Whose Streets? opens in theaters August 11, perfectly timed with Kathryn Bigelow’s film Detroit as the two films address racial violence and police brutality. While Bigelow’s film depicts a conflict from 50 years ago, Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis’ film, Whose Streets? is a documentary, delving into the riots in Ferguson, MO following the murder of Michael Brown. Folayan and Davis take a close look at that fateful day and the aftermath from an insider’s perspective as they delve deeply into the media’s impact and the community at large while revealing the fact that we haven’t made much progress in racial relations, injustices, and overall perceptions.
Folayan, a former pre-med student in New York City, now a documentary filmmaker, talked with me about why she dropped her pre-med path to pursue filmmaking, her influences in life, and why she made this particular film.
Folayan had just taken the MCAT, a medical school entrance exam, and was set on a course to become a doctor, but as she said, “I was feeling frustrated, just feeling like I wasn’t able to express myself and…be able to interact with the things that mattered to me most, the things that were going on in the world.” Folayan was extremely vocal on social media platforms following the months after Brown was killed. The feedback she received was overwhelming. “I wanted to go there [St. Louis] to tell the story of what was going on.”
Over the next two years, Folayan and her team would travel to and from St. Louis numerous times, to film, document and survey the community members. Transitioning from pre-med student to filmmaker seemed an “organic transition” for her, she said.
Immediately, Folayan could see that the national media told one sensationalized story about the area while ignoring other vital aspects. “I felt like if they (the media) had gone and really asked the questions and tried to hold the officials accountable, or even really taken the time to really listen to community members, the story was there,” she said. “It was obviously on social media and…it was obvious to me that there was a different story.”
Creating a sense of trust in the community was vital for Folayan and her film team. With her photojournalist who was born, raised and currently living in St. Louis, the film finds an authentic and trustworthy voice. Folayan felt it truly helped to have someone on her team “…with a stake in the community.” She continued, “I think you would be surprised at how open people are. I think the trust issue only came about a couple of months into the conflict when people started to see themselves reflected on television interviews and …in newspapers in ways that they hadn’t articulated themselves…They [the media] would use their statement to highlight their ratings or sensationalize a violent protest or whatever the hot button buzzwords of the day were, but nobody was really using the people’s trust wisely.” This mistrust, she feels, created a rift between the media and the community. The fact that Folayan is a black woman helped in creating trust, but more importantly, the community saw these filmmakers repeatedly returning demonstrating their need to delve into the truth behind the story.
Integrating archival footage to tell this historical story in today’s hostile environment and how it relates to history, creates a deeper, more insightful film. With more than 30 archival sources, Folayan said, “We tried to find a way that we could pull this story, this moment into a larger context of history…to show that the more things change, the more they stay the same…it resonates with the experience of our ancestors and the history that this country has.” She continued, “I think for Black folks …we feel the progress or lack thereof. I think that if anything positive is to come out of this really crazy political moment that we’re in, I think it’s an opportunity for us all to really get on the same page about what’s going on…I think that people being awakened with films like I Am Not Your Negro, is an opportunity to really all be on the same page and take steps together that we can actually start solving these problems.”
Folayan, an avid reader, attributes much of her knowledge and drive to her mother. “My mom is the biggest inspiration that I have. She raised me…to know Black history, to know America’s history from a realistic way. She always encouraged me, told me I could do whatever I wanted to do.” Switching gears from potential medical student to creative filmmaker was a scary step for her. Folayan shared, “I didn’t know what she was going to think and if she was going to support me after pushing me to get through all this formal education. And she just stayed right on my side and continued to support me. I think that’s a testament to the power of women and the way that we support each other.”
Support is what Folayan and her team have felt from the moment Whose Streets? premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival on the opening night. “It was just an incredible honor, extremely humbling to have that experience.” She found the timing of the film to be just as incredible “…knowing that this was on the eve of the inauguration of Donald Trump. Also…as filmmakers, as artists, we were getting to show our film on a higher platform…just to have a message at a time like that and to have it received as artistry and not just as activism…we did put a lot of energy into making [the film] something creative and making it something that was honoring and pushing the craft of documentary [filmmaking].
Whose Streets? captures a time in history and the story behind it. It’s a powerful lesson in the strength, resilience, and love of community members as much as it is a story of the racial inequalities that still exist today...much like they did 50 and 100 years ago.
At the end of our conversation, I asked Folayan if there was any final message she would like to share. With an upbeat and excited voice she said, “Go to theaters and see it. Support this film, women filmmakers, black filmmakers, communities of color.”
Whose Streets? opens in theaters on August 11, 2017. For more information about this film, go to http://www.whosestreetsfilm.com
© Pamela Powell (8/7/17) FF2 Media
Photos: Riots in Ferguson, MO
Photo Credits: Autumn Lin Photography