From "Detroit" to "Confederate," the question about who gets to tell a story is a controversial one. But for the people whose stories are being told by someone else, it's an important one — and it's very much at the heart of the new documentary, "Whose Streets?".
After hearing about the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, Jr. on Aug. 9, 2014 by police, director Sabaah Folayan was compelled to find out the real story of how Brown's community in Ferguson, Missouri was responding. Folayan was in New York City at the time.
"[I] really never wanted to do it without the collaboration of someone from there, so I was always looking for a partner who's from the city," says Folayan, who was born and raised in South Los Angeles. "Damon's name constantly came up."
Damon Davis is an artist from St. Louis, Missouri who is co-director and producer of "Whose Streets?" "We met around September ," said Davis of his first meeting of Sabaah and some members of the crew at a gallery. "I was helping organize more from an artistic point of view."
Folayan and Davis were determined to show the people of the community where Mike Brown lived and died from their own points of view. Their desire was to show what mainstream media was not showing on news reports. Their mission is stated on the film's website:
"Every day Americans experience a mediascape that humanizes whiteness, delving into the emotional lives of privileged white protagonists while portraying people of color as two-dimensional (and mostly negative) stereotypes. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the case of Mike Brown, who, in spite of being college bound & well regarded by his community, was portrayed as a "thug" and a "criminal." For this reason, it is essential that Black people be the ones to tell our own true stories."
When "Whose Streets?" premiered this year at the Sundance Film Festival, Folayan and Davis spoke with The Frame about how they put their film together and what they felt they'd achieved.
On using sourced footage from the community for the film:
FOLAYAN: We knew from the beginning that we were going to want to source footage from other places because we did come in a month after everything happened. And those first few weeks were really, really critical. But we underestimated the challenge ... that there was so much coverage, finding just the right pieces was extremely difficult.
DAVIS: It was people that we knew, that we made connections to. We were scavenging social media, YouTube.
FOLAYAN: You know, [taking] Vine videos and putting them together ... I have to give all credit to my editor, Christopher McNabb, who really, really took this massive undertaking and made meaning out of it, and made beauty out of it.
On telling the story from the POV of the Ferguson residents:
DAVIS: We wanted to make this a community — the community speaking — and for multiple reasons. Not to make one person a leader, so to speak. But like the community needs to speak. And that was something we were very, very adamant about from the very beginning.
FOLAYAN: This summer, I was saying we had a 90-minute cut that was totally character-based and, you know, [it] almost felt like it could be a film itself. But it didn't have that element of the movement and the social context. So we had to both strip it down and then add back on the whole other half of the movie.
On showing the black narrative in America through the story of Ferguson:
DAVIS: I think we captured the soul. Like if somebody's that's been there their entire lives, it feels like home. And somebody comes from a community much like mine and it looks like her home too. You know what I mean? It looks like we were able to do something simultaneously on a micro and a macro scale. By using one community to show how the black narrative in America looks.
FOLAYAN: That was the reason it felt so urgent. And I think it's the reason why so many people gathered around to support us, because it was painfully clear that the narrative was being skewed.
On why anyone could relate to this story:
DAVIS: We went out and we showed humanity. Our focus was the people who looked like us. And by doing that, if you're a human being, you can see yourself in these people. And I think that is something I haven't seen in a lot of movies. I don't really see myself like that, you know what I mean? So I think we did well.
To hear the full interview with Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis, click on the player above. To get more content like this, subscribe to The Frame podcast.