Oak Institute screens acclaimed documentary Whose Streets?


Sabaah Folayan’s debut documentary Whose Streets? has received critical acclaim at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

On September 19, The Oak Institute for Human Rights sponsored the screening of the powerful and stirring documentary Whose Streets?, directed by Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis. The film follows the public resistance following the killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The documentary tells the story of the activists and civil rights leaders at the front line of these protests, and graphically captures the breaking point of already tense race relations in Ferguson and St. Louis.

The Oak Institute for Human Rights also provided opportunities for students and faculty to engage with one of the film’s directors, Sabaah Folayan, after the documentary screening and in a workshop on the following day in the Pugh Center. Folayan, a director, producer and activ- ist, was born and raised in Los Angeles. Folayan is a 2013 Columbia University graduate with a degree in biology, and was on the pre med track. Folayan was introduced to the art of storytelling after attend- ing the Lee Strasberg Institute of Theatre and Film where she performed as a member of the Black Theater Ensemble. She worked as an advocate at Rikers Island, New York City’s main prison facility, where she interviewed incarcerated people about their experiences with trauma. Folayan also helped organize The Millions March, one of the largest marches for racial justice in New York City history, in response to the non-indictment of the police officer who choked Eric Garner to death.

In Sept. 2014, she traveled to Ferguson in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting to join the Black Lives Matter movement, with the intention of working with individuals struggling with trauma. However, she realized that there was a disconnect between reality and the way Ferguson was being portrayed in the mainstream media. Folayan connected with St. Louis activist and artist Damon Davis to make Whose Streets?. She was highlighted in Filmmaker Magazine’s annual “25 New Faces of Independent Film” along with co-director Damon Davis. She is a 2015 Firelight Media Producers Lab Fellow, 2016 Chicken & Egg Accelerator Lab Fellow, and 2016 Sundance Institute Documentary Edit and Story Lab Fellow.

Folayan explained the importance of screening this documentary at Colby, asserting that she wants for “students on campus not to feel alone.” This is not an extremely diverse state or school, and students need to know that there are people all over the country and the world who are fighting for the rights and the lives of people of color,” she explained.

Folayan expanded on this, highlighting the importance of everyone on campus seeing Whose Streets? “There are students, although they are in the minority, on campus who have lived through this reality and it is important to represent those experiences because it can be really isolating when no one around you shares or understands your experience,” she said. “I hope that this film is grounding for people who lived through oppression and repression, and don’t feel discouraged by people who tell them to be more moderate.”

Folayan hosted a workshop on Sept. 20th in the Pugh Center about femininity during conflict and on women leadership in rebellion, referencing Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Nina Simone, Dolores Huerta, and Queen Nanny. The discussion also covered themes of feminity, political conflict, romance, and relationships in popular literature.

Folayan warned that people need to understand that “this is not an ideological battle, this is a fight for survival.” She explained that the issues often become “over-intellectualized and race gets talked about as it if were just a theory and not a reality that we have to live inside of everyday. So I hope our film was able to bring it down to an emotional and human level and remind people that this is about family, it’s about culture, it’s about daily life, and being able to move safely about the world.”

Folayan also commented on the the powerful role of documentary filmmaking as activism.“I think that film is a really powerful medium for us to have these conversations because it has visual, it has audio, it has exchange of ideas, it has all the components of our understandings. We can experience through film, we can go through different worlds through film. This is especially critical, in a place that is so homogenous like [Colby], to have these opportunities to expand our thinking and to try to sympathize if we can’t empathize,” she said.

The Oak Institute is committed to further exploring the connection between documentaries and activism through their new Human Rights Film Series this fall semester. The theme is “Resistance and Repression” and will feature films focused on different movements, such as the Free Brazil Movement in #Resistance and The Maribor Uprisings, which covers the protests in Slovenia that contributed to the overthrowing of the government. The film was created by Colby’s own Maple Rasza, an Associate Professor of Global Studies, and a 2015 graduate of the College, Milton Guillen.

Folayan commented on Colby, saying “I think there are some really amazing faculty here who are really interesting in supporting students who want to make a change in this world and providing them with resources,” she said. “I have a lot of respect for faculty associated with programs like the Oak Institute and the Pugh Center, especially here in Maine. It takes a lot of courage, for all the people at Colby being open and vocal about these issues.”

Leave a Reply