Sabaah Folayan Shows the Power of Trust in Documentaries

On this day in 2017, Whose Streets?, an impactful documentary about the Ferguson uprising, was released in theaters. This film was created by the incomparable Sabaah Folayan.

Sabaah Folayan is an American documentary filmmaker and activist. Sabaah’s path to filmmaking and education, while unconventional, informed her work in a unique way. Growing up in South Central Los Angeles, and then attending a private middle school, Sabaah witnessed firsthand the stark contrast between those growing up in poverty and those growing up with privilege. Sabaah then attended Columbia University, where she received her degree in Biology. On her website, Sabaah describes her transition from bio major to filmmaker: “the desire to work at a larger scale evolved into a unique storytelling practice that is informed by principles of behavioral science and social justice.”

Sabaah’s debut feature film was Whose Streets? which debuted at Sundance Film Festival in 2017. The film stems from her experiences traveling to Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, just after the police killing of Michael Brown. She originally intended to document the uprisings through written journalism, but upon realizing that the truth about Ferguson was being misrepresented in the media, she opted for the longer-form medium of a documentary.

What set Sabaah’s interviews for Whose Streets? apart from the interviews conducted by (mostly white) interviewers in mainstream media was a sense of trust between her and her subjects (the protesters and citizens of Ferguson). 

In a conversation with FF2 contributor Pamela Powell, Sabaah discussed this sense of trust: “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.” With Sabaah, however, the people of Ferguson saw her coming back again and again to capture the whole story, so they gave it to her, without fear of being misrepresented. 

Sabaah also used over thirty archival sources to integrate and connect pieces of history to the current moment, further adding to the impact of her film. As she puts it, “[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.”

Sabaah’s next film was the 2022 documentary Look At Me, about the life and death of the rapper and singer Jahseh Dwayne Ricardo Onfroy, known as XXXTentacion. As with Whose Streets?, Sabaah does not shy away from the full scope of the story in Look At Me

Exploring the nuances of Jahseh’s life, the film includes archival footage from his last years, as well as interviews with his close friends and family and rappers from his hip-hop collective. However, it also includes interviews with Jahseh’s ex-girlfriend, Geneva Ayala, who had accused him of domestic abuse and was awaiting her trial when he passed away. Though Sabaah is not shown in the film, her presence is clear, as she once again opens up a safe and trusting space to tell Jahseh’s story in its entirety. 

Beyond filmmaking, Sabaah is an activist. She was one of the lead organizers of the New York City Millions March, the 2014 demonstration in protest of the murder of Eric Garner. Sabaah used the invaluable knowledge of organizing she received in Ferguson to take on the New York City Millions March. Attendance was in the tens of thousands. 

Sabaah’s commitment to forming connections with her subjects, gaining their trust, and telling the whole and true story is not only admirable but necessary. Sabaah has touched the lives of many people and made a true difference in the most important areas of our society. 

© Julia Lasker (8/11/2023) FF2 Media


Read Pamela Powell’s interview with Sabaah about Whose Streets? here.

Learn more about Sabaah here.

Watch Whose Streets? here.

Watch Look At Me here.

Tags: Black female filmmaker, Black filmmaker, Eric Garner, Ferguson, Look at Me, Michael Brown, New York City Millions March, Sabaah Folayan, Whose Streets?, XXXTentacion

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As an associate for FF2 Media, Julia writes reviews and features for films made by women. She is currently a senior at Barnard College studying Psychology. Outside of FF2, her interests include acting, creative writing, thrift shopping, crafting, and making and eating baked goods. Julia has been at FF2 for almost 4 years, and loves the company and its mission dearly.
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