‘Whose Streets?’ director Sabaah Folayan on Ferguson, activism, and learning filmmaking on the job

An interview for Omnified with filmmaker Sabaah Folayan, the director whose debut documentary "Whose Streets?" chronicled the events following the death of Mike Brown in Ferguson Missouri in 2014.

Photo by Jess Sweetman

 

A post for Omnified by Jess Sweetman

At 10 a.m. on a Wednesday, Kreuzberg buzzed with sleepy cinephiles, brought from various corners of the world to experience the Berlinale. Among the throng was filmmaker Sabaah Folayan.

Folayan had been in the city for five days as part of Berlinale Talents 2019, a series of workshops and events for up-and-coming filmmakers to network and hone their craft. I asked what she thought of Berlin so far.

“I find the city to be very well-organized, the tap water’s delicious, the people are blunt,” she said. “I like it.”

Folayan’s journey to filmmaking is an unconventional one. Raised by a single mom in South Central Los Angeles, she attended the prestigious Marlborough School by day, while still seeing firsthand the dire effects of poverty in her neighborhood. Aiming for a medical career, she graduated with a degree in biology from Columbia University, before her efforts at entering the field were frustrated by fruitless job searches. Eventually she moved into the nonprofit realm, heading toward public health.

It was around this time she became politicized. Folayan’s thinking? “I can’t fit into this structure, so I need to think about how is this structure set up….and why is it so frustrating?” So she began to share her views on social media.

The summer she graduated from college she saw increased violence in Palestine, which drew heated discussion around the world. “Seeing what was going on…that was my first experience as an adult witnessing…what the world really is,” Folayan said.

“It was really this activation for me like ‘oh, we all have to make things happen,’” she said. “So when Ferguson happened I was in that state of activation.”

On Aug. 9, 2014, the 18-year-old African-American Mike Brown was shot dead by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, prompting a wave of activism that sent ripples across the country. Folayan traveled to Ferguson with a friend, initially to undertake a public health survey exploring the mental health impacts of protesters and police squaring up in such a manner.

“When I got there with my little multiple choice questions about mood and anxiety, eating habits, it just wasn’t the time or the place for those kind of questions. I was with a friend from college, our plan was that I would write and he would take photos, and he ended up filming and I ended up asking questions,” Folayan said. “The first day that we filmed we just had this rush where we realized: We have to keep telling the story, we have to see this through, we have to bear witness to this.”

Folayan stayed, immersing herself in the local community, from which the documentary “Whose Streets?” was born.

 

“Whose Streets?” tells the story of Ferguson from the point of view of the protestors who amassed in the aftermath of Brown’s shooting. We see events unfold through mobile phone footage, both shaky and graphic, as fights erupt between an increasingly militarized police force and a shaken community, interspersed with interviews with community activists.

Folayan’s documentary also emphasizes the sharp contrast between the protester’s view of the happenings in Ferguson and the way events were portrayed by much of the American media, which often focused on violence and rioting.

“The media would stand behind the police, so they shared the police’s fear of these citizens,” Folayan said. “We were the only ones who’d be amongst the citizens actually filming toward the police.”

She added, “every night when the last news truck would leave, the police would escalate the violence against people. We were the only ones who stayed.”

Learning on the job, the film was self-financed for the first year, as Folayan drove back and forth between Ferguson and New York, sleeping on couches and learning the more technical aspects of filmmaking in various media labs, before finding enough funding and the support of the local community to see the project through.

As the theme of Berlinale Talents 2019 was “mistakes,” I asked for hers, and she said: “…trying to do absolutely everything. I didn’t really understand how to appreciate the power of collaboration and…it sort of ended up with me having way too much on my plate, feeling really burned out.”

How did she sustain herself, I asked. “It was just this sense that the people who we were filming were sacrificing so much more,” said Folayan. “There were points where I wanted to give up. I’d taken jobs and left weeks later to get one paycheck to put back into this film…[but] I just felt really connected to this sense of purpose. It’s only in hindsight I realized how insane what we were trying to do was…in the moment it was like we have to do this, it’s what has to be done.”

“Whose Streets?” goes beyond criticizing the authorities of Ferguson, or Missouri, also leveling criticism at the Obama administration and the President himself. At one point in the film we are shown Obama’s reaction to the sending in of the National Guard, in which he talks about the state of Missouri’s responsibility, coupled with narration from protesters pointing out that the president did not make a trip to Ferguson during that time.

The film was released at Sundance Film Festival in 2017 to a standing ovation. But the release came at a complicated time, with the first screening occurring the day after the inauguration of U.S. President Donald Trump. First came the Women’s March, then shortly afterwards headlines about the Muslim travel ban started to dominate the news cycle, and the political conversation continued to shift dramatically and quickly from then on. Folayan explained that the sudden change in political landscape made it difficult for people to digest criticism of the Obama administration.

“There had been, just that quickly, a complete amnesia about the last few years and all of the police violence that had been happening,” she said.

But despite this, she’s hopeful the film has a long shelf life.

“I still, to this day, am getting screening requests…it really makes me happy to know that underneath the noise there is an ongoing conversation that this film is a part of,” said Folayan.

Folayan is currently working on her next documentary, eyeing a release date of 2020 to commemorate 100 years of female suffrage in the U.S: “It’s about the…struggle for gender equality in America. I’m looking at intersectionality and the way that our inability as women to overcome racism and classism among our own ranks has prevented … any kind of cohesive forward [movement].”

“One of the things I’m working on with this film is how do we even reframe these conversations that feminism is a white women’s project?…Women of color, particularly women from the global South have been responsible, directly, for so many of the gains that all of us have benefitted from.”

Looking to 2020, I ask her about the upcoming U.S. presidential election and if it provides her any hope for political change: “I think we’re gonna continue to see climbing levels of engagement,” she said. “I’ve never really been one to be too invested in the federal election because America is a country of 50 states, each the size of a European country, so I really wish that people were more focused on their own local politics, because I think it has more bearing on the daily lives of people.”

Folayan is encouraged by activist women, citing the recent examples of Stacey Abrams and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez: “I think that as long as people who believe in justice continue to persevere, of course there’s hope…I don’t know how long it’s going to take…but we’re going to keep going.”

She also sees hope in the film industry, citing a renaissance of black filmmaking in the U.S., and perhaps a cinematic future featuring a more global focus: “I think it’s about time that America…lowers in prominence as far as its cultural production. I think there shouldn’t be a leader of the free world. That’s not a free world!”

 

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