants before, during and after their transformation to newly found men with five women testing their masculinity for one day.

Susann, Theresa, Eva-Marie, Valley and Rosa Maria register for the workshop for a day performance artist Diane Torr. The focus is on the question of where and when sexual identity is manifested, and whether it can be used in other gestures to break through these role patterns. The women dressed up first. Susan becomes Andi, Theresa to Walter, Eva-Marie to Christian, Valley became Tal and Rosa Maria Marco became Ramos. All five women in the documentary seem to have a problem with their female identity and two of them have had bad experiences with men. The others feel themselves pressed into a female stereotype, which they do not want to deliver.

Se see that gender studies are not about transsexuality. They are about the role models that prevail in our society of man and woman. Diane Torr has been following these questions for many years and is trying to get closer to gender roles in her own special way. In workshops she teaches what a man is, how he moves, and what gestures he takes. The filmmaker Katarina Peters who has been friends with Torr for many years, has accompanied her at one of these workshops in Berlin with the camera.

Torr understands identity (and therefore gender identity) as an artificial construct and that “male” behaviors are only available to women theoretically. In her workshops Torr moves from theory to practice. The motivations of the five women are very different: Susanna has been a beauty queen and when asked at one of the pageants into which role she would like to enter for a day, she answered male. Tal is the opposite of Susanna and was often already perceived by her environment as “masculine” and we learn that she is a real sissy. Eva-Maria, who comes from Munich, is a policy advisor and moves in a world dominated by men. Theresa is the mother of three sons and her husband left her making her a mother and a father to her children. Rosa Maria, who was already twice in a women’s shelter because of violent partners and is well versed in the macho culture.

The first thing that the women do is exchange their clothing for its male counterparts and then go out on the street dressed as men. By the time the experiment is over, not all participants are so convinced that it is really easier for them to be able to be a man for a day or a week, but they now know how it feels, more or less.

“LIVE NUDE GIRLS UNITE!”— Unionizing Strippers

“LIVE NUDE GIRLS UNITE!”

Unionizing Strippers

Amos Lassen

It has been some seventeen years since filmmakers and strippers  Julia Query and Vicky Funari made their documentary about unionizing strippers and it has taken a very long time for us to have the chance to see it digitally. The film is centered around Julia Query, a stripper at a club called the Lusty Lady. She puts in long hours on stage and in the peep booth along with fellow exotic dancers Decadence, Lolita, and Octopussy. However when the women realize that they have with no sick leave and face unfair demotions, safely and privacy concerns, and racial discrimination, they decide to organize and unionize the exotic dancers of the Lusty Lady.

Of course the management of the Lusty Lady opposed this and argued that taking off one’s clothes in a peep show is not real labor but rather an enjoyable part-time job. The women who do this in 10-hour shifts didn’t see it that way but their customers did. There is the curious idea that strippers and prostitutes do what they do because they enjoy it (which they probably do in many cases) but this is an untruth that is good for business. Like anything else, doing the same thing over and over can be quite a bore.

Strippers at the Lusty Lady work in a small mirrored room and their clients enter little booths surrounding the room, and put a quarter in a slot; a panel slides up and they can see the girls for 15 seconds. The veteran girls make $20 an hour, and there are always two to four on duty, which shows us that the hardest job at the Lusty Lady belongs to the guy who collects the quarters.

The film follows some 80 strippers as they hire a lawyer, demand a contract, and threaten to strike. Query, Funari and two other filmmakers simply took the camera along with them and shot whatever happened.

Query dropped out of graduate school, has worked as a dominatrix, and has a mother who is a famous public health advocate. Her mother drives a van around Manhattan handing out free condoms to hookers. When Julia turns up as a speaker and stand-up comic at the same conference where her mother is delivering a paper, the result is one of the more unusual mother-daughter arguments we will ever see. Julia was reared to “do the right thing,” and expects her mother to be proud of her as a union organizer, but her mother somehow cannot get around the stripping.

