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'Strong Island' tackles crime, justice and racism with a personal — and cinematic — touch

After years of filming and editing, Yance Ford thought he had finished making “Strong Island” in 2014. And then it hit him.

“I didn’t have the film that I wanted to have,” said Ford, whose Netflix documentary meditates on his brother William’s 1992 slaying, systemic racism and the implosion of their middle-class African American family in a Long Island suburb.

“I realized what I had done by accident was to make a great film about grief,” said Ford, who was 19 when his older brother died after a tense encounter at a notorious neighborhood chop shop. He was unarmed. The white teenage mechanic who shot and killed him was never prosecuted. The grand jury considered it a case of self-defense.

The more Yance Ford dug, and the more he was willing to expose in family artifacts and first-person interviews, the closer “Strong Island” got to the complex and achingly personal memoir that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won a special jury prize for storytelling.

The filmmaker, a longtime series producer for the Public Broadcasting Service’s “POV,” began shooting in 2008, and in late 2014 decided to revamp everything. “I started carrying my hard drives with me,” he said, “and my laptop.”

The decision led Ford to Copenhagen, where over four months in 2015 he worked closely with Danish editor Janus Billeskov Jansen, part of the team that made the bold Indonesian mass killing documentaries “The Act of Killing” (a 2014 Academy Award nominee) and “The Look of Silence.”

Jansen was “wading into this pool of racial tension that was very unfamiliar,” Ford recalled. “I was going to be, quite frankly, living in an almost exclusively white country.”

Those jolts were crucial to reshaping the film.

“It was a scary moment for everybody, but it was a good decision,” said Joslyn Barnes, who began as an executive producer of the project and then became its hands-on producer, guiding Ford in the new direction.

Ford, living alone away from his partner, felt completely out of place. “And that let me focus just on the film.”

Encouraged by Jansen, Ford began breaking rules he had made for the film, such as not appearing on camera. The first-person perspective is now elemental. The forensic details are more extensive, as is the emotional power in the pages of William’s diary and photographs the filmmaker uncovered. He included new material from interviews, notably with his mother, who had died unexpectedly in 2012. “I had a lot of her being sad and not enough of her righteous anger,” Ford said. “My mother is capable of expressing so many emotions at once, I had to let her do that.”

There also were unexpected side effects of an editor from a different culture.

“The Danes didn’t understand the American legal system at all,” Barnes said. “They kept forcing us to explain, explain, explain.”

Although “Strong Island” aligns with an ongoing spate of true-crime documentaries and podcasts, as well as other recent films about American racial injustice, Ford’s aesthetic choices speak to ambitions in cinematic form.

Enlisting cinematographer Alan Jacobsen, Ford looked for visual inspiration in the photography of William Eggleston and Carrie Mae Weems’ kitchen table series. He reflected on the poetic imagery of Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzman, particularly his “Nostalgia for the Light” and the way it captured “these almost flecks of dust in the light.” Ford rejected the routine nonfiction practice of the B-roll. “Every image in the film has its own meaning.”

Another model, in a fashion, was the Charles and Ray Eames short film “Powers of Ten.” “The one that starts on a picnic blanket and goes all the way out into space,” Ford said. “And then it comes back to the picnic blanket, and goes all the way into the molecules. I feel like for me ‘Strong Island’ is that film. Both the view from space, and the view from inside the single-cell organism crawling across the picnic blanket.”

Despite Ford’s success in translating personal trauma into a universal message, he wants audiences to confront a core issue after the intense emotions the film so artfully evokes.

“The thing I want you to ask is that question about reasonable fear,” he said. “It’s not rhetorical. If people can take that extra step into the intellectual wrestling with the question of whose fear is reasonable, that for me would be the ultimate prize.”

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