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On Power and Solidarity : Brett Story and Yance Ford at CPH:DOX 2024


Produced in collaboration with Documentary Campus, this year’s five-day CPH:CONFERENCE featured a wide-ranging series of panels and conversations, diving in to everything from indigenous narratives to climate storytelling to the mind of Alex Gibney. Especially notable were the four mornings, FILM:MAKERS in Dialogue, all moderated by Wendy Mitchell (festival producer of Sundance London as well as a journalist for Screen International). In these sessions audiences were invited to listen in as the directors behind two films chose clips from each other’s work to engage with.

One such pairing in particular proved both inspired and inspiring. Brett Story (The Hottest AugustThe Prison in Twelve Landscapes) took the stage with Yance Ford (Oscar-nominated Strong Island) on March 20th to probe one another about both the process and the politics behind their latest Sundance-premiering features, Union and Power, respectively. While the former takes us inside the fight by a scrappy band of activist-workers to unionize Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse back in 2021, the latter essayistic doc is a “sweeping chronicle of the history and evolution of policing in the U.S.” (Unfortunately, Story’s directing partner Stephen Maing had to cancel his trip at the last minute and could not participate in the spirited discussion.)

Mitchell began by breaking the ice with Story, including asking how she goes about interacting with her characters. The question prompted the Canadian director to mention that she doesn’t really like the word “access” as it implies there’s some sort of wall a filmmaker has to jump over. For Story it’s simply a matter of back-and-forth dialogue with a film’s participants, of building relationships of trust. Vérités goal is not access, she stressed, but “intimacy.”

In contrast, Ford alluded to the bigger picture — specifically American institutions that are the locus of power. Watching the George Floyd murder and subsequent protests unfold in 2020 made Ford ponder questions such as: Why do we have police? Who are they there for? The filmmaker wanted to go back in time (300 years in fact) rather than merely focus on the present. Which is why Ford brought an archivist in to the production much earlier than most doc teams do.

Mitchell wondered, how did the director avoid being triggered while watching all that violent footage over and over again during post? Talking about American policing inevitably means talking about violence, Ford responded pragmatically, before adding that the brain puts up a protective barrier. That said, Ford did choose not to include some of the most graphic police killings in the archive. Then again, because of social media, audiences unfortunately have already seen so many of these images that our brains are able to fill in what’s left on the cutting room floor.

Mitchell then inquired about the opening of the film. Ford mentioned asking the viewer for either their “curiosity” or their “suspicion” in the voiceover — not of the police but of the filmmaker, of Ford’s own motivation. Radical transparency is of utmost importance to the director, and if an audience member ends up not trusting then “that’s fine.”

Cutting to the Union clip that Ford had picked to discuss, one in which we see tensions building between the characters as the stakes get higher, Story noted that this is actually where the heart of her film lies. Less about fighting against the big bad behemoth Amazon, Union is really a tale of group dynamics and how hard it is to do things together even when everyone is aligned towards the same goal. Add to this the race, class and gender imbalances inherent in this union-organizing crew and the danger of self-sabotage becomes clear and ever present.

Ford next asked about the doc’s beginning, how the first images onscreen allude to the mechanics of capitalism — the shifting from giant containers to ultimately the workers themselves. “What makes structures and systems visible?” is a question present in all of Story’s work, she responded. How can a film express that we exist in a “constructed world”? Amazon is really just emblematic of a much larger system (which includes cargo ships like the ones from the Copenhagen-based Maersk, Ford noted). “Capitalism is an ambient in this film,” Story concluded.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ford also wanted to learn more about the scene in which the police are called to the JFK8 warehouse to keep the unionizers at bay. Ford pointed out the irony that cops themselves benefit from a very powerful union (the Orwellian-named Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association). Which led Story to note the ongoing dispute as to whether the police can even be considered part of the working class.

Turning to Power, Story was anxious to hear Ford’s thoughts about property, specifically as an idea that “we had to create and then uncreate.” To which the philosophical filmmaker responded that the police were in fact created to protect property and social order, not to “fight crime.” Indeed, within this context it’s little wonder that expressions of political discontent often go hand in hand with the destruction of property.

Ford added that the heroism of police is part of the American narrative and that cops have actually replaced elected government in many cities throughout the US. If you’re able to see what police have been used for historically, “it tells you who they are,” Ford emphasized. Which means that archival imagery can actually be used to counter our ingrained mainstream narrative. The Long Island-raised director then went on to discuss NYC’s overwhelmingly Irish-American police force, no quirk of history. While perhaps ironic, this once-suppressed community’s decision to participate in the suppression of other ethnic groups as a way to gain power/whiteness was likewise a fascinatingly bold move.

Story then turned to the topic of solidarity as something power can’t brook — a global issue. Whether it’s the NYPD or Amazon, we’re told by both the police and multinational corporations that we don’t have power. And policing infrastructure is in place around the world, Ford pointed out, even if not every individual is policed in the same manner. CCTV cameras are now ubiquitous everywhere, from the poorest cities to rich cosmopolitan meccas like London.

In closing, both Story and Ford seemed optimistically undeterred, determined to spread the gospel of mutual support – with Ford even giving the thumbs up to community screenings of Power, a Netflix Original. After all, as long as you don’t charge admission, all you need is one account and a screen.

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