Category Archives: Feature Film

Strong Island (2017)



Filmmaker: Yance Ford

Year: 2017

Running Time: 107 minutes

Country of Origin: United States

Streaming: Netflix


Filmmaker Yance Ford, in this achingly personal documentary, investigates the 1992 murder of his older brother, William Ford Jr., chronicling the arc of a family across history, geography and tragedy. Ford traces his familial history from the racial segregation of the Jim Crow South to the promise of New York City, through multiple generations affected by the socio-political tides of New York. Prominently featuring the Ford family — Barbara Dunmore, William Ford and their three children — the film explores how the lives and communities which surround Yance Ford were shaped by the enduring tensions of race in America. A deeply intimate and meditative film, featuring frequent appearances by the filmmaker disrupting the fourth wall and addressing the viewer in the self-reflexive documentary style, Strong Island poses questions around racial injustice in contemporary America and how complicity, grief, and silence continue to affect the pursuit of justice.

While the film looks at the injustice surrounding the murder of William Ford Jr., the interview style of Ford’s family and Ford himself examines themes of resilience, overcoming grief, guilt, and the intersection at which Yance Ford’s identity as a queer, trans black artist is silenced in the course of tragedy. While the ‘queering’ of the documentary style is subtle in Strong Island, Ford’s high-contrast, head-on self-interviews is jarring and new to the otherwise traditional documentary style of the film, replete with medium shot interviews, recreations, archival images and documents. Instead of being kept at a safe distance, audience members are forced to very literally sit near and within the emotionally-tortured head of the filmmaker himself. The courageous self-exposure in these moments of grief, pain, and tension disrupts the otherwise pre-packaged formulae of commercial true crime docs.



Strong Island film website

“Towards Trans Cinema,” Eliza Steinbock

Black, queer, and transgender: Ford stands at the intersection of America’s most marginalized groups — and he is so much more than the sum of his parts. Throughout the 10-year process of making “Strong Island…”

(Chili Shi ‘22)

Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson, 2016)

Filmmaker: Kirsten Johnson

Year: 2016

Country of Origin: United States

Format: Streaming

Running time: 102 min

Screen Shot 2019-11-05 at 4.23.54 PM

Still from Cameraperson


Documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson takes the audience on a reflective journey through her career in this documentary comprised of footage from decades of past projects. Described as a “memoir” of “images that have marked me and leave me wondering still,” Johnson reflects outwards, meditating on the documentary form and its relationship to ideas of truth and transparency, and inwards, exploring the ways being a cinematographer has shaped her emotional and personal life. She moves from a boxing match in Brooklyn to a nursery in Nigeria to postwar Bosnia in a structure that initially feels like a stream of consciousness, but is in fact deliberately designed to pose philosophical and ethical questions that stay with you long after the film has ended.

Bill Nichols writes extensively on the documentary form and how its changed over history, each iteration of form a reaction to the last in a futile attempt to portray the objective truth. The inclusion of “mistakes”–the moments of acknowledgement of the camera by the subjects, the shaky camerawork as Johnson sets up her next shot, the times when Johnson herself is heard reacting to the events on screen or interacting with the subjects–gives this film a layer of transparency which reminds us that there is a human behind the image. This resembles elements of what he considers “reflexive documentary” which makes use of a self reflexive critique or statement to acknowledge the documentary form and its impact on authenticity. These “mistakes” are moments that would be left out of any other documentary for the sake of presenting a perfect film product or portraying an objective truth, which is impossible. In this alignment, the audience is able to acknowledge the subjectivity of the image–in the mistakes, we see how the camera image is used to promote an ideology, to emphasize or ignore, to reveal a truth through lying or lie to tell the truth (Koresky).

Halfway through the film, there is a montage of locations around the world where atrocities–murders, rapes, torture–took place. Afterwards, a Bosnian translator and a field producer are discussing their careers documenting the stories of victims of humanitarian atrocities. “Our jobs are hard because we process these stories and we put them inside ourselves. So how do we deal with the trauma…we who collect these stories and share them with the world?” Cameraperson succeeds because it doesn’t attempt to describe the truth of the world, but rather Johnson’s personal truth as someone who has become one with her medium. When a filmmaker shows this level of vulnerability, you can’t look away. By taking advantage of film’s ability to connect ideas over time, using time and place to come to a greater realization of what it means to document, to experience, and to live.

