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Doc Corner: 'Whose Streets?'

It has been 25 years since the L.A. riots, an overflowing of racial unrest spurred on by the not guilty verdicts of the police officers charged in the beating of Rodney King. To mark the anniversary, there have been a number of documentaries about it including L.A. 92 and  Burn, Motherf*cker, Burn! – unfortunately uncovered by The Film Experience due to access issues. It would be sad enough to watch Sabaah Folayan and co-director Damon Davis’ Whose Streets? in the shadow of that event; a sad indictment that in a quarter of century not much of anything has changed.

However, I sat down to watch this film last night, my digital screener playing in one tab of my internet browser while in another sits a news article about the Charlottesville protests, while in another is Twitter and in another Facebook, both flooded with angry, sad and hopeless words by friends and strangers (some call it a liberal leftist bubble, I call it an oasis) alike not entirely capable of reconciling the fact that actual Nazis have not just made a cultural comeback, but that they have done so with more political and police approval than the Black Lives Matter movement has ever been granted.

Opening with a significantly relevant passage covering the initial riots on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, after the death of 18-year-old Mike Brown, Whose Streets rings alarm bells from its earliest moments. Made up of raw and immediate footage from the ground, we see police tanks roll in, officers armed with rifles, shields, and gasmasks. Attack dogs are seen all but frothing at the mouth. We are shown news reports that look at the looting rather than the shooting that caused the often violent (but harmless to human life) reactions. We see peaceful protesters being turned on by police whose wages are paid for by the very people who they are shooting rubber bullets and tear gas at. It’s impossible to not see this response and compare it to the events of this last weekend – candlelit vigils for innocent victims versus tiki torch protests for white supremacy.

From there we move on throughout the ensuing waves of the movement, punctuated by chapter titles featuring quotes by important cultural figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes. Folayan documents the shifts in the movement from the ground, while also relying on the video assistance of those also in the thick of it including David Whitt, who records police actions with his home operated videography service ‘Copwatch’.


We watch, the camera planted firmly on the face of Michael Brown’s mother, as news reports tell us that a Grand Jury found there to be no probable cause to send his killer to trial. We watch as residents of Ferguson have their lives stripped down with one woman shouting “This is not Iraq!” We watch as one prominent protester, Brittany Farrell, attempts to take a leadership role in the movement that threatens to derail her life months out from graduation. We read along with her as she reads a court document wherein a witness relates their protests for justice and peace to a “tribal chant". Interspersed through Whose Streets are slices of social media, documenting the way these events most differ from 1992 in how they are able to organise and inform on a mass scale.

While Whose Streets has a palpable sense of urgency running throughout, occasionally the film frustrates. Individuals are highlighted and then their stories never followed through. And even though the film focuses exclusively on Ferguson and Michael Brown, the story is so immense that some parts feel neglected or simply not investigated enough. There is also little sense of time in the documentary’s narrative, and people less familiar with it might struggle to comprehend when things fall in the story.

Still, this is an incredibly well put together by Sabaah Folayan, an activist making her debut feature here. Edited with vigour by Christopher McNabb, Whose Streets is a film that comes to us with the worst best timing. It is a film to make you angry at the world around us, yet potentially hopeful that something good may be waiting on the other side of its seemingly futile present. I hope Folayan and Davis are out there documenting something of great important right now.

Release: Currently screening. Click here to find where as well as request screenings in your location.

Oscar Chances: I want to say yes, but just as it was last year, there is bound to be a large number of films about American race relations and they can't all make it in (although three did last year). I suspect this one will be high on the branch's radar even though its filmmaker is new to the industry.

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