Before the world premiere of Whose Streets, co-director Sabaah Folayan spoke directly to the audience, “To the people of color I hope you see yourself. I hope you see your glory.” Her documentary, filmed during the protests that erupted in Ferguson, Missouri after the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, evolved from her desire to give the movement a voice.
Sabaah didn’t start out with a movie in mind. Together with her friend Lucas Alvarado Farrar, a photographer, she set out to document what the news was ignoring. The plan was that she would write and he would take pictures. But as mainstream media outlets filed reports of riots and looting, Sabaah and Lucas joined up with Damon Davis – a local artist – and began filming what they saw. Lucas turned from still photographer to cinematographer, while Sabaah and Damon became co-directors. Chris Renteria, a photographer based in St Louis, Missouri, came on as a Co-Producer.
Together this multicultural team zeroed in on the activists working behind-the-scenes of Ferguson’s moment in the national spotlight. Whose Streets is a snapshot of a moment in time, a profile of the people who turned their anger into a mighty political force. It goes beyond the often superficial reporting done about Black Lives Matter and draws an intimate portrait of what it’s like to be black in small-town America. It holds their struggles up to the light and gives us a peek inside. Through carefully selected images from social media and those captured by their own camera, one experiences the utter grief felt after constantly burying loved ones, the furious rage that swells when the killers remain free, and the constant humiliation endured under a police force that terrorizes innocent bystanders.
Right when it all feels like too much, those moments of glory that Sabaah referenced in her introduction to the film’s premiere emerge. The resilience of their protagonists is what saves the audience from complete despair. Whose Streets proves that fighting for one’s own liberation is the single most empowering act a human can choose. It teaches us that triumph can rise up from the ashes of turning rage and grief into action.
Right after it screened at the Sundance Film Festival, we sat down to talk with the filmmakers who captured the urgent and striking images in Whose Streets. Here are highlights from our discussion.
UPDATE 5/29/2020: Whose Streets is available to stream on Hulu
On the Collaborative Nature of the Film
Sabaah: I feel like I’m standing with a lot of people on my shoulders and behind my back who decided to take a chance on this film. Who decided to take a chance on me! At different points in my life whose couches I’ve slept on, whose money I borrowed, whose food I ate, inspiration I got. Who have never gotten an opportunity like this in a dreamy mountain that looks like a snow globe.
This film was the effort of a lot of people. Dan and I worked side by side, it would be nothing without our collaboration. Our editor Chris McNabb. I think that what he did with archival footage and with social media footage has not been done in a documentary that I’ve seen. My producer Jennifer MacArthur who’s just taught me the definition of “handling business!” Chris Renteria, from St Louis rounded and took our team at a really fragile moment before a lot of people knew about it, and helped us go to the next level. Our director of photography whose work will soon blow your mind, put his body on the line in ways that I couldn’t even do. I don’t know how you pull focus on a tear gas canister with no gas mask—I don’t know how that’s done.
On Feeling Pulled Towards Ferguson
Sabaah: I really felt I had to go stand with these people. Lucas had some friends who were organizing a community service trip. It was really funny because they didn’t want to go to the protests: they wanted to go be helpful, but only do food drives, or voter registration and things that they considered to be “safe.” So we would do all these things all day and then take the car at night to go to the protests.
At first Lucas was taking photos and I was writing, pitching to various outlets. I wrote this piece called “5 Things You Don’t Know About Ferguson” and it was all about how it’s a tiny place. It’s not a city. And how much love was happening in the movement. But there was no way this bullet-point article was going to do justice to what I was trying to say, so we started rolling and asking questions. And from there we realized we had to get connected with people in Ferguson, just trying to be in the community. It’s one of the principles of the movement: honoring community leadership. We were hearing that loud and clear, and we knew the only way to do this project was to do it in collaboration with people from St. Louis, who understand that place.
Damon’s name just kept coming up over and over. We met him at the show he had curated, and that was the moment when I knew that this was someone I wanted to work with, just his aesthetic, knowing that he would be able to bring the creative element that we needed. We also knew we didn’t want to make a message/issue film. A big part of this movement is our style, our swagger, our culture.
On People Coming Together in a Way that Felt Magical
“There are plenty of moments that were extremely emotional, difficult to shoot. The camera’s a strange disconnect. It’s a great tool but it also builds a wall between you being a human and the person that you’re shooting.”
Chris: I’ll be honest, when I first showed up [at Ferguson] there were a lot of question marks. As a photojournalist when I hit the ground—and that’s the hat that I was wearing—it didn’t take long for me to wake up, as they say. And see what was happening. A lot of this process was pretty seamless. There was no crazy thing that just happened. It was just like how when the Bat-signal goes up and everyone just shows up. It was just that. It was something really magical and special. People who don’t fit in certain spaces, or holes or squares—everybody just knew exactly where they went.