Bibliographic Items:

Koresky, Michael. I Am a Camera. Film Comment; Vol. 52, Iss. 5

Don’t Tell Anyone / No le digas a nadie

Running Time: 75 min


Don’t Tell Anyone follows the story of undocumented immigrant Angy Rivera and her family as she comes out to the public as undocumented.  Against the wishes of her mother, who is also undocumented, Angy proudly displays this part of her identity while helping other undocumented immigrants deal with life and the issues that arise.  As she faces the challenges of being undocumented in America, Angy also admits to the public that from the ages of 4-8 she had been a victim of sexual violence from her step-father, adding another layer to the adversity she experiences in life.  The audience sees that Angy is not just defined by the label of “undocumented” or “victim,” but is rather a fully complex human being.

This humanizing of Angy is key to the message of the documentary.  Don’t Tell Anyone is a very personal story about Angry, her family, and the challenges they face in life.  A majority of the scenes we see are direct interviews with the Rivera family and shots of them living everyday life.  The documentary does not portray them as simply statistics; rather, they are deeply humanized and relatable.  We see that the Rivera family is just as human as any other family with lives full of complications, excitement, and love.  The viewer can’t help but feel empathy for Angy and her family, and their message is heard.

Harlan County, USA

Country of Origin:
Running Time: 103 min


Harlan County, USA, an Oscar-winning documentary directed and produced by prominent filmmaker Barbara Kopple in 1976, is an incredibly moving film that tells the story – using an intersection of the participatory and observational documentary modes – of coal miners in Kentucky who, together with their families, endured a long, violent strike in defense of their rights.  The conflict arose out of a disagreement between miners at the Brookside Mine in Harlan County and Duke Power company.  The miners of Harlan County were in favor of joining the United Mine Workers of America; however, when Duke Power and the local mining company in Harlan County refused to sign the contract, the miners and their families embarked on a 13 month-long strike, which was only resolved after one miner was shot and killed during a peaceful protest.

Though, at face value, the film sounds simple enough, it possesses several powerful undercurrents worthy of discussion.  First and foremost: the film is widely regarded as feminist.  Again and again, throughout the film, Kopple represents the the miners’ wives as being integral in both the planning and carrying out of protests and demonstrations.  So much so, in fact, that that one of the larger messages of the film is the growing influence of women, both domestically and publically, in the latter half of the 20th Century.  Simply put, the miners of Harlan County may never have successfully gotten their contract without the help of their wives.

Secondly, the role of music plays a fascinating, unifying role amongst the miners and their families.  Throughout the film, we hear songs – presumably written and performed diegetically by characters in the film – that speak directly to the miners’ struggle.  One scene, in particular, shows a woman singing in front of a large rally, and the camera shows us people in the audience singing along.  These songs unite the mining community – men, women, and children alike, in their struggle against Duke Power.

Miss Representation

Country of Origin:
Running Time: 85 min

Miss Representation, directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, is a documentary that focuses on the media representation of women and the effect this has on women in society. The main points of the documentary comment on the lack of authentic representation of women in films, TV shows, political offices, news outlets, and other aspects of popular culture mass media consumption that lead to harmful psychological issues for young girls, sustaining this system of oppression. The documentary looks at historical events as well as current events of the disenfranchisement of women in America. It uses interviews with various women of power or those who have been affected by the media misrepresentation, statistic facts about the skewed society we live in, and direct examples from various media sources of harmful and misogynistic portrayals of women or men talking about women. The documentary ends with ways in which we as a society can deny the influences of huge media conglomerates, such as through the political power of  voting and purchasing power that we as consumers have.

