Sabaah Folayan: When Perspective Unseats Objectivity in Documentary Filmmaking

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Sabaah Folayan at the Doc Edit & Story Lab. © 2016 Sundance Institute | Brandon Cruz

“As an activist, do you think you can be objective?” they asked.

I was quiet. It wasn’t the first time I’d gotten this question, but the stakes seemed higher now. Just over a year into production, it seemed the documentary community was starting to take the film seriously, and the voice on the other end of the line belonged to someone who had seen us at Good Pitch New York—someone who could potentially change the trajectory of our project.

I’m one half of the co-directing team making Whose Streets?, a nonfiction account of the Ferguson uprising told by the people who lived it. The word “Ferguson” has layers of meaning: it is a hashtag, it is the (re)birthplace of a movement toward Black liberation, and it is a restless discomfort spanning the distance between the American dream and reality.

The scenario seems to rise out of the past like a nightmare, from which we awake to face our worst fears of what society has become—or, to be precise, what we have allowed it to remain. When the story unfolded on the news, it happened in minute-long segments, with footage of burning buildings on loop beneath cool voices that implored, “Wait for the facts.”

The question of whether or not we could be objective was posed in this familiar, cool tone. I grasped for a response. In my mind flashed images of tanks, tear gas, and a sea of passionate voices and bodies fighting for survival. “I struggle with the idea of objectivity,” I said hesitantly. “We did interview a police chief, and the mayor, if that’s what you mean?” I ended the statement with an upward inflection—I was sure of my answer, but unsure how it would be received. I didn’t (and still don’t) believe that objectivity is the appropriate response to the killing of a teenager in broad daylight.

The facts of what happened in Ferguson two summers ago have already been exposed, but the whole truth of the story is yet unknown. The truth of this film will reveal itself over time, after the demanding rituals of production and post-production, when it is delivered to the world. Its meaning will arise from the interplay of logical perspectives and personal experiences, and its significance will shift and evolve with time. There is certainly a place in this film for hard facts, but as a director, I must offer more than neutrality. I am mediating a delicate relationship between people: those who entrusted me with their stories and those who will watch the film.

In truth, this journey has never been an objective one for me. I have felt my way through the filmmaking process, propelled by the support of peers and mentors, following instincts with no certain outcome, and believing disciplined impulsiveness coupled with right intentions would amount to something good and true. This film is recognition that facts and truth are not the same thing. In recognizing this difference, I acknowledge that I can only represent the truth as I have witnessed it. To this effort I bring my biggest strengths, my experiences both beautiful and painful, my culture and its legacy of perseverance, and my hopes for a better world.

Sabaah Folayan recently attended the Sundance Institute Doc Edit and Story Lab along with co-director Damon Davis, editor Christopher McNabb, and their project "Whose Streets?" A Los Angeles native, Folayan attended Columbia University as a premedical student and graduated with a degree in biology. Outside the box thinking and passion for social good drew her to community organizing. Most notably she helped lead last year’s Millions March NYC which drew over 50,000 people.

Lead photo:

Sabaah Folayan at the Doc Edit & Story Lab. © 2016 Sundance Institute | Brandon Cruz