Interview: Shatara Michelle Ford on Breaking Out of the Status Quo with “Test Pattern”

Shatara Michelle Ford had the perfect needle drop in mind for the surreal experience of waiting around in health department office to engage in a sexual assault forensic exam, the collection of evidence that is known as a rape kit. For Renesha (Brittany S. Hall), a Black woman still not entirely sure what happened to her the night before but more certain of what would happen if she reports the crime, as her well-meaning boyfriend Evan (Will Brill) insists, the strains of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” begin to ricochet around her head, an elegant composition for the ballet surely at odds with the trauma she’s experiencing yet perfectly in tune with the absurdity of the situation as she sees no choice but to surrender, with the intricate design of the classical music reminding with each note that she’s got to be nothing less than graceful herself in a system that wasn’t designed for her. However, as the counterintuitive choice, it wasn’t the safe one.

“In a lot of the earlier cuts, people didn’t get it,” says Ford. “I was worried about that and I was also encouraged to shorten it, but I wouldn’t because there was a point to it. If it weren’t my debt for the majority of the bill, I would feel like I owed other people that, which is why I’m so okay with the fact that it was my debt.”

To make “Test Pattern,” Ford knew that they would be navigating a system every bit as resistant to them as the one Renesha has to endure, opting to use a pristine credit score from paying off student loans to finance the film through credit cards and the money they had set aside with their partner to buy a home. What Ford built instead is a powerhouse, a frisky drama set in Austin, Texas where Renesha would appear to live comfortably in the progressive city, rising steadily in her career and no one seeming to look askance at her relationship with the caucasian tattoo artist Evan. However, that all changes when her friend Amber (Gail Bean) invites her out for drinks and the next thing Renesha knows is she’s in the waiting room at Rodgers Hill Medical Center, setting the stage for a number of confrontations with how the system works for people of her disposition that she had been careful to avoid in the years prior.

A story engaged so heavily in the minutiae of bureaucratic process wouldn’t seem to be all that cinematic, but Ford tells it with distinction in “Test Pattern,” inventively using chronology and the length of scenes as a measure of memory and consciousness for Renesha as she begins questioning everything, particularly her relationship to Evan, who is adamant in driving her from one office to another in an effort to right a wrong yet fails to understand that the set of laws that exist for him is quite different than the ones for her. An exhausting day for Renesha in which everything that should be working for her seems to actively have the opposite effect becomes energizing from an exciting new voice such as Ford’s and with “Test Pattern” now arriving in virtual cinemas after collecting awards from a festival run that began at the New Orleans and Blackstar Film Festivals, the director talked about how their own perspective helped shape the film but also allowed it to flourish in the hands of a talented cast, setting the film in Austin and making such a big bet on themselves.

When it’s a systemic issue like this, is it a challenge to create a story around it?

I have a background in political science and sociology, so 10 or 12 years ago, I was on a track to do that [as a career] somehow, whether it was work in public policy or be a lawyer, but then I fully committed myself to film, which is the thing I love to do more than anything.. But what stayed with me is that I think it’s really important to talk about the structural and systemic issues that keep non-white, non-straight, non-male people in positions of subordination and oppression.So when I look at any problem — and that includes rape kits, toxic masculinity, rape culture, patriarchy, white supremacy, —I think about the structures that uphold them and the humans that are affected by it. I’m constantly thinking about the people who have to navigate that shit all damn day.

So I saw a movie in the experience of trying to get a thing that until 2017 I didn’t even know was a thing, which is a rape kit. And the more I learned about rape kits, the more I realized that a lot of people have never heard of them or have struggled to find them when they need them or get charged for them when they shouldn’t be or are turned away when the administrator for it isn’t present. The questions I had, which turned into a film, is what does that look like when we incorporate the intersecting identities of blackness, Americanness and womanness in a state where the policies are not the most lenient or supportive of bodily autonomy and women’s sexual protection. That has a historic tension with black people, and I couldn’t help but make a movie where if I was going to center a black woman, which I was absolutely going to do and will forever do, there are consistent truths if it’s the most liberal city in the country or the most conservative, which is that the system doesn’t work for us and that makes a lot of things more difficult.

