Grit is everything. Pursuing filmmaking is tough — but when you’re pursuing films that are about social justice, it’s even tougher. I have done quite well at points during my career doing publicity filming for mainstream movies and working on TV shows as a camera operator and editor. But when it comes to the projects that I’ve done that have to do with social justice, it’s extremely difficult. In my case, it is sheer determination and grit — and the desire to tell stories that have social relevance — that have helped me to bring those projects to completion. Meaning you have to be internally motivated because the external motivations (for example, money) may not be there.
As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing Kevin Ford.
Kevin Ford is a filmmaker whose directorial work includes The Bomb, which premiered at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival and was also featured at the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize Ceremonies. Ford also co-produced, shot and edited American Chaos, distributed theatrically by Sony Pictures Classics.
Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?
My story is pretty straight forward. As a child in the 80’s I was lucky enough to get my hands on a VHS video camera through my Aunt. She and my Uncle were brave souls who let my friends and I experiment with it. I was instantly drawn to this idea of capturing life, playing it back, editing it, and entertaining myself and others in the process. From that place of pure fun, a curiosity took root that turned into seriously studying the process. In High School my Mom introduced me to a gentleman named Paul Moeller who ran the local public access television station in our community. Paul was amazing. He took me under his wing and taught me many fundamentals about video production. I never stopped learning and experimenting as I went on to Los Angeles and later, New York City. I consider myself a lifelong student of filmmaking.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?
I don’t know if this is funny… it’s certainly interesting, and memorable. In 1999 I was on assignment as a Director of Photography on my first political documentary, The Party’s Over, with Philip Seymour Hoffman. We were filming at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, and every step of it was just odd. At one point he and I got locked in little back room in the wings of the arena we were in, where the convention was happening. And it was just Phil, me, several secret service agents, and a golf cart driver carrying President George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush on back. His son, George W., was on stage accepting the nomination, and Phil and I were trying to beat the crowd and get out a little bit early. I guess as G.W. Bush was exiting the stage they locked the whole arena down. So, there we were, side by side, stuck in silence just all staring at each other in this little side room. Phil nudged me in the ribs as if to indicate, “film this” and unfortunately the battery on the camera was dead! It was just one of those surreal moments though that gets burned into your brain forever. At another point, outside of the convention hall, I was trying to get a shot of some Police marching down the street, and they must have thought I was a protestor, and I ended up in a choke hold. I don’t know how the hell I wiggled out of it, but I got free and ran away. Phil and the crew were nearby and got it on film, and it ended up in the final edit. The final bit of this RNC fever dream was later that night, we were all heading into a fundraiser hosted by Michael J Fox, and I was literally yanked out of the red-carpet entrance area — pulled from the group I was with — by the Police! Again, maybe they thought I was an infiltrator or something? I screamed out “Phil!!!! Help!!!!” And there’s this amazing image I have in my memory of Phil running over and yelling at the Police to let me go. He saved my ass. For the rest of the convention the crew decided to dress me up in George W. Bush shirts, hats, and buttons — and I didn’t have any more problems.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
This journey of filmmaking has certainly put me in contact with some amazing people, some of the great artists of our time. I already mentioned Philip Seymour Hoffman, and we were in the trenches of that pivotal 1999 election. For me that was a lifelong memory and impactful experience. Earlier in my career my friend Carter and I got to make a feature documentary on a national tour with the rock band Jane’s Addiction — that was 1997. As a young man swept up in the world of Rock n’ Roll, I made a lot of mistakes, but it also taught me so much about celebrity, fame, perception, and creative drive. Jane’s Addiction was quite literally a force of nature. I also got to work abroad on a movie called The Brothers Bloom, and that was another amazing adventure. I formed working relationships with Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody — but beyond that, I feel like I also got to know them as artists. It was incredible. Seeing them work was like having a front row seat to the greatest theater performance. Rachel Weisz was also in that film. Such strong actors. We traveled across Europe and every bit of it was a growth experience for me personally and also professionaly. Later I got to work with Brody in upstate New York on a documentary project that we made which spanned six years. My wife Emily Barclay Ford is awesome, and we’ve been making films together since 2014, culminating with our new documentary The Pushback. And through her I’ve had the great fortune of meeting, working with, and forming connections with Robert Downey Jr. and Susan Downey. All of these folks are just the tip of the iceberg in an amazing career full of ups and downs. In some ways I feel like I’m still just getting started.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Presently in 2020 I’m very excited about embarking on a new creative adventure with one of my oldest collaborators, Eddie Steeples. At the start of the year we got together and put our minds on something big that we could work on together as screenwriters, and we came up with an action-sci-fi-comedy which also has major undertones dealing with the present social unrest, and it also deals with some of the racial division we’re experiencing in the United States. Interestingly, even though our script is a work of fiction, certain things in it are directly inspired by experiences I witnessed and filmed first-hand while making The Pushback — especially what I saw in terms of migrant detention camps on the border between Texas and Mexico.
Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?
Since I was a teenager, I’ve been drawn to political figures who also embody a balance of heart, soul, and intellect. The most blaring example I can say is Malcolm X. To me he embodies everything that we can think of in terms of personal evolution. When you study his life story, and look at his childhood, how it formed him, and the challenges he faced as a teenager and young adult, on through his self-education and transformation, his conversion to Islam… And how he ultimately transcended the group he became famous for being a part of, The Nation of Islam, and went on to renounce some of his previously held beliefs about race. By the end of his life — which was cut way too short by an assassin — in many ways he was just beginning. Or at least he was at the start of something totally new. Unfortunately for us we never got to see where that would have taken him. But the reason his story inspires me is that it shows that no matter who we are or what situation we find ourselves in, we are capable of radical transformation.
Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?
Well I mentioned my latest film, The Pushback, which showcases progressive voices over two years battling systemic racism in Texas. I absolutely love the film, and I am so proud of the work. In the process of making it I came across incredible people — new politicians, volunteers, activists, artists, lawyers, ministers, ranchers, even a former Border Patrol agent — all of whom inspired me through their stories. So that film has taught me a lot, but I also hope it shines a light on the social justice causes happening in Texas. In addition to that film, presently I’m involved with a very exciting environmental initiative called The Footprint Coalition, spearheaded by Robert Downey Jr. There’s a whole team (including my wife, but so many others also) and I’m just one part of it, but it’s meaningful to have a chance to contribute my filmmaking skills to a project that highlights the importance of protecting our environment and conserving our planet’s resources. I’m a lifelong lover of nature and working on this project is allowing me to blend two of my passions — filmmaking and caring for our environment.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?
I’ve cared about human rights since I was a teenager, and over the years I’ve drawn upon that for inspiration in my creative work. One of the first times I consciously decided to use my creative skills on a project for a cause was in 1999. A young man, 24 years old, was gunned down by Police in New York. His name was Amadou Diallo. He was unarmed, had committed no crimes, and was trying to cooperate with Police who had stopped him and asked to see his I.D. According to them, he fit the description of someone they were looking for. He was at the front door of his apartment building, returning home. When he went to comply, to show them his I.D., the four plainclothes officers unloaded — they shot him 41 times at point blank range. The whole city was in shock. I was also 24 at the time, and I couldn’t comprehend how this young man’s life had just been erased and nothing was being done about it. I decided to take my camera downtown and I filmed a series of protests and rallies, led by Reverend Al Sharpton. The resulting film, Amadou, was the result. There was another distinct moment in 2018 when a light bulb clicked on and I thought “I need to do something creative to shine a light on this.” And it was when the news reports began coming out so widely about what was happening with family separation at our Southern border in the United States. I was working in England at the time on a Hollywood movie project, as part of the film crew. And some of my English co-workers asked me what I thought about the “kids in cages” and I remember doing a bit of a double-take, and thinking, “what?” I had been unplugged from the news at that point, to be honest. I went back to my apartment after work that day and did some searching around on the internet and read more about what was happening at home with the Trump Administration and the “Zero Tolerance” policies. I called my wife Emily who was still back home in the States, and we talked. I told her when I got back home to the USA, I felt like I needed to grab a camera and go down there to document what was happening. Not that I thought that was going to change anything — I just had an honest desire to understand the situation better, to learn first-hand, not just from the news media. I thought maybe I could meet people from different sides of the issue. Long story short, about six months later I looked up — and realized that I was doing just that. I had dived head-first into making the documentary The Pushback.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
I have tried to use my filmmaking skills to help out different causes. And sometimes along the way there have been opportunities to help out on a cause that I previously knew nothing about. Such was the case when I had the opportunity to make a video with Robert Downey Jr. with a young boy named Aaron Hunter, from Scotland. Aaron is amazing! He has been battling a rare disease called ROHHAD for years and basically Aaron has dedicated his life to making people aware of the disease, and to raise funding for research to try to find a cure. The video we made together was a big help at one point in raising money for ROHHAD research — but it was also a very special experience for Aaron himself, who was able to spend time with Downey in the process, who was an idol of his. Aaron’s parents made it clear that what we were doing was going to become an incredible life memory that he would always cherish. Honestly, it was one of the most touching projects I’ve ever had a chance to be a part of.
Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?
For this question, I’d jump back into talking about The Pushback. With that project we are trying to bring awareness to the importance of civic engagement in our democracy, which improves society, and informs or even changes the face of our government. We must be involved in our democracy, it’s our duty. And what’s amazing — and what I show in the film — is that everyone can find their own unique way to contribute. To start, however, register to vote, and then show up and vote. That’s what individuals can do. On a societal level, we can promote the importance of civic engagement. In our film I’m trying to show that participating in our democracy is cool — and can even be fun. It’s also very important because if you don’t participate, a small minority of people end up wielding all of the power and using it to keep you down. On a government level, we should be doing everything we can to provide safe, robust voting protocols. That includes stopping any and all foreign interference in our elections, but also protecting mail in ballots, improving access to polling centers, and things of that nature. And we need to pass legislation that eliminates voter suppression once and for all!
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Most people won’t help you, and that’s normal. On my most recent film, The Pushback, I can’t tell you how many different people along the way feigned interest in helping us but then at the last second turned their backs. I’m thinking of people who were going to help us financially, for example. And at a point I had a false sense of security about their help, so I relaxed. One person seemed to align with our film and its message and strung us along for months. In that time, I felt so relieved, not only to have the help potentially — but that someone believed in us. When they suddenly backed out, I had wasted months not looking at other possibilities. In the end, thankfully, another person came through and helped. But more people turned their backs on us than helped us, and in the end, my wife Emily and I funded the lion’s share of our film. Had I known that from the start, it would have been a very different experience.
- The term “starving artist” is literal. I learned that the hard way, especially in the mid-90’s as a twenty-something artist in New York, when I was still finding my footing as a professional filmmaker. I lived on one-dollar slices of cheese pizza and bagels, quite literally. And handouts from my good friend Carter! I had always heard the term “starving artist” and thought it was more of a metaphor. But no, there’s a moment when you’re trying to transition from novice, or apprentice, or student to full-on professional where it’s very difficult. I literally slept on a mattress I pulled off the street. Hard to believe, but true. I’ll never forget when I finally started getting solid gigs and was able to buy myself a real mattress! If you truly can’t see any other path than being an artist, and you’re willing to struggle to get to your goal, then I say go for it. But know that you really might have to starve a little — or a lot — along the way. Care packages from family members (like ones I got from my Grandma and Mom) can help to ease the pain.
- Grit is everything. Pursuing filmmaking is tough — but when you’re pursuing films that are about social justice, it’s even tougher. I have done quite well at points during my career doing publicity filming for mainstream movies and working on TV shows as a camera operator and editor. But when it comes to the projects that I’ve done that have to do with social justice, it’s extremely difficult. In my case, it is sheer determination and grit — and the desire to tell stories that have social relevance — that have helped me to bring those projects to completion. Meaning you have to be internally motivated because the external motivations (for example, money) may not be there.
