Balance of power

Shatara Michelle Ford on marginalisation, Test Pattern and the importance of nuance

by Jennie Kermode

Test Pattern
Test Pattern

It’s a small film made on a small budget about an incident that rocks the lives of one woman and those closest to her, but Shatara Michelle Ford’s Test Pattern is making waves. After receiving rave reactions from critics, it’s finally getting a virtual cinema release in the US.

The film follows Renesha (Brittany S Hall), a black woman with a white boyfriend (Will Brill) who goes on a night out with a friend and is raped by another white man. The next day, her boyfriend drives her from one clinic to another in search of help, and their relationship gradually comes under strain. It’s a powerful piece of work, and I was delighted when Shatara agreed to discuss it.

I began our interview by noting that although I see a lot of films about rape, very few are so much from the perspective of the person that it actually happened to, and I like the fact that although there are other characters trying to take control of her narrative all the way through, Renesha always remains in control of the viewers’ perspective.

“That’s spot on,” says Shatara, and there’s a moment of silence in which I worry that I may inadvertently have killed the conversation, but she has no shortage of things to say.

“ I personally feel like, as an artist, I'm constantly in conversation with work that's come before me,” she says, “but also I'm determined to have a conversation with my audience. In a cultural moment. There were a lot of conversations in 2017. #MeToo hadn’t really kicked off yet, at least in that iteration, but we were talking about, you know, consent, and what that actually means. We were talking a lot about bodily autonomy, and how women's bodies in particular looked under threat in Trump's America, and we had just elected a sexual predator. There were already tons of flash points in 2016 and 2017, that were addressing those particular issues. And I was pretty frustrated that for the most part, it lacked a lot of nuance.

“I think that as a culture, we really struggle with both/and, which means that we sit within the world of either/or, and that has this need for extremes. But it also leaves a lot of room for cognitive dissonance. And I don't think that you can really solve problems that way. Cognitive dissonance doesn't allow for actual introspection, and necessary criticism, of your own behaviour and the structures that are around you. So yeah, that's right. It was by design. I think also as a marginalised person - I am a marginalised person who spends a lot of time with dominant culture, which is effectively straight white men - I find constantly my personhood, my being, my existence, being relegated to the sidelines, or ignored or negated, constantly.

“So I wanted to express that idea, within cinema, the best I could, that the film feels the way it does at this point of view. Because I, you know, I made the film effectively by myself, with self financing, tons of debt, and, you know, bits and pieces of money here and there from friends and associates who believed in me, so therefore, I had no prevailing executive influence telling me what I could and couldn't do. And I think that quite often film suffers for a lack of freedom of expression. Especially when it comes to, again, being a marginalised person, I don't expect for straight white men with the privilege of education and money to fully understand my view. So why are they telling me what I should and shouldn't do?”

That's what's interesting about the central relationship, I suggest. Because there is that power imbalance, and maybe there's a difficulty in communication as well. And maybe neither of them has thought about it all that much until suddenly they're in that situation, and it's a problem that they didn't realise was there between them.

“I'm in an interracial relationship so these types of relationships are interesting to me,” she says. “But I think also, I'm somebody who, as an artist, is very focused on power. And I think that power is easily wielded and abused when we don't talk about the imbalances that exist within relationships. I think in interracial relationships, especially when it's a white person with a non-white person, there's always inherently a power imbalance. And I think, you know, as much as we like to think that we are beyond race, and we live in a colourblind society where power is in everyone's hands, and there's rainbows, the truth is, there's always a power imbalance that must absolutely be recognised. We have to work to equalise or have the space in which two people or more are engaging, it needs to be equitable.”

It is, she acknowledges, difficult to get funding for films which cover ground like this.

“We're in this terrible struggle of expression versus commercial. And who gets to decide what is commercial? We have gatekeepers, who occupy certain identities, which is overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly elite educated, overwhelmingly wealthy, privileged, they have a very specific experience. And if anything comes through their filter that they don't resonate with, that they don't understand, they think it's wrong, or that it's not going to sell or that, you know, it’s confusing. So therefore they throw it in the trash, or they give you a shit ton of notes that effectively makes it palatable to them.

“So I actually think that the majority of work that is by non-white, non-straight non-males still encapsulates what they find, you know, digestible, and I think that marginalised filmmakers are constantly stuck in a loop of trying to figure out what someone's going to be okay with. I catch myself doing that, sometimes. It happened with Test Pattern. I was like, God who's ever going to give me money? They didn't. Because they're not going to understand what I'm trying to say.”

