When the protests broke out in Ferguson, MO, following the death of Michael Brown, Sabaah Folayan, who was watching the unrest on social media, traveled to Ferguson to get involved. She was so taken by the number of citizens joining the protest and the consistency with which they were protesting, she had to see what it was about Ferguson that made it such a hotbed of activist activity. When she arrived, she met Ferguson resident Damon Davis, who was involved in the protests, and they set out to make a documentary about the place and people. Whose Streets?, the documentary they made, takes its title from a chant common to the protestors. The interrogative declaration questions the rights of the police to force the citizens of Ferguson off the streets of the town.
Whose Streets? is a combination of purposefully shot footage and footage the filmmakers collected from all the smart phones and other cameras the citizens themselves were carrying as they protested. Editor Christopher McNabb stitched the footage together into an intimate film that clearly communicates the hazards faced by the protestors as well as the urgency they feel as they protest. McNabb’s editing is astounding. He integrates footage—both the unorganized response to the death of Michael Brown in the early days of the uprising and the organized response as the protests grew—in a way that feels accurate to the way protests grow and develop.
The amateur footage is the most astonishing part of the film. Josh Larsen recently said on an episode of Filsmspotting that he believes this kind of video—of deaths like Michael Brown’s and the cell phone videos people capture during uprisings—will be the among the cinematic material historians are likely to remember many years from now. Seeing that footage edited together so skillfully makes me think he is correct. This is something more than what we think of as documentary, which no matter how “verite” it is, is still the result of choices someone made who wanted to show a story. Amateur footage like this is intensely present and aware. It’s an act of protest in itself. More, it is a declaration of one’s humanity as strident as when the ape throws the bone in the air in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but even more so, because it is real. Cell phones capturing institutional violence is a Declaration of Independence.
Yes, Whose Streets? focuses solely on the point of view of the protestors and activists in Ferguson. The film isn’t balanced. But it doesn’t need to be. The other side of the conflict has uncontested access to the media. They got to and get to tell their stories whenever they want. Whose Streets? gives a voice to those kept silent. Whatever your stance on the larger issue, listen to these people. What do you have to lose by listening? Only your limited understanding of the world. Only the pride of your privilege. Only the chains of your unconscious prejudice. Look and listen. We all need to be set free.