In the now perpetual state of tension that engulfs this country, it’s easy to forget recent events that have been crucial in the fight against the systemic oppression of American people of color.
Alongside other key recent battles such as Standing Rock, the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri became a landmark in the unmasking of the so-called post-racial America those who benefit from privilege want to present. When the events in Missouri unraveled, filmmaker Sabaah Folayan was on the ground, and with the help of local artist and co-director Damon Davis, she made it her mission to document the riots from the point of view of the community—instead of one concerned with preserving the status quo.
The resulting documentary, Whose Streets?, is a raw and vital look at a group of people coming together to protest injustice after the authorities failed to indict the police officer who killed Brown, an unarmed teenager. His death at the hands of law enforcement was not an anomaly; it was just another part of the long trail of grave offenses toward African Americans that stretches far back into the history of the United States. The footage Folayan and Davis captured is an intense portrait of frustration, perseverance and fearlessness. It also reveals the hypocritical divide in the receptions faced by peaceful protest by people of color on the one hand, and White supremacists marching down a college campus on the other.
The interview took place prior to the incidents in Charlottesville, Virginia, but in light of those abhorrent events, the relevance of Folayan and Davis’ film magnifies immeasurably. “Urgent” doesn’t cut it—this is required viewing for any American, especially those who still don’t quite grasp why the Black Lives Matter movement exists at all. MovieMaker talked with Whose Streets?‘s co-directors (whom we also named 2017 Sundance Film Festival Breakthroughs back in January) about being witnesses to history as it unfolded before them, and about constructing a finite narrative from an ongoing fight.
Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): I understand that initially Sabbah wanted to create a written piece. What was the film’s inception and how did it evolve from your original intentions?
Sabaah Folayan (SF): I initially wanted to do a public health study. I was going to write about the impact of trauma on the people in the [Ferguson] community, from facing off with the police every day. But when I got there, I realized it wasn’t the right environment to have that kind of conversation. It was too chaotic to collect that kind of information, so my DP and I started asking questions and rolling. The first scene that you see in the film is actually the first interview, where we switched from taking photos to filming.
MM: At what point did you and Damon join forces to create this film?
SF: We were in touch for a while before we started working together. Damon is a very well-respected artist in St. Louis, and we were looking for a local collaborator, just so that we could make sure the film was being respectful and was really honoring the people who were there. People kept recommending Damon to us. I think it took us until December 2014 to actually connect, and then starting that January we were working together.
MM: What do you feel each of you brought to the project? How did that collaboration work throughout the process of making this film?
Damon Davis (DD): I think we both brought different viewpoints of how to tell this story. The collaboration took place through both of us throwing ideas and truly listening to each other, and listening to the community: getting across the humanity of these people, but at the same time knowing that we were making a historical document too, so it was about both of those things. At different times, both of us handled those two different things. At certain points in the collaboration, I was really pushing the human aspect, and keeping us on track. I think, in my opinion, this is one of the best collaborations I’ve been in. Just having somebody else there to keep [each other] in check and keep us moving, and bounce stuff off each other.
MM: Why do you think there’s such a divide between the real stories at the community level and the narrative told in the media at the time?
SF: From my perspective, the media’s number-one interest was to get a story that would be captivating, that would be engaging, that would be shocking, so they really focused on all of the sensationalist aspects of what was going on. Beneath that sensationalism was the desire to maintain the status quo at all cost. For a lot of people, law and order comes above actual justice, and as long as everyone’s quiet and no one’s in the streets, that’s all people seem to prioritize. For this community, that was no longer acceptable. It reached a tipping point where there couldn’t be any peace if they didn’t get justice, and so people taking to the streets was a gut reaction. I don’t think the mainstream media was really receptive to the emotion and the analysis that people had when they took on this protest.
DD: I agree with that. I also think it was very hard for people coming in to understand the context before the situation. They needed to have the context of what this was, and the conditions that created this, so it was very convoluted or very distilled. It was very hard to get the full idea of “why” and “when” and “where,” through the quick media-cycle tidbits that were coming out.
