When the citizens of Ferguson, Missouri took to the streets to protest the slaying of Michael Brown in 2014, writer and director Sabaah Folayan was watching the news. On the night of August 9, Brown was shot and killed by a police officer. Folayan went down to Ferguson wanting to help, but once she arrived there, she discovered there was a bigger story to tell.
Damon Davis, a local artist and activist, was simultaneously putting cultural events together, telling the story through a public art installation. Davis and Folayan met for the first time, connecting over their need to explore the multi-faceted events.
Whose Streets does not simply recount tales of people recollecting memories about Ferguson. Instead, Folayan and Davis take us down into the streets of of the area, making use of social media, telling the story of voices we haven’t heard, fleshing out the human reaction of various residents of Ferguson — a nurse, a couple, a father, and others. I spoke to the filmmakers about their raw, heartbreaking and emotional documentary.
When you film a documentary like this, how much footage did you have and where do you start?
Sabaah: We had over three hundred hours of footage and hundreds of archival footage to go through. It was an organic process. We went to Google and social media. We’d go on Instagram and seek out the moments that were going to be impactful.
Our editor, Chris McNabb did a great job of creating a sense of physical space out of these clips from people who might have been at the same event capturing these Vines and Instagram posts. It was tough to weave through, and our first assembly was 14 hours long.
How did the collaboration happen?
Damon: I’m from St. Louis so I was there when the protests started. I became active and go involved in protesting, but also tried to organize through arts on a cultural level. I got pulled in early and that’s what I was doing the bulk of the time in between the initial incident and the night of the indictment.
I was also organizing events around Ferguson, putting together a photographic exhibition, a retrospect on the first two weeks of the protest, and Sabaah and Lucas Alvarado-Farrar who is our creative producer and cinematographer came along and that was the first time I met them.
From that point on we were talking about wanting to do a movie. So, I had no footage and wanted to do a movie, and they had stuff. We grew up in the same respect and the more we talked, the more we learned we had a lot in common.
We started our first shoot at the beginning of 2015 and that’s when we joined forces.
Sabaah: That’s how it happened.
When I was watching the news, it showed the event from the outside in, with Whose Streets you do it from the inside out. Talk about what you wanted to show and how you were able to get down to the heart of this?
Sabaah: For me, that was the main goal. I was in New York when Michael Brown was killed and like you, I was watching the news, seeing how it played out on social media.
What was intuitive to me was that what we saw playing out on the news, was not encompassing the whole story. Just because I’m black and I’ve grown up here, so I know how these stories go. What I saw on the streets were people who were mourning and grieving and really upset. Everything I heard was buzzwords such as “protesters” and “looters” and “rioters” and no one was interested in examining the humanity of people who were a part of this.
I really wanted to get down to that. I got there and we rolled organically and it was always about trying to get to the human side of the story.
You see that with the people you feature in the documentary. How do you earn trust?
Sabaah: It’s about consistency. We were out there day after day. At first, they were weary, but as they continued to see us, they saw that we were invested. We were still there after the news trucks had left.
Once we teamed up with Damon, it broke down a lot of barriers. They’re neighbors and they wake up and they can feel and touch him. It felt like we had an accountability to the community where people parachuted in, took their stories, and left.
How important was social media in putting it all together?
Sabaah: I wanted to do a matrix-style rendering of what social media would be if it were a physical place and we scaled it back to the simple tweets.
Social media was this virtual community with an emphasis on the community because people were taking on these actions in a really hostile territory as far as the city itself. I think social media was really important in letting the people of St. Louis know that they were not alone.
When people in St. Louis recognized that people were watching, it really upped the stakes and made this feel like a moment where possible change could come about.
Damon: With landscape in general, it was going to be hard to create a representation of what actually happened without everyone talking about social media. It’s the single greatest tool we have to communicate with each other. Communication is on another level, and I don’t think the powers that be expected that.
How hard was the emotional pull for you? How did you know when to keep the cameras rolling and when to stop?
Damon: I had a lot of stuff I hadn’t dealt with. Sabaah and I were running a million miles a minute and we were looking at it over and over keeps you in a constant state of not actually being able to heal, it was like an open wound.
The pull was really great. Without a partner in crime, I don’t think I would have been able to finish it, especially in the time allotted.
What was the most demanding scene to shoot?
Sabaah: The march was hard to shoot. We had two cameras running audio and sound. We were driving all around the city and there were so many moving parts.
The one that was emotionally hard was the scene with Brittany steps into the street and the police back down. That was early in production and when we had decided to shift from trying to write about it to actually filming. I was still finding my place in the situation and I remembered I was standing on the sidewalk watching. It was psychically difficult to keep myself from jumping in and just getting involved in the protest. I remember almost feeling moved to tears because there was this fear of the police and I had never engaged with the police in direct confrontation, but I felt I needed to be a part of this moment and put my body on the line. Ultimately I had to hang back and to make myself a target would be a disservice to the people whose stories I was trying to tell. So, that for me stands out as far as having to make a decision as to where I stand.
What did you feel your ultimate responsibility was?
Damon: It was to give them to truth, encapsulate it so it would be there. We did a very special thing. I feel this is a time capsule and a historical document. We captured the underlining humanity and the emotional complexity that black people have to exist in.
I don’t see many movies that I can relate to or see myself. That’s what I wanted to do, to give them something they could relate to. We took care to show different aspects of people who don’t usually have a voice and to show the representation of work that they do.
I think we achieved it.