Julia is our candid narrator who tells us that when she decided to earn money by stripping, she was terrified by the thought of going on the stage because “I can’t dance.” The mirrored room at the Lusty Lady, which reminded her of an aquarium, seemed less of a challenge, especially since it has silver poles in it. The other girls use these for posing, but we gather Julia may need to grab one to keep from falling down. Julia and her sister organizers make labor history. This is an insider’s view of stripping in which we meet women who feel that feminism and sex-industry work are compatible.

The strippers’ demands fall on deaf ears as they agitate for the Lusty Lady to become the nation’s first unionized strip club. Management digs in its heels and negotiations drag on for months. When one woman is fired in retaliation, they all go on strike, engaging loyal customers’ support with the memorable picket-line chant “2-4-6-8, don’t go in to masturbate!”

At road’s end, labor emerges triumphant (with a few contractual compromises), and there’s an immediate ripple effect with strippers from all over calling and begging help for their own unionizing efforts.

This primary conflict is engrossing enough, and the documentary pulls us in further by paralleling the union efforts with co-director (and stand-up comic) Julia Query’s more personal struggle with her mother. Both women are articulate, personable and headstrong and this subplot adds considerable drama. As with the unionizing effort, it ends in reconciliation with some issues still unresolved.

“MEMORIES OF A PENITENT HEART”— Unresolved Family Drama

“Memories of a Penitent Heart”

Unresolved Family Drama

Amos Lassen

Twenty-five years after Miguel died of AIDS, his niece tracks down his estranged lover and when she does she reopens unresolved family drama. “Memories of a Penitent Heart” is about woman trying to investigate what truly happened to her uncle Miguel, a homosexual Puerto Rican who died in the midst of the AIDS crisis. Working backwards through a network of friends, family photos, and newspapers, filmmaker Cecilia Aldarondo uncovers a story of heartbreaking tragedy, of loss and pain and fanaticism. Miguel was a happy man who changed his name to Michael once he moved to New York City in order to distance himself from his religious (and ethnic) family. Robert, now known as Father Aquin, was his steadfast lover of thirteen years who, despite bearing the brunt of Miguel’s family’s homophobia, never lost his faith. Miguel’s mother is renowned in her family for her purity and holiness, reviled by those closest to her because she threw her son Miguel aside because of what she considered to be his sinning.

The characters here represent near-universal archetypes: the gay martyr, the abusive family member, the religious zealot. Perhaps that’s part of the film’s power. But there is also the power of static images. Director Aldorondo fills her frames with geometric stills of photographs, mementos, and letters thus making the audience her partners and collaborators in her search. This is why the film feels so immediate and essential.

Aldarondo’s investigation leads her to Robert who is now a Pasadena, California, priest known as Father Aquin. She also meets many of his friends, all of whom describe a lifestyle of drugs, partying, leather-bar cruising, and joyous, infectious love that Miguel had to defend to his disapproving mother. He felt trapped between a desire for modern American freedom and a devotion to old-world religious beliefs. It’s here that Aldarondo discovers piercing revelations about her uncle, mother, grandmother, and grandfather Jorge who also had romantic desires like his son.

There’s irony in the way that faith, such a destructive force in Miguel’s family relationships, turns out to be vital for Robert in processing his partner’s demise. We see that two opposing truths can exist at the same time.

Aldarondo gives us gorgeous shots of Puerto Rican shops and sidewalks and she emphasizes comments from her speakers (heard on the phone, or in old recordings) by juxtaposing them with relevant imagery. She moves deeply into the deep traumatic pain caused by loss, secrets, and the denial of one’s true self. As she does we see the importance of loving who you have while you can for once they are gone so is the opportunity to do so.

Miguel’s grandmother insisted he died cancer, although it was almost certainly of AIDS (even though Miguel himself was never tested, due to his beliefs about how people with the disease were being treated and stigmatized). Miguel was gay and moved from Puerto Rico to New York to become an actor, leaving behind his Catholic upbringing so that he could live authentically as himself, regardless what his family thought. Miguel became involved in a relationship with a man called Robert. Finding Robert became Cecilia’s route into the story, as due to the strained relationship between Robert and Miguel’s family, they don’t know what happened to him or even his surname.