Jesus Camp

Country of Origin:
Running Time: 87 min

jesustitleIn their film, directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady offer their audiences a glimpse into the experiences of some of the people who form the radical Christian Evangelical subculture. Jesus Camp follows a group of children as they participate in a summer camp called “Kids on Fire,” run by Pastor Becky Fischer. The footage documenting events, and interviews of the participants and their parents at the summer camp, are framed by excerpts of a radio talk show hosted by Mike Papantonio. Papantonio represents the voice of dissent in a film whose subjects purport a very singular religious-political ideology.

The film begins with images of the road and towns in Missouri, while the sound track switches between radio stations reporting the news of Sandra Day O’Connor’s resignation from the Supreme Court and those on which talk show hosts say things like, “We are engaged today in what they call a Culture War. We didn’t start it, but by His grace we’re going to end it. Say, ‘Yes, we want to reclaim America for Christ.’” From here the film goes into Papantonio’s studio where we see him critiquing the religious-right’s role in the political arena. The directors use the first four minutes of the film to establish a political framework through which interpret the events that will unfold.

Most of the remainder of the documentary consists of shots of camp activities and interviews with camp participants Levi (age 12), Tory (age 10), and Rachael (age 9), their parents, and Fischer. Through these interviews we learn that many of the children are homeschooled by their Evangelical Christian parents and are taught things like creationism and that science is untrustworthy. The camp activities range from the more common Christian camp activities like group prayers in which participants beg forgiveness for their sins to seemingly very political activities like praying over a life-size cardboard cutout of George W. Bush.

Given the controversial nature of many of the things shown and said (at one point Fischer compares her summer camp to Palestinian militant training camps for child soldiers), the directors tried to keep their presentation as objective as possible. They expressly desired to keep their own bias out of the film and accomplished this through some interesting documentary techniques. For example, the directors are never seen in the film; the audience only ever hears the answers and the questions posed during interviews. Following the first screening of their film in New York’s Tribeca Film Festival, the directors changed the musical score because they “felt that it was too judgmental-sounding and [they] were painfully trying to come to the film with a neutral eye.”

Despite their efforts to be objective documentarians, Ewing and Grady expressed not being able to resist placing the story of “Kids on Fire” into a national context by putting it in conversation with liberal-Christian Papantonio’s radio talk show. This occurs very literally when, at one point, Fischer calls in to the show and the two hold a debate on the matter of indoctrinating children. Even with the political framework that the directors explicitly create for the story of the camp, the film does manage to present all opinions expressed with respect and in such a way that leaves the audience to come to their own conclusions and question their beliefs.

Nw York TImes review:

Interviews with filmmakers:


Say My Name


Director: Nirit Peled

Year: 2009

Country of Origin: United States

Format: Documentary, color

Run time: (78 min)


“The voice of female hip-hop is  not the voice of a single woman, but countless women. And their successes can not be measured by the payouts, but by the stories they bring to life, and the impressions they leave behind…”

Say My Name, directed by Nirit Peled, is a feature documentary about female MCs in the music industry. Peled accumulated a multitude of artists all over the world from all walks of life. From New York there’s Queen Latifa and Monie Love, to Sparky Dee, Roxanne Shante and newcomer Chocolate Thai. In London, we have Estelle with Neo-Soul and the GTA crew demonstrating grime. There are immigrants to New York from other countries like Trinie from Trinidad, as well as MCs from Canada, Detroit, and Atlanta. The film exemplifies the diaspora of hip-hop and shows that no matter where you’re from or how successful you are, female artists in hip-hop have one voice made up of many voices that share the experience of struggling through oppression in an urban society, battling misogyny, and the burdens of womanhood.

The commonality of the MCs’ goals is indicative even within the title of the film. Say My Name asks us to pay attention to the names of these women, as colorful as their names are, as they tell us their stories. The refusal to be ignored is apparent even within the first shot of the film. The voiceover of Erykah Badu tells us how the most beautiful music comes from pain, originating in the Blues and jazz. This music will reveal truths about the society we live in, and it is important that these truths are coming from the mouths of women.