- Friendships matter. I can count on two hands the friends that really have been there for me through thick and thin. There are people that I can count on when things get tough — and many of them are not even people who are in my same business. Meaning, they have nothing to do with filmmaking. These friends (and family members) are my rock. Honestly, I’d call them secret weapons. Through the turbulence of my journey in this career in the entertainment business, these friends have kept me grounded. I would tell someone going in to this business, hold on to your true friends. You will need them along the way.
- Don’t choose work over friends and family, if you can help it. In the world of film and TV there is always a pressure to “go go go,” and sometimes it can feel like there is a nonstop pressure to choose work over everything else. I have friends who have missed out on precious life moments and regret it. What I can tell you now — after 25 years — is that the things I remember most — and cherish most — are the times spent with loved ones. Making it to that wedding, or reunion, or birthday celebration mean more than certain projects that I slaved away on, and barely even remember now. Obviously making deadlines is important and you can’t be there for every single thing, but if you can help it, always try to put life experiences with loved ones over your career.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
This planet is all we have. And it is not ours alone. We share this planet with every other single lifeform. We need to respect that, it’s our duty. If we destroy the planet, we destroy ourselves, and every other lifeform. To me, respecting the environment, other species, and each other is all really the same thing — it’s the only thing! To honor this gift of life that we have been given should be our number one priority. I fear that it’s not, and so I am dedicated to trying to wake up other humans to the importance of making a positive impact — and one way to help people to wake up is through images, sounds, and storytelling.
We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
Easy. Chuck D. I have so much respect for the man. First of all, in 1987 I was given a cassette tape by my older brother — “Yo! Bum Rush The Show” by Public Enemy. I’m not sure if it was that tape, or their following one, “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” where I first heard the name “Malcolm X” in a lyric. But I looked up that name in an encyclopedia and a whole world opened up. Next thing I know I was led to The Autobiography of Malcolm X. And the learning never stopped. Chuck’s music did that! It wasn’t just good, it was relevant. It was informing. In 1994 I had a chance run-in with Chuck D after one of his shows, and it was like a dream come true. He invited me back to their tour bus and talked to my friend and I for a long time about racism, life, philosophy, and education. He was so gracious. He’d just performed an entire concert and yet he took the time to chill out on the bus and talk about all of this stuff with me. I’ll never forget it. I remember asking him, “Chuck, I know my skin is White. But inside I’m a spirit, and I’m sure that my spirit is raceless and sexless. So isn’t that who I really am?” Chuck thought about it and answered thoughtfully. He acknowledged my idealistic sentiment, and yet also encouraged me to remember that here on this Earth, in this body, when other human beings saw me they see my skin color first and judge me accordingly. So even though “inside” I might be raceless and sexless, “outside” there is no escaping the fact that I’m a white male. I’m obviously paraphrasing, but you get the point. What he said meant I couldn’t deny my white privilege. After that talk, Chuck gave me a cassette tape of some unreleased songs, and I really felt honored. Over the years I have always appreciated Chuck’s new music, and yet here in the madness of 2020, when Public Enemy just released a new album called “What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down?” I was especially fired up. He has literally never stopped speaking truth to power, and this album is their strongest yet. So yeah, I’ve worked with some pretty amazing people, but I’d absolutely love to collaborate with Chuck D on something, because in my opinion, I owe so much to him and his music.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite quote would have to be this, “Love is always engendered by spirit.” That’s a Malcolm X quote. Love is not some cheesy thing on a greeting card. Love is our strongest weapon in the fight for social and racial justice. It’s a powerful force, as deep and strong as nature itself. And when you get to the root of love, you find spirit. And what leads to hate and division in my opinion is the lack of spirit, or people being cut off from their spirits. In my work, including my latest film The Pushback, I make an effort to bypass people’s minds and speak directly to their spirits with my filmmaking. That’s what I get from that quote.
How can our readers follow you online?
My main website with all my work is www.kevinfordmedia.com and I do an okay job of keeping everything there. I have links to my films, as well as a gallery of my more experimental works embedded as well. I also have a link to my passion project, Freekradio, which is an online radio station I’ve been running off and on since 2003! Other than that my new film, The Pushback, is out now, and the website for that is really cool, and it’s www.thepushbackfilm.com.
This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!