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'Whose Streets?' Follows Unrest In Ferguson, Mo., After Michael Brown's Death

Aug 9, 2017
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's been three years since 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson. The documentary "Whose Streets?" takes place in Ferguson, but it doesn't explore what happened to Michael Brown. Instead it's about what happened to Ferguson after Brown's death and after a grand jury decided not to indict the police officer who shot him - the protests...

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Chanting) Stand up.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) For Michael Brown.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Chanting) Stand up.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) For Michael Brown.

CORNISH: ...The narratives that emerged in news media...

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: And as sundown approaches, officials are fearful of another night of looting and violence.

CORNISH: ...And the community of Ferguson residents who became activists.

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KAYLA REED: They say that building burning is worse than a black person getting shot - right? - because this building serviced white people, and this black body did not.

CORNISH: That's St. Louis activist Kayla Reed. Filmmakers Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis followed several of these activists to tell their story.

DAMON DAVIS: It was just a real big thing for us to show the communal aspect to this and the ecosystem that it takes to run a successful movement, you know? It's people from all walks of life, different backgrounds, race, color, creed, gender, sexual orientation. But all of these people came together for a moment.

SABAAH FOLAYAN: And we really wanted to create a film that gave a sense of community. The challenge there was that in storytelling, we're so accustomed to seeing a narrative that has one hero, and we follow them through their journey. So in the edit, it was really about trying to figure out ways to weave in the other folks in a way that didn't feel like they were just talking heads.

CORNISH: There's another character in this movie, which is the media - the national media.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Good evening. The images from this weekend of violence in the streets, stores being looted...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Crowds of people breaking into stores along West Florissant overnight.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: The police chief of St. Louis County told the reporters the violence is destroying this city.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: You see bottles of booze come out, a lot of open containers.

CORNISH: What role do you think the media had in telling this story?

FOLAYAN: I think the media, if I'm being frank, was very irresponsible in telling this story because it seemed like their No. 1 priority was ratings and sensationalism. And they wanted to be there for the clashes and not really go much deeper into investigating what was happening. What were the tensions at play? What was the history at play? What was really going on?

CORNISH: Can you give an example of that?

FOLAYAN: I think one specific example would be the night of the non-indictment or maybe one night after that.

CORNISH: And this is the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, the officer who did shoot Michael Brown.

FOLAYAN: Right. People were gathered that evening, waiting for the decision. And then, you know, things kind of erupted from there. You know, they were using pepper spray. They were using tear gas. They were using rubber bullets. And then we turned on the news, and there was this conversation going, well, they didn't use tear gas; it was smoke. And it was just so absurd to have lived through this experience and see, you know, a version of the story being told to millions of people that was just totally inaccurate. And I - you know, I still wonder where those breakdowns occurred and why, you know, no one was willing to push back on some of these narratives.

CORNISH: And also the ramp-up in the montage of clips. The idea was that there was going to be a riot, that people are going to react a certain way. And it was interesting being on the other side of the lens through your film where people had not planned (laughter) to riot, right?

DAVIS: Exactly. And I think when you say there's going to be a riot and you show all of this prep work, that's an open invitation for police to antagonize people. And then when people get up in arms, some property damage happens. Then the police are justified in using all of that weaponry that they had accumulated in this riot situation that was supposed to happen. So I think the police helped to create that situation, that anxiety that wasn't really there in the first place.

CORNISH: You guys also use social media to great effect, kind of cellphones videos and images.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WHOSE STREETS?")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: We are marching down West Florissant towards a police barricade at Ferguson.

CORNISH: How do you find that stuff, and why did you think that was an important way to tell this particular story?

FOLAYAN: It was really just, you know, legwork. We just searched Twitter, searched Instagram, Google.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We got to be our own keeper. We got to...

FOLAYAN: It felt important because I think that just generally we have not yet reckoned with the gravity of the digital revolution and how it's really changed the way that we relate to one another. And so for me personally, it was really important having there be this collage of different types of input, text and video and these short clips and, you know, longer - more still shots.

CORNISH: In a way, did you feel like it was telling the real story?

DAVIS: Yeah. And I think when you're standing really close to it, you don't know how far it's reaching. But citizen journalism and people with cellphones and things of that nature have opened up this whole conversation about police brutality and police militarization.

CORNISH: Did you end up talking to the police or the mayor? And if so, why didn't you include them in the film?

FOLAYAN: Yeah, we definitely did. We interviewed the mayor twice. We interviewed one of the police chiefs. We interviewed retired officers, the city manager. Ultimately none of those folks were really willing or able to break out of their talking points. And we felt like we could use this platform better by showing real human stories.

CORNISH: Well, one of the consequences of that are people kind of questioning the objectivity, so to speak, of the film. And I know, Sabaah, you've said that the film's a recognition that facts and truth are not the same thing. What did you mean by that?

FOLAYAN: You can find a fact to prove almost any point that you want, but I think that there is a truth that resonates. It's a truth that you can feel. It can't always be articulated in words. It can't always be encapsulated with numbers, but you know it because it resonates. And I think that's why this film resonates with people. I think that's what we were really trying to get at with telling this story - is going deeper than the numbers and getting to that real human space.

CORNISH: Damon Davis, for you, this is your community. And this film was, you know, several years in the making. What kind of personal toll has it taken on you?

DAVIS: It's just been difficult trying to walk a line of being an artist and being charged with being a storyteller for a lot of people that trust you but also, like, making sure that this story is cohesive and it makes sense - so a difficult process in that regard and also, like, never having time to actually deal with my own trauma or situations that I - that happened to me while protesting or while doing this stuff. So it's still well worth it because we need this story to be told. And in particular, we need it to be told in a way where someone from this place and that lived these things was in the room when it was being put together.

CORNISH: I get the sense, Damon, that there - this is an effort to lay down your own official narrative, to not let it be left to be told by the news clips.

DAVIS: Definitely, definitely. We had an opportunity here to make something. The side of the underdog is to be told by the underdog. And for the first time, we got to tell our own story. And I think that that's really, really important.

And I think since we started this journey, one of the main things we wanted to talk about is that - is, specifically in documentary filmmaking, there's always someone else, some outsider from outside of the community that parachutes in. They get all of the goods. They get all of the stories. And they are constantly extracting stories and life from people without proper context for the world that they came into and without any accountability to those people. And I think we got to do something very different here because we are those people.

CORNISH: Well Damon Davis and Sabaah Folayan, thank you so much for speaking with us.

DAVIS: Thank you.

FOLAYAN: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF TULPA'S "THE BIRDS AND BEES")

CORNISH: The film is called "Whose Streets?" It's out in theaters this weekend.

(SOUNDBITE OF TULPA'S "THE BIRDS AND BEES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.