For more information please visit the websites below:

Gut Renovation

Filmmaker: Su Friedrich

Year: 2013

Country of Origin: USA

Running Time: 1hr 21min


Gut Renovation, an Audience Award winner at the 2012 Brooklyn Film Festival, had a week-long theatrical release at Manhattan’s Film Forum. The film documents the recent story of Williamsburg. In 2005, city council passed a rezoning of the neighborhood, which opened the door to rapid gentrification. Developers flooded in, setting off a frantic real estate boom that pushed out locals. Su Friedrich’s film is a personal essay, antagonistic and cranky. She has reason to be upset – after living for nearly 20 years in a multi-ethnic, working-class neighborhood and artists’ enclave, she became one of many facing displacement. In Gut Renovation, we see her turn her camera to the changes happening around her.

Friedrich unfortunately gives only the briefest of head nods to actual community pushback (one scene shows a neighborhood meeting). The rest of the film, she resigns herself to a mapping project. A blown-up map of an area 6 blocks wide and 17 blocks long shows us the impact of the rezoning in detail; Friedrich marks off new developments under construction with a red marker. She counts them off one-by-one; by the end of year five the number hits 173. These periodic stop-motion shots are set to the relentless staccato of a drill breaking ground, and reveal the pace of the changes. In-between, Friedrich rants and complains. She yells out her window at men in suits, points her camera at yuppie newcomers with shopping bags and expensive dogs, skeptically cross-examines brokers, and swipes a bottle of wine from the opening party of an expensive loft party.

In one of the stronger devices of the film, extreme close-up stills of attractive young people having fun zoom out and reveal themselves to be branded representations of the neighborhood. Friedrich is right to point her camera at the aggressive ad campaigns, the face of real estate interests, and glossy counterpart to the noise and chaos of demolition and construction. Shaky handheld footage gives us a peek into luxury condo showrooms, where promotional videos announce “Panoramic city views, only one step from Manhattan!” and “18 floors up, a place you’ll love to live, above it all.” Meanwhile, below it all, mom-and-pops facing eviction are forced to pack up shop. In a few remorseful interviews, local butchers and bus mechanics lament their situation; they’ve either been priced out of the neighborhood or asked to leave by landlords making the switch from commercial to residential. Friedrich composes a sing-songy abecedarium of local industries pushed out, a sad ode to the neighborhood that once was.

Su Friedrich’s prior films have won many awards, ranging from Outstanding Documentary Award at Outfest and Best Narrative Film at the Athens International Film Festival to Grand Prix at the Melbourne Film Festival.


Anjali Cadambi 2013


Gut Renovation Trailer:

Film’s IMDb Page:

Film’s Page on Outcast Films:

Director’s Website:

Director’s IMDb Page:


[1] For Good or Bad, Watching Williamsburg’s Transformation –

[2] Gut Renovation – Movies – Film Forum

[3] ‘Gut Renovation,’ Su Friedrich’s Look at Gentrification –

[4] Gut Renovation Whines at Williamsburg’s Newer Residents – Movies – New York – Village Voice

[5] ‘Gut Renovation’ movie review –

[6] Su Friedrich on Gut Renovation | Filmmaker Magazine

[7] Gut Renovation – Pop Life | The Irish Times

When Mother Comes Home for Christmas

Country of Origin: ,
Running Time: 109 min

When Mother Comes Home For Christmas, directed by Nilita Vachani, follows the life of Josephine, a domestic worker in Greece, as she prepares to go to home for Christmas after eight years away from her family. Vachani films the personal moments of Josephine’s life, capturing her caring for Isadora, her young Greek charge, cleaning the windows of her employer’s home and packaging up all the gifts she’ll take back to Sri Lanka.

Josephine is one of many Sri Lankan women who migrate to Greece, Europe and the Middle East to perform care work, sending the money home that sustains their families. In the documentary, Vachani captures a workshop, run by the Sri Lankan bureau of employment, that trains women how to use blenders, microwaves and vacuums. The trainers also tell the women how to behave and to “Never let them think you are lazy.” The workshop even provides a section on training how to use a condom, specifically about getting protection from AIDS.