Cecilia set out to discover what happened to Robert and get his side of the story, and along the way she uncovers family secrets, unresolved anger, frustrations, different ways of remembering things and a death made even more tragic due to the homophobia and the fear and tensions surrounding it. “The film offers some fascinating insights into a time when AIDS upended nearly every gay person’s lives, often made worse by families that couldn’t accept their gay relatives, and a system that often seemed to actively despise the victims”.

When discussing Cecilia’s very religious grandmother, the film shows how in her mind her actions were absolutely the right thing to do, no matter what the result was and that is still true today. She did not deliberately set out to do evil; –she genuinely believed she was saving her son’s soul. That helps underline the tragedy of the fact that for Miguel’s mother, it seemed more important that she could claim her son repented of his homosexuality before he died, than to deal with the fact that he’d been taken from her in the first place.

It’s impossible to say whether Miguel really did repent, whether he just said he did, or whether Cecilia’s grandmother said he did to comfort herself and others. There is heartbreak in that someone who’d done so much to be true to himself was denied by his mother.

Cecilia’s mother (and Miguel’s sister) still seems to be trapped between who she is now, and the ghosts of her thoughts and attitudes at the time. There is still anger at Miguel, but it feels like she’s not entirely sure why. Here is a documentary that brings a very human side to the AIDS epidemic, showing how one family can illuminate how it was for many victims, and how a tragedy was often compounded by families who had never really accepted their relative’s sexuality. As Cecilia digs further and discovers secrets about her grandfather and others, it continues to underline just how sad and difficult it can be when we can’t accept who we are along with the pressures and pain that family can cause when that happens.

There is no resolution in the film because those that could resolve issues are no longer here. There is, however, the possibility of forgiveness in some quarters but even that can reveal that people may not wish to deal as fully with their past as they think they do.

This is a very powerful look at a family tragedy illuminates both a particular time in gay history, and how far the pain family members can cause one another can go, even when in their own minds they believe they are doing the right thing. The film is a heart-breaking and compelling documentary is a passionate memoir to the Uncle that Cecilia Aldarondo could barely remember from her childhood.  

We lost so many wonderful men and women in our community through this very dark passage of our history, and it is so essential that their stories are told too.   In this film Aldarando planned to look at just one of them but actually honors them all— their memories are now filled with honesty and compassion.

“CHANTAL AKERMAN BY CHANTAL AKERMAN”— An Avant-Garde and Feminist Moviemaker

‘CHANTAL AKERMAN BY CHANTAL AKERMAN”

An Avant-Garde and Feminist Moviemaker

Amos Lassen

Chantal Ackerman was a French/Belgian/Jewish/Lesbian filmmaker Chantal Akerman who died in 2015 left her mark on world of cinema especially with regard to avant-garde and feminist filmmaking. She made over forty and installations that include the recurrent themes of domesticity, sex and alienation and these themes have come to define her oeuvre. Her films often explored these themes through the eyes of female protagonists and sedately blurred the lines between film and performance., unspooling at a sedate pace and blurring the boundary between film and performance. Akerman was the artist that introduced a female voice into the world of modernist cinema.

As she did this she gave new meaning to the term “independent film”. Her movies were radical and original works and she gained her high praise from cinephiles around the world. Her films have become not only important but also integral to feminist film theory and they broke boundaries between realist and avant-garde genres.

In “Chantal Ackerman by Chantal Ackerman”, we get a candid, intimate glimpse of Akerman, the woman. 

In part one we meet Akerman in her apartment, describing the problems she encountered making this film directly to the camera. What comes out of this is a funny, often personal, and always thoughtful confession from her. in part two lets Akerman’s films speak for her. We have clips from her extensive filmography that when linked give us a new film. Scenes included are from “Jeanne Dielman”, “23”, “quai du Commerce” and “1080 Bruxelles” which is her best-known work. These are interspersed with glimpses of several other works including experimental film, comedic shorts, musicals, narrative features, and an early short that stars a very young Chantal.