It also means that we don’t put faith into the same things as everyone else, so I thought about myself. If something like this happened to me in the state of Missouri, [where] I’m originally from, would I call the police? Hell no. And there’s many things I could cite for why. And would I trust that I will get the things that I need? Absolutely not. I’m also in an interracial relationship – I’m married to a white British guy, who for the most part understands because he’s not from here, so therefore he has no skin in the game. But because the system works for him, there are moments where he’s more trusting of an institution than he should be when I’m involved, so I’ve experienced that tension before of someone insisting that I engage with something that I find completely futile and then I go through it and it’s traumatic and it adds to my stress and my pain.

As you say, this story could unfortunately take place in anywhere in the country, but as someone who went to school in Austin, it was remarkable that you nailed the great cultural dichotomy there where it seems quite progressive on the surface, but you find the limits of that when you have any encounters with bureaucracy. How did that come about as a setting?

I grew up in St. Louis, and it has a lot of similarities with Austin. I enjoy Austin as a city to visit. It has great food, I like the weather, and it’s also filmmaker-friendly. Because I knew I was going to be making this movie on my own with no kind of institutional support and very little real money, I better be in a place that likes indie filmmaking, so the city of Austin was easy to navigate. But it’s ironic that the most progressive city in the state is named after a slave owner, a notorious one and people seem fine with that. I think also Austin is dealing with a very serious gentrification problem, which is pushing out all of their black and brown folks. There are still black and brown folks there, but the historic communities there are being uprooted, especially in East Austin where this movie is mainly set, so that’s something that I wanted to comment on too and I think it adds to the compound identities and navigation that Renesha in particular has to do.

Was the structure of this difficult to crack? It’s brilliant in how you spend time to develop the relationship and how it changes after the assault.

Weirdly that came pretty naturally because I think there were two things going on in the film that I wanted to address. One was the actual events of the assault itself and the aftermath, and then tracking the progression or — depending on what you think happens at the end — result of this relationship, and they’re actually on two different timelines. There’s a point where they run into each other, but then I have a couple flashbacks sandwiched in the third act, [which] is related to Renesha processing of this person who she’s decided to partner with. In the moments that those two events happened, she read it one way. After being dragged around for a whole day against her will, she’s thinking about those two particular incidents differently.

So my editors and I did talk a lot about where [the flashbacks] should go. We always knew they weren’t going to be in order. But we were waiting to figure out the right emotional beat in time [given] what we had with where they should be placed. In earlier cuts, the BBQ scene [where Renesha feels uncomfortable when Evan runs late] actually happened much earlier in the film and it was a last minute decision when we realized that there was just a little bit of information that we’re missing. The development of Renesha and Evan’s relationship is sweet enough, but [there was a question of] why him and why would she tolerate this person now in the present day, and I think that BBQ scene is so indicative of something that should be happening and did happen, but doesn’t happen anymore, which is Renesha and Evan had a disagreement, she felt uncomfortable and that she wasn’t being heard and Evan recognized that, he called himself out for it, he held himself accountable and he apologized. The trip around the city [after the assault] was very similar to feel not being heard and feeling very frustrated, even though she was expressing that quite a lot.

I understand it was a 35-page script, which was designed specifically to invite the actors in to make it their own to a degree. Were there directions this took you weren’t expecting?

Yeah, my absolute favorite thing as a director is being surprised by actors and I try to set up my whole thing to make that happen. What I loved the most was the scene when Evan and Renesha are going to bed after that hellacious day and honestly, it was like three lines in the script. But it was one of the most palpable and powerful scenes to be on set for. It wasn’t written that way at all, but they found that. They met each other in this moment and they stretched this three sentence thing to 12 minutes or something like that, which is insane, but also correct. And what I said to them ultimately is “There’s a point A and a point B, but I don’t care how long it takes you to get there. You draw the map. But I’ve shown you where A and B are. Go for it.” And it was really, really wonderful.

When you make this big bet on yourself and it pays off like this has, what’s it like getting to the finish line with it?

It’s weird because I made this movie almost three years ago. There was a heavy burden — I convinced a lot of people to fly to Austin and take a risk on something that didn’t seem conventional or commercial, so I felt very guilty, like oh God, I’ve done this crazy narcissistic endeavor and it’s never going to see the light of day. I just feel so much relief and pride for it to now have a proper audience and I hope that the folks that took a chance on me feel like it was worth it.

“Test Pattern” opens on February 19th via Kino Marquee, supporting your local arthouse.

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