NEW YORK — Sabaah Folayan went to Ferguson, Mo., three summers ago as a pre-med student hoping to find a way to ease the anger engulfing police and residents. She left a filmmaker.
Folayan and her co-director, Damon Davis, stitched together "Whose Streets?" — a documentary looking at the aftermath of the shooting death of resident Michael Brown and the uprising that followed.
The filmmakers follow several people caught up in the protest movement and offer intimate looks at the costs they've paid. One has saved rubber bullets and tear gas canisters shot at him. Another delays her education to show her young daughter what it is to fight for what she believes in.
The Associated Press asked Folayan, whose debut film made it to Sundance, about what it was like on those streets, if police need retraining and why not everyone is shown in her film.
Q: Many documentaries look at an event from all sides. You clearly didn't do that, focusing on the people who live in Ferguson. Why did you choose that way?
A: That was something we always wanted to do because we felt like, first of all, we were trying to get this film out as quickly as possible while the story was still fresh and present. And we felt like, in the greater context, there was so much of the other side being presented. There was so many of these interviews and you have pundits and you have public officials. They have these national platforms to speak and let the American people know what it is that they're thinking, what their rationale is. The people on the ground, the people from St. Louis, the people whose backyard this is, weren't afforded that same kind of platform so we wanted this to provide some context to what was already out there.
Q: You were carrying a camera out there. What was it like?
“Whose Streets?” will play today through Thursday at the Palace Picture House, 818 Georgia Ave. Show times vary. Tickets are $10 except for a $7 noon matinee on Tuesday. For more information, call 423-803-6578 or visit https://chattpalace.com.
A: The tension is palpable. You can feel people's fear, you can feel the friction between police and the community at all times. So it was really tough. It was tough because a documentary isn't everything. A documentary doesn't automatically change everything. But we felt like it was important for this to be inserted into the cannon, into the public record so that people have a chance to know what happened — what really happened — on the ground there.
Q: The final cut doesn't have personal interviews with police or city leaders like it does on the other side. Why?
A: It wasn't a matter of not trying. We spoke with police officers. We spoke with the mayor, but ultimately none of those people were able to cross that blue line. They weren't giving us their human perspective. Everyone who we spoke to and featured really opened up to us and was vulnerable with us in a very particular way, and we wanted to have those conversations with anyone who would, but, for the most part, we just got sort of the same lines.
Q: The film is timely in that we just saw tear gas on the streets in Phoenix used against protesters. Why does this keep happening? Is this mostly about police training?
A: I think when you see that same sort of policing happening from St. Louis to Arizona to Baltimore and all these different places, it becomes difficult for me to imagine that they're not acting how they're trained. I don't think it's poor training or a lack of training. I think that this is what they're being trained to do. The halls of power where these decisions are made are purposely siloed from us and are not transparent to us.
Q: Much of your footage is hard to watch. Like previous cellphone videos of unarmed black men being shot by police, these images are sure to shock white America. But it offers proof of what African-Americans have been saying for years, right?
A: To continuously be in this position where we're expected to somehow prove and translate our reality before we can even be given the room to make the choices that we need to make and access the resources that we need to have is really difficult. It's a really difficult proposition because it means that enough people have to die on video to convince enough white people that this is really happening and then we can start talking about making some changes — it's a lot to ask.
Q: The film has been called "impressionistic." Are you OK with that?
A: I take impressionistic as a compliment. I love impressionism, and I think that it's one of the most powerful forms of painting because it makes you come to it. You have to do a little bit of work to see the full meaning of it, and that's what this film was always intended to be. It always meant for people to step a little bit outside of themselves or the way that they normally understand and do a little bit of the work to meet these people where they were.