Sundance Winner Brett Story, Oscar-Nominated Yance Ford Talk ‘Union,’ Netflix’s ‘Power,’ Capitalism, Race at CPH:DOX Panel

Coming straight from Sundance with their respective buzzy docs “Power” – a Netflix Original – and “Union,” U.S. director/producer Yance Ford and his Canadian counterpart Brett Story delivered March 20 an empowering talk at Copenhagen’s “Film:makers in Dialogue” session, where they bounced ideas between each other about power structure in American society, capitalism, race and class divides from historical and contemporary perspectives.

Power,” which was competing at CPH:DOX for the Human Rights Award, is a forceful documentary essay on the origin of U.S. policing spanning 300 years, turning on its dynamics and impact on American society. “I’m interested in U.S. institutions, power, control in our society,” said Ford about his sophomore feature and follow up to his Academy Award-nominated “Strong Island,” acquired by Netflix for global distribution in 2017.

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“After the George Floyd murder [in 2020], I saw the way the police was acting with unfiltered violence towards people protesting, and decided to step back. I started to ask basic questions such as what is the function of police, who are they there for, who do they police and why.”

To dig deep into the system of control from a historical perspective, and demonstrate that race and class-biased attitude from law enforcement forces in the U.S. has spiralled out of control, the filmmaker used an impressive wealth of interviews with academics, activists and archive materials.

“We brought in archivist Jillian Bergman early in the process,” Ford explained to the CPH:DOX audience. “She came to my office in Queens [N.Y.] where I had like 100 cards on the wall with plot points, questions. From there came conversations about themes. I also encouraged Jillian not to restrict herself to representation, to be experimental. I spent tons of hours to look at archive footage with her.”

Asked by Story to expand on some of the themes in his documentary such as property, Ford said this concept goes back to “the pre-history” of policing. “Although we usually associate police with fighting crime, originally it was about maintaining social order, protecting property. In the film, through various rebellions in time, we see people in communities, turning to destruction of property as a way to show political discontent. Property became a through line in the film, asking the audience what it means to be unruly. Then I found interesting to ponder on the notion of people as property that needs to be regulated.”

For Ford, pushing back the narrative engrained in people’s psyche of police power being synonymous to heroism and great sacrifice, and related mostly to combatting crime, was crucial.

Engaged further in the discussion with Story about race as socially constructed, and layers of whiteness among immigrants, being used to further split communities and gain control, Ford said: “I am from Long Island in New York where Irish culture is embedded to the NYPD. For me, one of the most fascinating aspects [in the filmmaking process] was to learn that for some Irish people, to be white [and therefore in power], they had to be involved in the suppression of other communities. And that happened fast. Policing was the way to whiteness.”

Asked about the financing and distribution of “Power,” Ford said: “I pitched the film to Netflix. It was then greenlit and financed by them. We are now organizing community screenings for an impact campaign.  All you need is a Netflix account to get community involved. I will forever be grateful to Lisa Nishimura [former Netflix top executive]. The film wouldn’t exist if she hadn’t said yes,” Ford insisted.

Equally thought-provoking and engaging in its depiction of power dynamics, “Union” was showcased at CPH:DOX in the F:ACT competition strand after its successful world premiere in Sundance where it scooped a Special Jury Award for the Art of Change.

The verité doc co-directed by Story (“The Prison in Twelve Landscapes,” “The Hottest August”) and Stephen Maing (“Crime + Punishment,” “The Surrender”) looks at the complexity of labor organizing, through an intimate portrait of a group of current and former Amazon workers in New York City’s Staten Island, as they take on a David vs. Goliath fight against the powerful corporation and try to unionize. The film spotlights in particular the American Labor Union’s boss Chris Smalls.

Story (picked as one of Variety’s top 10 documentarists to watch in 2019) said she and Maing started working on the pic in 2020. “We knew it would be a long and unlikely struggle, but I was more interested in capturing the intimate moments within the group of people, spending time together, than if they would succeed or not in their fight to unionize.”

Asked by Ford to comment on the tension which gradually builds within the group, Story said this was at the heart of the film. Beyond the portrait of workers fighting against big corporations, on a deeper level, her intention was to explore group dynamics, the individuals’ commitment to each other and to the cause, as a way to combat despair and frailty.

Probed as well by Ford about “Union’s” critique of capitalism, Story said her body of work is about exploring “what makes structures visible, using film to depict how we exist in a constructed world, which can be antagonistic.”

“In this film,” she continues, “capitalism is ambient everywhere but it is best described in the metaphoric image of the cargo ship, carrying trillions of goods in the port, then into trucks, and millions of workers beeping in [at an Amazon warehouse], being told what to do and being alienated.”

The pic was produced by Main, Story with Samantha Curley and Mars Verrone for Level Ground Productions. Submarine Entertainment is co-sales rep with Anonymous Content.

“Union” received support from several philanthropic institutions and funds including Field of Vision, the Ford Foundation, IDA, Catapult Film Fund, Chicken & Egg Pictures, and the Sundance Institute. “These funds are crucial for non-fiction films to exist,” said Story, who is hoping for her film to attract distributors. “It belongs in the theaters, where people can share the space and engage in conversations,” she said.

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