On Documenting Systemic Problems
Sabaah: This was not a film about law enforcement. This was a film about the experience of living under heavy militarization in St Louis. So a person who is critical of that may need to see another film about law enforcement.
Damon: I want to add that I have people in law enforcement in my family, so keep it clear that this is a systematic thing. There’s black people and there’s white people, but it’s systematic. And everybody is as part of the system, just as much as you are, just as much as I am. So when people put on the uniform they make a choice. I think people need to to acknowledge that, that people make choices in life and that doesn’t mean that we hate the people. We don’t like the system and the way the system treats the people. The thing is, some people are targeted. Some people can’t walk through their neighborhoods. Some people are always under siege, so that’s what I hope comes across.
On the Emotional Power of Turning the Camera On and Off
Lucas: It was difficult on a number of different levels. Both from the sense of respecting people and their space. Knowing when to not shoot something and to turn the camera off. When to just be human and witness, even if that means we’re missing amazing moments for the film. And just the day to day, of getting up and realizing that every moment we were there was a piece of a long history of oppression. And having to be in the middle of that while being truthful to that without exploiting it. There are plenty of moments that were extremely emotional, difficult to shoot, period. Just being in a space where people are opening up so raw. The camera’s a strange disconnect. It’s a great tool but it also builds a wall between you being a human and the person that you’re shooting.
On Why Social Media Activism Was Vital to This Story
“The same mechanisms that are used in the U.S. are used to oppress people in Central America, in Mexico, in South America, in Africa, in Asia. The issues of colorism, of state oppression and use of force… I saw that growing up and I saw that when I went to Ferguson.”
Sabaah: So the social media piece was very important to me personally, because it was how I first was plugged in to this whole situation. I was working at a nonprofit and I was giving myself some time before considering pursuing medical school. I took the MCAT and I’m like, you’ve got 3 years and if not, you’re going to med school.
I’m sure we’ve all been privy to conversations about, are we doing anything with our social media activism? But the thing is, a really rich network emerged out of social media and out of Twitter. It was this disembodied voice and that was a reinforcing factor on the ground, knowing that even if the people immediately surrounding us were not supporting what we were doing, or were in fact armed against us, there was this voice that was supportive and that gave the sense that this movement was going.
But not only that but the citizen journalist and the work that Christopher did to weave that citizen journalism into a coherent story. You know, we spoke to the mayor, we spoke to the city planner. We chose not to use those because there was something that we felt was so much richer, much more alive in this archive of citizen journalism and tweets and commentary.
On Seeing Beyond This as a Local Story
Lucas: I’ve grown up in a place of resistance. My father’s family is from Honduras. He’s always been very intentional about making me aware about my family history. We go back all the time. And seeing the lineage of oppression that’s happened all over Latin America, just resonated very clearly with me to the struggle of black Americans in the United States. There are so many similarities. It’s the same mechanisms that are used to oppress people in the U.S., that are used to oppress people in Central America, in Mexico, in South America, in Africa, in Asia… everywhere! So the issues of colorism, of state oppression and use of force, they’re similar. I saw that growing up and I saw that when I went to Ferguson.
On the Emotional Toll Of Filming Whose Streets
Lucas: The highway shutdown was probably the most emotionally and physically demanding scene to shoot. It was this hot August day. We were doing something that you knew could potentially get arrested for—many people did get arrested. Police were out body-slamming people on the highway, snatching people up, cornering people.
The non-indictment—shooting it—was very surreal. It didn’t feel like my feet were on the ground. It was incredible tunnel vision. Like, you hear the words Bob McCulloch is saying, you know, disavowing the humanity of an entire community, and you just laser in: I can’t believe we’re here at this point. In some respects it’s so obvious. It was coming the whole time. I don’t think anyone had the sense that there was going to be an indictment. It wasn’t a surprise, but at the same time it’s so disgusting. You just lose that sense of being aware of what’s around you and you’re just there, in that moment.
On Feeling a Responsibility to the Ferguson Community
Damon: One of the toughest moments for me is that we personally have not unpacked the things that we have gone through. An overarching thing that I have had to struggle with from the beginning is that this is my home. It’s where I’m from. When we’re in the editing room, asking like what do we show, consciously thinking what we would put out, being very conscious of that line of being an audience but also being the subject, or of being really close to the subjects in the film. I kept thinking about my community, what is this going to do for my community? That’s the toughest day-to-day battle.
On Why There’s No Art Without Politics
Lucas: There’s no piece [of art] that speaks so widely to so many people without having a sense of history in place. There’s like gaudy art or audacious pieces that people say are so sensational, but those fade with time. The pieces that really stick with people are the ones that have an infusion of history and story. And truth to it. If it’s just about you being famous or about building your wealth or your career—people see that. They can feel it. They tend to just be a fad or a trend. There’s no art without politics.