Shatara Michelle Ford is a Black American filmmaker born in rural Arkansas and raised in St. Louis, Missouri. Their work explores class, power, womanhood, identity, memory, perception, and race. Her script “Queen Elizabeth” was featured on the 2017 Black List. “Test Pattern” is their debut feature.
“Test Pattern” is opening in virtual cinemas through Kino Marquee starting February 19 and will be screening at the Athena Film Festival, which runs online from March 1-31.
W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.
SMF: “Test Pattern” is the story of a Black woman whose volition is denied — sometimes through neglect, sometimes through coercion.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
SMF: I’m very interested in examining systems and public policy from individual and specific experiences. Moreover, the power dynamics within Renesha and Evan’s relationship are quite emblematic of where we are as a society when it comes to issues of race, class, gender, and bodily autonomy.
W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?
SMF: How America consistently fails Black women, and how we are all complicit in upholding toxic masculinity.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
SMF: When you do not come from any kind of wealth and you’re racking up personal debt on a film you’ve decided to make — with no guarantee of distribution or a return on your investment — there’s a lot of added, unnecessary pressure put on to you.
Sometimes it’s hard to focus on a scene when you’re hyper-aware of how your money is being spent. I would shudder when I’d observe any sort of waste or imprudent action! It’s also so hard to make decisions with a clear head, especially as I had a running tab going for what each decision would cost me, and specially if I got it wrong.
I was a shell of a person by the end of it, but you know what? I’d do it again if I absolutely had to. With pleasure. I’d do it because sometimes that’s the only way it will get done. I guess that’s why people say don’t spend your own money on making movies. I disagree. Do it, but with your eyes open.
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.
SMF: Multiple credit cards, a bank loan, a family loan, $1k investments from friends, donations, and reward points from credit cards.
Three years later, my producer and I are still paying down debt!
W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
SMF: I’m not really sure anymore. All I know is that after exploring academia, journalism, and public policy, filmmaking was the only thing that truly fit.
W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?
SMF: Best advice: Meditate.
Worst: Pitch things that are easy for people to say yes to.
W&H: What advice do you have for other directors?
SMF: The advice I would give to non-white cis straight male identifying first-time feature directors is to have the first film you make be one that means something to you, and give yourself as many prep and shooting days as possible to do it justice.
Everyone tries to steal shooting days from first-time filmmakers. I’m not here for it.
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
SMF: That’s too hard to answer definitively, but I finally got to see Miranda July’s “Kajillionaire.” I love how everyone’s body moved. I love how she experiments. I love how she’s able to mix lightness with darkness, coping mechanisms with quirk, dysfunction with beauty, abandonment with community — and the queerness, the alienation [of it all]. It stuck with me.
Also, for the umpteen time I watched Claire Denis’ “35 Shots of Rum,” a film that I find so lovely and beautiful and simple and lived in. I just like being there — even with the sadness, there’s also tenderness.
W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?
SMF: I’m primarily focused on taking care of myself and others, especially the most vulnerable around me. We are in the midst of absolute chaos, which has only exacerbated our deeply inequitable state of being, which was truly never acceptable. So much loss and devastation. So much pain.
I’m invested in ensuring that the needs of Black folks are met, so we can all have a chance to do what we want to do with our lives.
W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?
SMF: The question is kinda regressive, but nonetheless it persists because the problem persists, and I find it utterly pathetic — and unsurprising — that we are still here talking about it. Truth is, the whole thing has to be torn up. We have to be willing to imagine something completely different.
It will be uncomfortable, especially for white people and cis men, as they will have to be okay with giving up space and centering other people besides themselves. That means you hire them even if they don’t remind you of you. Fund it even if you don’t get it. Program it even if it doesn’t “resonate with you.” You create a structure that centers our most vulnerable and marginalized, where they are the priority.
Want to see a diversity of ideas and experience? Deliberately fund and program things that do not have anything to do with you, have not been vetted by the usual suspects, and trust the artist. For everyone else, we gotta stop caring about what white people will “get” or “understand.” Make what speaks to you, even when it’s hard.
Meanwhile, we have to take care and surround ourselves with a solid community of advocates, co-conspirators, and collaborators.