“A small group of dedicated people can change the world”

An interview with Sabaah Folayan, director of Whose Streets?

An urgent and enthralling chronicle of Ferguson, Missouri after the murder of Michael Brown, Jr., Whose Streets? follows the passion and commitment of the residents who took to the city’s streets in the wake of the tragedy. With extraordinary access and startling footage of the escalating clashes between protestors and police, Sabaah Folayan and co-director and St. Louis resident Damon Davis paint an extraordinarily intimate and honest portrait of injustice and the individuals who had the resolve to fight back. DOC10’s Anthony Kaufman spoke with Folayan about making her transition to filmmaking, the soundtrack of protest chants, and her hopes for the future.

One of the most captivating aspects of Whose Streets? is its intimacy—its feeling of not so much observing these people, but being among them. How did you achieve that? Did you think of yourself as a filmmaker? An activist? Both? 

I always thought of myself as a storyteller. That’s what brought me out there in the first place, and that’s what I wanted to contribute. I wanted to participate in the real conversations about what was really at play. I didn’t know it was a film. Before, writing was my way of expressing myself. I was active in social media and I was getting lots of feedback, but something about it felt unsatisfying and I felt like I was contributing to all this noise and I didn’t feel like I was making a real impact. So I went to St. Louis to try to gather information and get a different perspective, and I felt like I had a responsibility to stand with the people, who were really arguing for transparency and accountability, and the filmmaking organically grew from that.

The chants in the film are so stirring. I can still hear echoing in my head, “It is our duty to fight for our freedom; it is our duty to win.” As filmmakers, were you conscious of these cries being a part of the overall sound design of the film?

Yes, definitely. We had cut the film without any music, and we would do our feedback screenings and people felt like it didn’t need to have any music, because it had its own rhythms: the chants are the heartbeat of the movement and a rallying cry. The chants were also one of the first things that we identified as a glue or backdrop of the story. And the ending chant in the film actually took place five months before we ended production, but as soon as we saw that chant, we knew it was going to be the end of the film.

I know you had so much footage to sift through, some 300 hours. What was your process in terms of finding the story, the arc, and shaping it into a tense feature-length movie?

I really have to give a lot of credit to our editor, Christopher McNabb. He’s been with us from the beginning. He’d pull out selects while we were shooting, and having him craft the story from early on, it gave us the shared sense of what it could be. The first assembly edit had followed seven different people and each one had a two-hour assembly, so it was a lot. But Chris was diligent and vigilant, finding the moments that were going to bring these folks to life. Towards the last few months of the process, I think it’s where it got really fun, because we had boiled the film down to this 2-hour thing and it definitely had the voice of what we wanted. Then Carol Dysinger came in as a consultant. She gave us a structure and pointed us in the right direction and encouraged us to stick to our vision and our voice, and keep the chapter motifs. We really tried to stay rooted to the energy and spirit of the people of St. Louis and show them respect. At the end of the day, there’s been very few people who have put their bodies on the line for our constitutional rights. And it prepared for us what we are seeing today. I think we owe some credit to the people of St. Louis for sustaining this movement.

Speaking of the St. Louis residents, Brittany is such a great character, both sympathetic and fierce at the same time. When did she become such an integral part of the film?

We knew from the beginning that she was going to be very important, firstly because she was so open and trustworthy, and also, she has this magnetic energy that reaches through the screen and people feel it. A lot of it also has to do with Brittany’s daughter, Kenna, and intergenerational thing that emerged. It was a big storytelling challenge not to only make it about her and introduce her a little later in the film, so we could make it about the movement. Because we didn’t want to create a typical hero story; we didn’t want to create a false sense of resolution, which we have not yet found. We wanted the characters to emerge out of the movement.

Whose Streets? feels more important than ever right now, as police departments are likely to be receiving less oversight and accountability. Do you feel any hope right now for the communities in the film and others like them? What can people do?

I have a deep hope and a deep sense of optimism. It’s really sad and scary what’s happening in our country right now. It’s a clear challenge for the American people to uphold our responsibilities as citizens and guide out government from going astray. We’re seeing some very frightening leadership and troubling policies, but there are the reemergence of social movements and the reawakening of people. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next four years, but I know that in the long run this raising consciousness has to happen and it’s going to be better for our country. I do really have a deep belief in people and their resilience and resistance. This is nothing new. The people in St. Louis weren’t surprised by the results of the election. But I really believe in the quote: “A small group of dedicated people can change the world.”

Paula Froehle