You Need to Watch This Documentary on Ferguson
We talk to the filmmakers behind 'Whose Streets?' on establishing trust with the community their film focuses on.
Photos courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
In the aftermath of Michael Brown's murder, many traveled to Ferguson, Missouri, to protest. The streets were lined with picket signs and megaphones—instruments designed to amplify the human voice. The objective was clear: Demonstrators wanted to not only be heard but seen.
First-time directors Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis made sure the latter came true. As the protesting unfolded, the collaborators could do nothing else but pick up a camera. "My initial goal when I went to Ferguson," says Sabaah, "was to try to write articles and in the larger scheme do a public health study showing that people and police facing off were going to have a long-term traumatic effect on this community." She pauses to evaluate the past. "I quickly realized that it wasn't the time or the place to do that."
Instead, Sabaah and Damon entrenched themselves in the unrest. They had to make this film—if not for themselves, then for a community that has felt consistently unheard. Days after the three year anniversary of Brown's death, Whose Streets? makes its way into theaters this weekend, and it's not only essential viewing because of its subject matter, but because of Sabaah and Damon's singular grace and poeticism they bring to the documentary. They sidestep preaching in favor of letting voices exist, uninterrupted.
We sat down with them to talk about their headspace entering Ferguson, how they overcame the various challenges in their debut, and why the project is ultimately a big "eff you" to the Trump administration.
VICE: Going into Ferguson, what were you thinking about as filmmakers and as people?
Sabaah Folayan: Physical safety—but seeing this moment unfolding, it was instinctively clear that this was one of those benchmark moments in American history that was going to set the tone for the next decade and define the era. I felt like if I didn't go, I would regret it for the rest of my life. The next anxiety was, how do we get this done with integrity and maintain our voice and perspective while collaborating with people across different backgrounds—while fundraising and trying to prove to people that this was going to be commercially viable and viable to a white audience? All while living through this really personal and emotional experience.
Damon Davis: The biggest anxiety for me was getting it right: being a member of that community and having to come and show it to people, and knowing how much distrust is built in because of the way the media had portrayed the situation.
Was trust hard to come by in the beginning?
Folayan: Yes, in that everybody was extremely cautious. After a few weeks of the media reporting and misreporting on what was going on, people were really shy about wanting to talk to anybody. But we were so consistent in coming out day after day, and I hope that approaching people as human beings—and not being embedded in media—allowed that trust to develop.
Davis: I didn't meet these people with a camera in my hand—I met them organizing out on the street. That was where the trust factor came in, because they saw me in the mix with them.
What was the most constant challenge you faced while making this?
Folayan: Acting as both a director and a producer—having to raise money, pitch the film, package it in a way that was going to be digestible to people who were thousands of miles away from the situation and frame of mind, and touch down on the ground to be really rooted with people, rather than looking at them as subjects. I try to call them "the people we follow" or "the people in the film" to keep it centered that these are people—not tools or instruments.
Davis: You summed that up great. My thing was, "This is my home." I may have even over-emphasized that to myself, bouncing back and forth and cutting certain parts of my mind on and off at a moment's notice. We had to stand in front of a crowd full of people and pitch for money in places that we were not comfortable being in. Keeping the trust and the integrity that we set out to have with people intact was the biggest hurdle for me as well.
Both of you spent years making this film. Now that it's coming out, how do you two feel?
I personally have a mixed emotional bag of anxiety for what the masses are going to think. We've been doing the film circuit, and those are people who like movies. That's a little different from everyday people who are watching something. Also, how St. Louis will receive it has been something for me. I'm also really exhausted and ready to have a little moment of my own time back and look at my life.
Folayan: I feel very small thinking about the film coming out in theaters all across the country—rooms with 200 or 500 people coming together to watch this thing that was once just an idea. Having a spotlight on you is not easy, and we're putting the spotlight back on them again. I also feel a tinge of pride and excitement that this film is definitely a huge "eff you" to the administration—to say that we're here and know what's going on. I'm really happy to be putting time and effort into a project like this at a time when I think people really need some kind of beacon to remind them we're still here, and we're still fighting.
Sam Fragoso is the host of Talk Easy, a weekly podcast of conversations with filmmakers, writers, musicians, journalists, and, once, his mother. His work has appeared in NPR, Vanity Fair, and Playboy. He lives in Los Angeles.