That reminds me of a scene part way through in which the boyfriend decides they should speak to the police, I say. It just doesn’t occur to him that from Renesha’s perspective, that might not be a good idea.

“Absolutely. I think we all come at this film with our own particular ideology and politics, surrounding gender, sex, power, race, class, all of these things. And on top of that, you know, there are folks who believe that the system is working or not. So the point is that it's just holding a mirror to the audience and kind of showing them where they're at. And in the places where they're rubbing up against what they don't understand, what they're confused by, what frustrates them, maybe this is the thing that gets them to consider another perspective, or at least check in with themselves, you know, ultimately where they're at and how they feel about it.

“I'm not interested in teaching white people anything, but I am very interested in interrogating. And in terms of this film, what I was hoping to remind all white people - because there's a whole bunch of 'good white people', people who think that they're good - who also have like a whole bunch of work to do, and like, none of you are doing it right. But always be doing it. You will have blind spots. But that's what makes us human, the reminder that we all have faults, that we all have differing levels of ability, and that we all have blind spots. And my hope as a person in general, is that we can spend some more time doing our own personal critical introspection.”

I also find it interesting that for much of the film, Renesha hasn't really got time to sort out her own thoughts, because she's busy having other people's thoughts imposed on her and trying to work around all of that. And it seems like maybe there's a stage at which she thinks she's more okay than she really is. And it's when she gets a moment on her own later on, and has the chance to be a bit more introspective, that we see that catch up with her.

Shatara nods. “And I think, you know, as it relates to all folks who have experience of anything on the spectrum of sexual assault, that's how it goes. We have this traumatic experience. And again, as we understand assault, it is a spectrum. At the lowest level, it's a slight bodily violation or a touch, you know, like harassment. If you pull it all the way to the extreme, there’s rape, and there's so much in between. All of it is not okay., right? But there are degrees. And so the response that you have is also, it's all not okay, it's all not good, your body doesn't like it. But it varies in how to respond to it.

“And so for someone like Renesha, experiencing what she experiences, there's a lot of grey area maybe, for her, where in our culture, also, because we spend too much time on the extremes, we don't know how to talk about this stuff, and we don't have the tools for it. So what that does to a victim of that kind of assault is that it leaves them experiencing a lot of blame, self blame, and self criticism. And society reinforces that stuff. Right?

“So she's worried about what everyone else thinks, how everyone else feels, and how she has to manage that stuff, which is a very common experience for marginalised women, queer people, people of colour, absolutely. Always having to navigate the feelings of others - on top of that, specifically as it relates to rape. Because we're so conditioned to blame ourselves first, we have to go through the process of like, what can I share before we even do the next thing? And that's the part that I think is so tragic about our experience and the narratives around our experience.

“You know, I have a lot of people who read the script when I was asking people for money, even some people who were already working with me would be like, ‘Well, you know, I think the police should go do something.’ Yeah, I think they should too, but that's not the story. ‘Well, you know, I think I think it would feel better if they found the guy, or she marched into that station and she demanded some justice.’ Oh my God. I bet that would feel good, but it’s not this movie, because that is not what happens to most people. So, as you know, as media makers, we are slightly responsible for this lack of nuance that we have in this conversation, because we invest too much in this or spend too much time dabbling in things that make us feel better. And again, as an artist, I really am not worried about people's comfort, I'm worried about, you know...”

...them actually getting something out of it?

“Yeah.”

I ask of that’s why she chose to move Renesha away from the idea of the perfect victim, to have her drink and take drugs before the rape happens, because it’s important to show that what happens to her is wrong regardless of that.

“Exactly. And you know, it was very interesting to listen to some folks who've seen it and didn't think what happened to Renesha actually happened. She was dancing with him, you know, she did drink a lot. And I think also, there's an interesting trick that people do in their brain. And I left this vague on purpose, but she wasn't drugged. She took a weed gummy. It was more than probably than she needed. And it affected her ability to walk straight out of the room. You know what I mean? Like, and that's her choice, she can drink as much as she wants. She can dress however she wants, she can dance with whomever she wants. She can laugh at whoever's jokes if she wants. It does not mean that therefore she deserves to be raped.”

Test Pattern opens on Kino Marquee on 19 February.

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