In making this film, Akerman has created a fascinating self-portrait that takes us through her career. On board also are critics Emmanuel Burdeau and Jean Narboni and filmmaker Luc Moullet.

Before making this, Akerman envisioned a film consisting solely of excerpts from her films, but because she was pressed by the producers to include footage of herself, she grudgingly agreed, and divided the film into two parts.

“MR. GAY SYRIA”— Trying to Reconcile Faith and Sexuality

 

“Mr. Gay Syria”

Trying to Reconcile Faith and Sexuality

Amos Lassen

“Mr. Gay Syria” is a special film in that it was made to support a direct campaign calling for a push to grant five Mr. Gay Syria contestants asylum. A petition from Change.org tells us that “Five Syrian refugees escaped the horrors of life as gay men in Syria only to find that their nightmares never ended. After years of living in hiding, fearing for their lives, and watching fellow LGBTQ+ people being mercilessly executed by ISIS, these men believed they had found freedom and safety in Istanbul. Feeling liberated and grateful for their newfound, yet conditional freedom of authentic self-expression, they decided to hold a Mr. Gay Syria contest and planned for the winner to participate in The Mr. Gay World competition. However, hate and homophobia still remain in Turkey”.

Mahmoud Hassino tells us that the film highlights the challenges experienced by LGBTQ+ people in the Middle East. Mr. Gay Syria is a regional competition to advance to Mr. Gay World. “Mr. Gay Syria” also a documentary, written and directed by Ayşe Toprak that highlights the five Mr. Gay Syria contestants and the challenges that they face including severe persecution and seemingly impossible barriers on those who are simply trying to be themselves “while living in antiquated and judgmental environments.” The hope is to help accelerate the asylum process for these men.

We see the conflicts inside a Muslim man who is trying to reconcile his sexuality with his faith, and how the traditions of his culture have pulled against him (and his family ties) since he was young.

Sign the Change.org petition.

 

“Mr. Gay Syria”

Trying to Reconcile Faith and Sexuality

Amos Lassen

“Mr. Gay Syria” is a special film in that it was made to support a direct campaign calling for a push to grant five Mr. Gay Syria contestants asylum. A petition from Change.org tells us that “Five Syrian refugees escaped the horrors of life as gay men in Syria only to find that their nightmares never ended. After years of living in hiding, fearing for their lives, and watching fellow LGBTQ+ people being mercilessly executed by ISIS, these men believed they had found freedom and safety in Istanbul. Feeling liberated and grateful for their newfound, yet conditional freedom of authentic self-expression, they decided to hold a Mr. Gay Syria contest and planned for the winner to participate in The Mr. Gay World competition. However, hate and homophobia still remain in Turkey”.

Mahmoud Hassino tells us that the film highlights the challenges experienced by LGBTQ+ people in the Middle East. Mr. Gay Syria is a regional competition to advance to Mr. Gay World. “Mr. Gay Syria” also a documentary, written and directed by Ayşe Toprak that highlights the five Mr. Gay Syria contestants and the challenges that they face including severe persecution and seemingly impossible barriers on those who are simply trying to be themselves “while living in antiquated and judgmental environments.” The hope is to help accelerate the asylum process for these men.

We see the conflicts inside a Muslim man who is trying to reconcile his sexuality with his faith, and how the traditions of his culture have pulled against him (and his family ties) since he was young.

Sign the Change.org petition.

“STRONG ISLAND”— The Killing of William Ford Jr

“Strong Island”

The Killing of William Ford Jr.

Amos Lassen

“Strong Island” examines the violent death of the filmmaker’s brother and the judicial system that allowed his killer to go free. This is a documentary that interrogates murderous fear and perception that is colored by racism. It re-imagines the wreckage in catastrophe’s wake, challenging us to change. Director Yance Ford’s documentary looks at the 1992 killing of the filmmaker’s older brother, William Ford Jr., a 24-yeard-old African-American teacher and police officer-in-training who was shot by a white auto-mechanic while unarmed. It becomes a way to discuss one family’s tragedy by viewing an emotionally, intellectually, and aesthetically complex work of essay and memoir. Ford looks deeply at the trauma of black life in America.

