Sabaah Folayan (Writer/Director, Producer) is an activist and storyteller born and raised in South Central LA.
As an advocate at Rikers Island, Folayan interviewed incarcerated people about their experiences with trauma. She later helped organize The Millions March, one of the largest marches for racial justice in New York history, in response to the non-indictment of the police officer who choked Eric Garner to death.
In September 2014, she went to Ferguson with cinematographer Lucas Alvarado-Farrar to learn the truth behind the dramatic scenes playing out on the news. Hearing the stories from the community inspired her to embark on her directorial debut Whose Streets?
Showing as part of the Black Voices Raised strand at this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival London #TBB10 spoke with Sabaah about how this important documentary came to light...
1# Hello Sabaah, I read that making a visual documentary was not your intention when you went down to record the events in Ferguson – but rather it was supposed to be a printed article, what was it specifically that changed your mind?
Rather than a printed article, I wanted to launch a public health study into the trauma caused by police and protestors facing off under such tense conditions. I was unable to do clinical data collection under the chaotic conditions because it is extremely difficult to process trauma while a traumatic situation is ongoing. Recognising this, we decided to start filming instead.
2# In that moment of realisation what were some of the things you had to do to set things in motion and get a production team behind you, or did you call your ‘boss’ and say, ‘so I’m going to go in a different direction’ – how supported were you?
This was a completely independent project from the very beginning. Part of what motivated me to do this work was a desire to be my own ‘boss.’ I went to St. Louis with my friend, our Director of Photography Lucas Alvarado Farrar. The first thing we did was look for a St. Louis based collaborator because we felt that was the best way to demonstrate respect for the community. From there, we continued to organically bring in collaborators until we had a full team. For the first year of the project, we were completely self-funded but we got our first grant in August 2015 from an organization called Firelight Media which supports new filmmakers of colour and the momentum took off from there.
3# How and whom did you choose to be the focal point to tell the narrative, because I can imagine you had so many angles from Michael Brown’s mother/parents to protesters, to the police, to young people etc.?
Our core principle was always to humanise the black people who were taking part in the struggle. We spoke with dozens of people throughout the community, as well as Police and local politicians. Ultimately the footage that made it into the film was the footage that showed people at their most authentic.
4# How far from Ferguson do you live and what were those first hours like when you got to Ferguson – some of the feelings and emotions?
This would be a better question for Damon who lives in St. Louis. I was in New York City when Michael Brown was killed. The feeling in Ferguson was the feeling oppressed people feel around the globe. Frustration, sadness, and determination to make sure that tomorrow is better than yesterday.
5# Was it difficult to separate your human emotion and reactions from being a journalist with a job and a deadline to adhere to – how did you manage to keep it all together?
I have a great deal of respect for journalists which is why I must be clear that I am not a journalist, I am an artist. My job and deadlines are self-imposed. I had no desire to separate my human emotion from my work, in fact, my goal was to integrate emotional and intellectual realities into one coherent story. As a deeply sensitive and yet highly analytical person, it was a job I was uniquely suited for. The most difficult moment was when I was arrested in the process of filming the highway action because I was taken out of the position of being a witness and brought into the situation. Though I should have been protected under the first amendment, it was a stark reminder that my rights are subject to the discretion of people who do not see me as human.
6# The protests took place in 2014. Whose Streets? showed at Sundance just last year, what’s been the most satisfying moment?
Apart from finally finishing after nearly three years of production and post-production, the most satisfying moment was showing the film to the people in St. Louis who lived through this experience. Receiving their approval was always our metric for success. Being certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes is pretty cool too.
7# Did you get to speak to Michael Brown’s mother / parents and watching their experience how did it affect you as a woman, as a black person, as someone part of an industry which during the time of the protests was heavily criticised for bias reporting painting Michael Brown and protesters and the residents of Ferguson as thugs and people of little worth?
My mission from the moment I decided to go to Ferguson was to create work that would counteract the sensationalised, anti-black narratives coming out of white-owned outlets. I am grateful to be able to provide a counter-narrative that represents black communities with dignity and acknowledges the ongoing systemic issues that lead to moments high tension. I have not had the opportunity to speak with his parents personally, which is one regret that I have about the process. They were so overloaded with people who wanted a piece of their story that it was impossible for us to reach them in time, but I would have wanted to receive their input and blessing on the content of the film.
8# Whose Streets? will be showing as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London, how did that come about and have you been to London before, what are you most looking forward to?
I am so glad Human Rights Watch Film Festival is showing the film and thrilled to say that Whose Streets? has been getting attention all across the globe. The first time I visited London was about a week before Brexit, and It was really interesting to see the types of conservative anxieties that impede America’s social progress playing out in London as well.
9# Just to speak a bit about your career, I read that you’ve got a degree in biology?
I did indeed study biology and was planning to be a doctor but felt that helping one patient at a time would not satisfy my desire for change, which is why I shifted my focus to public health and then organically found my passion for storytelling.
10# What’s next? Will you continue making documentaries?
I will continue to make films and tell stories in other media, and I will also continue to work closely with communities trying to change the status quo.
Whose Streets? shows as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival on the following dates:
March 13, 2018 – 6:10 PM / Barbican London
Screening followed by a discussion with activist & film subject Kayla Reed, Raj Chada, Partner, Hodge Jones & Allen LLP and Eloise King, VICE UK, i-D, Women on Docs
March 14, 2018 – 7:30 PM / Regent Street Cinema London
Screening followed by discussion w. activist & film subject Kayla Reed, Dr. Adam Elliott-Cooper, Research Assoc., King’s College London and Eloise King, VICE UK, i-D, Women on Docs
Book tickets here.
The Human Rights Watch Film Festival runs from 7th – 16th March 2018. See the full schedule and book your tickets here.