MM: When you’re documenting something that’s happening in real time, where there’s not a finite story, how do you know when to end it?
SF: That was a really interesting challenge. I think we realized early on that this was going to be a problem, because we had all of these different variables. We had followed several people, and the big event was whether or not Darren Wilson would be indicted, but from a story perspective, almost nobody on the ground believed he would be indicted.
There was actually this moment when they were holding a workshop to plan for this, and someone asked, “What if he is indicted?” and everyone laughed. We had this anti-climax that we all saw coming, but it wasn’t really enough to satisfy this narrative, so we ended up staying for over a year after that decision came down. It was really just about weaving together both an intimate story and showing people’s personal transformations over that time, and also just tying to get a bit of the picture of what it was like to be a part of this movement.
I think one of the phrases we had throughout the edit was “settling into a struggle.” How did people go from reacting to being proactive and organizing? How did people go from survival mode to making this a way of life? It was a very organic process, trusting and hoping along the way that we would capture the moments that would make a story, but I also have to completely commend my editor Chris McNabb, who really tracked and organized and pulled out the most important moments of the story to create something cohesive out of this collage of footage.
MM: Of course, one of the big variables in the divide between your film and mainstream media is that usually people of color are not allowed to tell their stories. Whose Streets? entirely emanates from the community.
DD: Definitely. That was one of the main things for us: keeping the community as the focal point, and also having the community who was there while the story was happening. It’s very hard to contextualize all of the nuances that were specific to the place and specific to the people we were talking about. We both were against the idea of parachuting in, getting the story and then leaving. That’s what we brought to the documentary. A lot of people who do documentaries are not from the communities they cover, and the biggest thing is accountability. You have to see these people again every day, and have to be accountable and have answers to your reasons. That applies to a lot of other stuff I’ve seen.
SF: The opportunity to tell this story and to bring this story out on a national stage is really important, because there’s this idea that, as people of color, we’re too emotional or too close to the situation to be able to analyze our own situation in any useful way. We’re trying to offer a perspective that hasn’t been seen. A lot of people ask the question about balance: “Why didn’t you show the police and why didn’t you show the other side?” Our argument is that we’re putting this film out on the heels of when the event happened. You can see the other side all over the news every single day. You can see how they respond to this issue that keeps happening over and over. We really wanted to show the side that you don’t see.
MM: The chants are vital to the protests and in turn to the film. These phrases encompass the struggle at hand. Tell me about your approach of using them as a significant storytelling device.
SF: That was something that was very organic. We were coming up with titles, and it was a long evolution, but that was one of the first ones we landed on and we kind of circled back to it. We wanted to make sure that everything about the film was taking its leap from the people on the ground, so it would be the most authentic. As far as the chants, I think there’s something so beautiful about that feeling when you’re in a group of people and you’re chanting and you’re making a rhythm. I think it’s something that’s really powerful. I think it’s something that people of color have, it’s part of our legacy, and whenever we do come together you see us creating rhythm and doing chants and making music and using that to connect to one another. It was a very spiritual and emotional experience, and it was only natural that it would shine through in the film. It gave it a really natural rhythm, which caused us to decide to use a minimal score because we felt there was a certain music built into it.
MM: Your film is about to come out on the heels of President Donald Trump making jokes about police brutality. How can this country grapple with demons that are now vocalized and encouraged by someone in power?
SF: Obviously it’s godawful, but I think that there’s something relieving about having these people come out in broad daylight and say what they mean, because if you were there in Ferguson, [you’d know] they really feel this way, and their superiors feel this way, and it’s the culture. Now that it’s coming out on a public stage, I really hope that those people who have been on the fence and waiting to hear the other side can understand that this is the other side is, and can really make some choices about where they want to stand and how they want to act.
DD: I’m not at all surprised by the comments of the president. I’ve been watching him for quite something, long before he was a president, and I couldn’t care less what these people think. Even the people on the fence, they know what they think, and I just think it’s time for the U.S. to get out of denial and just deal with its crimes, and hopefully this movie can help people do that. MM
Whose Streets? opened in theaters August 11, 2017, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.