The documentary serves in part as a biography of Yance, William Jr., and their sister Lauren’s parents, William Sr. and Barbara, who moved from Charleston, South Carolina to New York City toward the end of the Great Migration with the hope of escaping generations of racial prejudice. It is also an attempt to bring back a collection of remembrances that span before and after William’s death, so that we gain a comprehensive idea of the toll it took on the Ford family. The film even functions as a sharp critique of institutionalized racism, particularly in its characterization of a segregated 1980s Long Island: The Fords lived in Central Islip, one of only a handful of suburbs set up for the black families of NYC’s public servants (William Sr. drove the J train).

“Strong Island” also examines Yance himself, a transgender man who struggled with his sexual identity throughout his time at Hamilton College and this overlapped with his brother’s death. Ford excavates this past as a simultaneous act of civic justice and personal understanding. The most powerful passages here are those about two very different “Yances”— the stark motionless man we see in close-ups, a self-assured person who talks truth to power on racial injustice and the dehumanization of crime statistics, and the young person we see in photographs who once identified as a woman and struggled with her estrangement from her family. Both Yances directly inform the way the filmmaker views his relationship with his brother’s death today.

Ford uses a mix of the direct and the abstract, the meditative and the confrontational to tell the story. He wrestles with both the raw facts of his brother’s killing as they relate to the cause of his own activism and the “self-defense” conclusion arrived at by white investigators and at the same time he tries to find an internal catharsis that will become some kind of act of that effort itself to become an act of humanism that makes William’s life mean something more than just another statistic.

Ford interrogates the impulse of white fear and this, challenges audiences to confront their own racially informed expectations. He completely breaks down on camera, overwhelmed by a phone call from a former police investigator that confirms some of his worst suspicions about his brother’s death. We see how grand juries work.

Over the course of ten years, Ford has worked on his and it is a profoundly personal first feature. The witnesses were prohibited to talk about William’s character in court, so instead Ford uses a patchwork of interviews, memories and journals. His film is both an act of defiance and a strikingly intimate, exceptionally crafted story about his family. He speaks to his mother, sisters and William’s best friends, and explores his own feelings of guilt, anger and confusion surrounding his brother’s death and we feel his regret for the missed opportunity of opening up to William about his own identity.

“Strong Island” outlines the racist law systems that relentlessly reduce individuals, particularly black men, to troublemakers. The film is as much an exploration of the filmmaker’s identity and feelings surrounding his brother’s murder, as it is a loving, even-handed portrait of William. The camera stays on Ford’s face as he shares his deepest pain. Ford has something to say about fear as he explores it and how it can be measured. Reilly escaped justice and prison because his fear of William. The all-white jury considered the shooting to be reasonable defense in the minds of the all-white jury. When Ford tries to picture his brother’s killer he “looks like every white man I’ve ever seen, he looks like everywhere”. The film uses family photographs and self-portraits to explain Ford’s own evolving racial and sexual consciousness in the years before tragedy struck while he directly speaks to the viewer. Ford never revealed that he was transgender to his brother or father, who passed away from complications of a stroke in the aftermath of the killing.

The crime is at the center of the movie, but it doesn’t dominate the documentary. Ford also tells the story of his family — not just how the tragedy tore them apart, but who they were beforehand. It is Ford’s intent as a filmmaker to expose and protest the injustice of his brother’s murder but it also clearly shows what was lost with his brother’s death. After giving us with the facts of the crime, Ford goes back into his family’s history to lay bare a story of racism and optimism, of what hope and hardship and upward mobility meant to a working-class African-American family in the middle of the century. We see that before the murder, his family, through all the labor and prejudice, felt like they were breathing the air of freedom.

At Sundance, “Strong Island” received a Special Jury Award for Storytelling. The film’s overriding subject is grief, and the loss of faith that often comes with it. We go through twenty-five years of Ford family agony and we also get quite a narrative of injustice.