Shatara Michelle Ford could not have made their first film without their filmmaking community, in addition to the sustained support and encouragement from members of their chosen family. Test Pattern—which is now available on Kino Now and Kino Lorber home video—showcases the precision and uncompromising vision of a director confident in their craft. With a sensitivity to the power dynamics that permeate both everyday life and moments of crisis, the film charts one woman’s experience of sexual assault and her attempts to obtain a rape kit test through a process that denies her dignity at every turn. Ford’s depiction of the oppressive system the protagonist is forced to move through was informed by an understanding of the elements that make a tense drama like this work: narrative, performance, and the weight of the unsaid. In a recent conversation, the director spoke with me about a film whose exploration of American toxicity has been a source of inspiration through the years. This article is edited together from our talk. —Andrew Chan
I come from a film-loving family. We lived in the suburbs of St. Louis, and as early as I can remember, we had a Friday night ritual of going to some basic chain restaurant and then to a nearby AMC to catch whatever it was our parents wanted to see. My parents were our curators, our programmers, as they didn’t want to pay for a babysitter, which meant my sister and I saw all kinds of stuff, whether we wanted to or not. Outside of our Friday night tradition, there were weekend afternoons and evenings, and the occasional weeknight, when they had something in the VCR from Blockbuster or were watching New Hollywood films that would play on cable. These were the movies my parents grew up with, and they were the ones that I responded to the most. Even if I didn’t understand what was in front of me at the time, I was drawn to something in them that expressed a cultural angst and often spoke to being an alienated, marginalized person.
I know Midnight Cowboy played in my house at some point during my childhood in the nineties, but all I remember is that I wasn’t allowed in the room while my parents were watching it. When I got to college, I was finally able to identify this movie that had always been such a mystery to me. I didn’t expect to relate so much to these white men, or to feel so deeply for them. As a culture, we’re conditioned to expect white men on the fringes of American society to be angry about it, like Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. But these men aren’t that at all. As devastating as it becomes, Midnight Cowboy is also a wonderful embrace of tenderness, and an exploration of unavoidable vulnerability that conflicts with the confines of masculinity. Its vision of community struck me.Midnight Cowboy is a movie about two hustlers. Joe (Jon Voight) has moved to New York City to pursue his dreams of being a stud who caters to high-class clients, but he realizes after he’s scammed out of twenty bucks by a Park Avenue woman that he could use some management. A grifter named Rico (Dustin Hoffman) claims he can help, but ultimately Joe just gets scammed again, in a traumatic way. Some months pass and the two bump into each other, and shortly after that they start living together in a dingy, disgusting apartment. Rico has set up the whole situation because he’s lonely and desperate for any kind of human connection, and he’ll get it by any means necessary. And Joe falls for it because he’s looking for stability. He’s crestfallen when he first sees that apartment, not because he’d expected anything different but because he suddenly realizes what Rico is going through. Joe is a compassionate person, and he softens in that moment. I also think he realizes he’s safe, a feeling he hasn’t felt in some time, which allows him to fall asleep immediately in Rico’s presence.