Sri Lanka is in the business of exporting domestic workers, as the statistics played across the screen (70% of women workers are in care work abroad) tell us. Even at the airport, as Josephine’s family waits for her to arrive, the radio plays a song that honors domestic workers, claiming “how lucky to work in a foreign land, lucky for government protection…I promise to return home with treasures for everyone.”

However, we also see the great cost of this migration. Scenes of Josephine helping Isadora get up in the morning are followed by a scene of Josephine’s son, Suminda, at his boarding school in Sri Lanka, getting up with a group of young boys, without any parental figures. The voiceovers of letters are perhaps the most painful, as we hear the short words between Josephine and her family. In one letter to Josephine’s sister, we learn that she has been caring for Josephine’s children, as Josephine apologizes for Suminda’s troublesome behavior and promises that she’ll buy something at the duty free on the way home.

The costs of migrant domestic work, the tensions and strains transnational families, and their hopes for the future are most strongly felt as Josephine returns to Sri Lanka for her month-long visit. We learn that she has earned enough money for her elder son to buy a bus and enough that she and the family can search for a house to buy. We also learn all the ways in which money is tied to tough family decisions, as her daughter prepares to get married and Josephine must negotiate with the groom’s family about a dowry.

Just as the film begins with long takes of the sea, sliding out from under a moving boat, Vachani ends the film with a long take of the ground, sliding out from under a moving train, as Josephine reads her first letter back to her children after her visit, expressing her regrets, her hopes for the future, as the train enters a tunnel and disappears from sight.


In Global Woman, by Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Hochschild, a description of When Mother Comes Home for Christmas is included in the introduction. They write, “For Josephine can either live with her children in desperate poverty or make money by living apart from them. Unlike her affluent First World employers, she cannot both live with her family and support it” (2).

Servants of Globalization: Women, Migration, and Domestic Work, Rhacel Salazar Parreñas

“Remittances: The Perpetual Migration Machine” Michele Wucker (2004)

Dreams of a Life (Dir: Carol Morley, 2011)

Filmmaker: Carol Morley
Year: 2011
Country of Origin: England
Running Time: 95 min

Promotional Poster,

Promotional Poster,

Carol Morley’s Dreams of a Life asks a question – “Would anyone miss you?” It is posed through the story of Joyce (Carol) Vincent, a 40-year-old, well-liked woman who died in her London flat in 2003, but whose body was not discovered for three entire years (by bill collectors, nonetheless). Almost completely disintegrated in the middle of her living room floor, Joyce Vincent’s only company was a television set that never turned off and half-wrapped Christmas presents for unknown recipients.

Framed primarily through interviews with people who knew Joyce Vincent in different capacities, and artistic re-imaginings of what Joyce Vincent may have been like (performed by British actress Zawe Ashton), Morley tries to piece together Joyce Vincent’s life and why, at the end of it, nobody knew that she was gone.

Dreams of a Life is a wonderful film for examining how staged dramatics can function within the realm of documentary film. Zawe Ashton transcends her role as an actress and becomes our conception of Joyce Vincent’s happiness, sadness, and the loneliness that underpinned her existence. The interview segments provide insight for framing Zawe’s actions, as people who knew Joyce Vincent in real-life remark at length about how beautiful, charming, and wonderful she was, but are completely at a loss for why nobody – themselves included – realized she was gone. The film is self-reflexive in this way, as Morley challenges the interviewees to understand why they failed Joyce Vincent. They are offered newspaper clippings and other material about Joyce Vincent’s life and death, and they react (usually with surprise) on camera. This eliminates the typical staginess of the documentary-interview, but is in direct contrast with how formally the interviewees are physically framed.

Dreams of a Life does not provide answers as much as it provides questions. It challenges the viewer to examine their own relationships with friends, family, and the world around them. It asks the viewer to explain why no one realized Joyce Vincent had disappeared. The haunting question that the film leaves viewers with is no longer “Would anyone miss you?” but “Why should anyone miss you?”