Whose Streets? is a powerful documentary about the Ferguson, Missouri, uprising, as told by activists of the movement. An unarmed teenager named Michael Brown is killed by police and left in the street for hours in St. Louis, Missouri. Residentssuch as lesbian Brittany Farrellreact and protest along with people from around the country.
Filmmakers Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis chronicle the story. Folayan is the director and producer from South Central, LA; she has a history in theater and attended the Lee Strasberg Institute of Theatre and Film. Davis' background includes music, film and public art; he is the co-director and producer for Whose Streets?
Windy City Times: How did Whose Streets come together?
Sabaah Folayan: I was going to a school in New York when my friend was killed. I was going to apply to medical school and was deciding if this was what I wanted to do so I went to St. Louis.
I was getting a lot of feedback on social media for things I was posting. I thought it was something I should continue writing about. I wanted to add to the conversation and bring it back to my community.
Once we got the story, it organically started to form. We wanted to work with someone from the community. Damon already wanted to make a film. People connected us together.
Damon Davis: Now we are here.
WCT: When did you start on the project?
SF: December of 2014.
WCT: I read you have a permanent collection in the Smithsonian. That must be an honor.
DD: Yes. That actually happened during Ferguson. The pieces they took were around the protest and the movement.
WCT: Was this the first time you did a documentary, Damon?
DD: I did one prior to this, but it was not that good.
I won an Emmy for one that was done about me, but this was the first time of working with a co-director, with any budget, and making a full-fledged movie.
WCT: Where did the footage come from?
DD: We shot a lot of it.
We had an archival producer that was amazing, and also some community members got us footage, too.
SF: We shot most of it with over 30 archival sources used in the film. Our editor Christopher McNabb did a really great job of bringing all of that material from citizen journalists into a cohesive world to create a moment. It was a team effort.
A lot of local journalists who were on the ground there filming were able to help us, and share their footage with us as well.
WCT: What can you tell our readers about Whose Streets?
SF: They might come in with certain expectations about activists, but we really wanted to make this a work an art, something creative that got to the truth of the matter underneath the facts and journalistic reporting.
People should know that this film is meant to be a work of art. It is a tribute to Black people and Black resistance, really a representation of what St. Louis is likewhat the people of St. Louis lived through at that time, and what their truth was.
It is not an activist film, and not prescriptive. It is not telling anybody what to do, what to believe, or how to act. We are just offering people opportunities to see what this was really like for the people who lived it.
DD: I would like to add that we are showing the negative space that never gets seen when you look at activists. You see them activated, but you don't see them at home, and being human beings with their family.
We really worked hard to show the duality of being a Black person in America. The fact is most of us have to be activists because of our survival.
I think we worked really hard to show these people as human beings and not just caricatures of what people who are yelling in the street act like.
WCT: You chose to focus on a lesbian named Brittany Farrell in the storyline. Where did you find her?
SF: When people see the film, they can feel the energy and power she has coming through the screen. When we got out there she was one of the first people we approached just because of all of the energy around her.
I asked her, "What would you say to women that want to become activists and part of the movement? How do they find their place?" She said, "You don't wait for anyone to give you a place. You take your place."
That really changed my life personally just hearing that. I knew from the first interview that she was the person we needed to stick with.
Her relationship with Alexis Templeton just happened. Gay marriage was legalized while we were in production. They were some of the first people to take advantage of that in St. Louis.
WCT: They will always have that moment captured on film. Do you still keep in touch with Brittany?
DD: We both do.
WCT: What do you hope to accomplish with Whose Streets?
DD: For Black people, specifically, [the goal is for them] to see the majesty and beauty in themselves. I hope they see themselves represented in a holistic way, especially for those who are very active in this movement.
When you turn on the TV you only see yourself portrayed in one way usually. I think that is something both of us really wanted to capture, to show how beautiful, strong, and resilient Black people are every day.
There is normality in just being you. Everything is being emphasized with people being superhuman or subhuman, again there is a negative space, and a gray area with being a human being. I think we captured that at least a little bit.
SF: I hope the film can be as transformative to people to see it as the experience was. I think it has that power. I don't think so far we haven't seen people of color who have lived through these experiences in these towns who are activists and part of movements go through these things, and never see it represented. I think there is a catharsis when you see your own experience. We tried to make sense of that experience, and place it in the context of something positive and hopeful.
I think people who feel that they are outsiders, who didn't know this happened, and it is new to them, have a catharsis also. They can finally understand why people are so frustrated and where this energy is coming from.
What we see after the film is ended and after the Q&As is people are ready to act. They wanted to get involved and asked what to do. I don't have the answer to that question. That answer is different for everybody, depending on skills, and access. Asking that question is a really important step in society. I hope it continues to have that impact. I want people to see the power that nonfiction storytelling can have, how it can be viable and engaging. It can be consumed on a mainstream level just like narrative stories.
Whose Streets? will be released Friday, Aug. 11, at select theaters, including AMC River East, 322 East Illinois St. Go to WhoseStreets.com to sign up for the newsletter or to donate to the impact campaign.