A new documentary explores the Ferguson rebellion and the protestors who lived it
Filmmaker Damon Davis shares the trailer for his film Whose Streets, and tells us about the process of making it.
When the Ferguson, Missouri protests erupted in 2014, artist, musician and filmmaker Damon Davis joined the community of protesters in the streets. With filmmaking partner Sabaah Folayan, Davis created Whose Streets?, which he calls “the story of the Ferguson rebellion told by those who lived it.” Here Davis shares the trailer for the new film — out this summer — and talks to us about the making of Whose Streets?
What prompted you to document the Ferguson protests?
It was a crazy time. I was trying to — for lack of a better term — figure out where I fit, and how I could contribute my skills as an artist to be helpful. A friend asked me to come to a meeting. It turned out to be a meeting of organizations that had just been formed around the protests — and I was the one who happened to be able to draw. I started creating visual collateral for the movement, and later curated a show of photography that was taken in the first two weeks of the protest. It was at this show that I met Sabaah. We hit it off, and a couple of months later, we were like, “We’re going to make this movie together.”
Had you had any filmmaking experience?
I’d done some work in film. I’d won an Emmy about a year before for a short about my life, called A Story to Tell. I’d also made a documentary in college about a friend of mine who’s on death row. But neither project was at the the level of Whose Streets?, which required raising funds and having a major budget.
I felt like a first-time filmmaker: I learned about how documentary film is actually made — not just having a good idea, or getting footage, but getting grants, being accountable to funders, and actually making the final product and figuring out how to get it out into the world. We also had to be accountable to a community of people whom we’d asked to be vulnerable.
What was the hardest part?
On a personal level, watching this footage of violence against people I know, and people who look like me, over and over again — reliving some of the worst experiences I’ve ever had — was a mental and emotional strain. We purposely avoided too much of that, made sure it’s not explosive riot porn. We focused more on people’s lives.
It follows the storylines of two people in particular, Brittany Ferrell and David Whitt, who are both parents. Sabaah and I soon realized that this film is about about the kids. These kids are being built to be another wave of resistance. My father had a history of militance in the ’60s and the ’70s, but I was somewhat removed from these ideas, because it didn’t happen again before Ferguson. There was a lull in the time of protest and resistance. But these kids are now being raised in a tradition: they know what it looks like to be out there — they are witnessing it firsthand.
What was your experience of racism and activism growing up in the area around St Louis?
I grew up in East St. Louis in the ’90s, so I was aware of Rodney King LA riots of 1992. That’s one thing. But I’d never lived through a major civil rights event, one that sparked a new movement — a new generation of people to be radicalized. When you think of the gravity of it — it’s a very historic moment.
We weren’t dirt poor, but we were poor — we were living check-to-check. I went from an all-black school to an all-white school in the process of making my way through the local Catholic-school system — and I saw in high school how real racism was. Even when they tried to mask it, even the teachers there were either afraid or curious or outright offended by the presence of black students. There had previously been a black catholic high schoo — that’s where all my brothers and sisters went. But by the time it was time for me to go, it had been shut down and turned into an East St Louis prison. It’s literally the school-to-prison pipeline.
Were you encouraged to be an artist?
I had one really good teacher in high school that helped me, and my music, writing, and art teachers in high school encouraged me to be a creative person, because I guess they saw something in me early, and I thank them for that. I was weird. I wasn’t like the people around me, growing up. I was much more introverted than I am now. That’s how I built the skills that I have, because I was by myself, drawing and making music, and doing things of that nature — living a very quiet life.
I’m still not like the people around me. In any situation, I don’t really feel comfortable anywhere. I found that through making art, I found my identity, and worked through my own internal stuff and understand the world around me. That’s still true. So when Ferguson happened, I had an opportunity to help other people with the stuff that I could do, with the skills that I’d built.
When the riots broke out, you went out and took pictures of people’s hands, and posted them on buildings in the area. How did that come about?
That project was the result of a split-second decision. I was at another meeting where Harry Belafonte came and wanted to talk to people. I met this dude named Michael Skolnik, who did projects around activism and art. He wanted to do a project, so a couple days later we just did it. A lot of activists were gathering at a coffee shop called MoKaBe’s, and I was like, let me take pictures of the hands of different people I know. It was as simple as that. We hit Kinko’s to print them the next day, then went out in the freezing cold and put all of them up with some of my friends. It was just our immediate response to people being accosted every day.
We wanted to make something that would raise morale in the area during a time when everybody was on edge, waiting to find out whether Darren Wilson would be indicted for Michael Brown’s shooting.
It’s been three years since 2014, and there have been other films made about Ferguson. Now that the film is finally finished, what would you say makes Whose Streets? different from other accounts of this event?
Other films will have different perspectives on the same event, but we focused on the lives of protesters. And this is not just a historical document. It takes a much more nuanced and artistic perspective. Our goal was to uplift the people within the movement — rather than narrating the events themselves. I think that that’s very important. In telling these stories, we’re expressing the complexity and beauty of the black experience.
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