Sabaah Folayan

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Sabaah Folayan
Alma materMarlborough School
Columbia University
OccupationFilmmaker, activist
Notable work
Whose Streets?

Sabaah Folayan is an American filmmaker and activist. Her debut documentary feature, Whose Streets?, on the 2014 Ferguson protests, premiered in competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Early life[edit]

Daughter of a single mother, Folayan grew up in South Central Los Angeles,[1] as well as spending five years living in a rural area in Hawaii.[2] In Los Angeles, she attended the private, all-girls Marlborough School[3] for middle school and high school[2] and has described the contrast between that environment and the poverty and systemic racism she witnessed her own neighborhood experiencing as akin to growing up "between two worlds."[1] After graduating from Marlborough in 2009,[3] Folayan went on to Columbia University where she was pre-med and earned a degree in biology.[4] She also pursued writing, although without the expectation anything would come of it.[2]

Folayan currently resides in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.[5][6]


Whose Streets?[edit]

In 2014, Folayan traveled to Ferguson, Missouri during the uprising that followed police officer Darren Wilson's killing of Michael Brown.[1] She initially expected to document the experience via print journalism, but was struck by a sense of contrast between the city she was witnessing and the way it was being represented in the newsmedia, telling Filmmaker Magazine: "what was being put on the news was only catching the surface of the issues. Sensationalist, inflammatory language was hyping the story to get ratings, but as a society we needed to get to the truth and to positive dialogue."[7] Seeking a longer format that would allow space for such an exploration, she set out to make a film, working with cinematographer Lucas Alvarado Farrar, a Columbia classmate of Folayan, and co-director Damon Davis, a St. Louis-based artist.[1] Folayan felt her Ferguson project needed the perspective of someone inside the local community.[7] Davis, already at work documenting the protests, was skeptical of media from outside St. Louis, but found Folayan an exception in her ability to empathize with the community; he was also persuaded to work together by her argument that perspectives of women were critical to telling the story of the protests.[7]

The resulting documentary feature, Whose Streets?, directed and written by Folayan and co-directed by Davis, premiered in competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival as a Day One screening.[8][9][10] The film received favorable reviews from critics, noting achievements in directing.[11][12] In The Guardian, Jordan Hoffman gave the film five stars and praised Folayan and Davis's directorial choice to make a "tremendous end run around mainstream news outlets and the agenda-driven narratives that emerge, particularly on television" by not using "images...leaked by law enforcement or stage managed for the media, but [which] come directly from the people who lived through the violent events of 2014."[13] In The Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney said Folayan's "raw connection to the material informs the film's entire approach, investing it with an urgency that never lets up."[14] Reviewing the film for IndieWire, Jude Dry described "Folayan's presence [as] hardly seen, but can be felt in the easy shorthand her subjects use on camera. They have much to say and do so urgently, without fear of being misinterpreted. For comparison, Folayan’s interviews stand in stark contrast to the ones conducted by mainstream media outlets (and their largely white interviewers) she chooses to show."[15]

In February 2017, Magnolia Pictures purchased the project for distribution,[16] planning a summer release commemorating the anniversary of Brown's death.[17] The film opened in theaters August 11, 2017.[18]

Other projects and influences[edit]

Folayan was a lead organizer of the New York City Millions March,[6][1] the December 2014 demonstration protesting police killings in the wake of Eric Garner's death; attendance estimates ranged from 12,000 to 50,000 participants.[19][20] Folayan has said her experience in Ferguson was pivotal in teaching her organizing skills, that the work should extend beyond attending demonstrations to include "going to meetings, creative acts, and long-term strategies."[1]

Prior to traveling to Ferguson, Folayan worked with formerly incarcerated people, conducting interviews she has described as having a major influence on her approach to storytelling.[21] Folayan has also cited Jehane Noujaim's film The Square, which depicts the 2011 Egyptian Revolution at Tahrir Square, as a significant influence on Whose Streets?[6]

Folayan directed the inaugural episode of Get Schooled, Glamour Magazine's video series on girls overcoming major hurdles in pursuit of education; she interviewed Kylie, a teenager from Ottawa, Kansas.[2]

Awards and accolades[edit]

In developing Whose Streets?, Folayan was selected for the Sundance Documentary Edit and Story Lab, its Music & Sound Design Lab: Documentary, and its Creative Producing Summit.[22] She also won support from the MacArthur Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Tribeca Film Institute.[23]

In 2016, Folayan was named one of Filmmaker Magazine's Twenty Five New Faces of Independent Film[7] and Independent Magazine's 10 Filmmakers to Watch.[21]

In 2017, Folayan was named the Vimeo Share the Screen Fellow at IFP's Made in NY Media Center.[24]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Tang, Estelle (2017-02-01). "Sabaah Folayan: You Don't Need to Wait for Permission to Become an Activist". Elle. Retrieved 2017-02-02.
  2. ^ a b c d Maunz, Shay. "A Young Female Filmmaker Talks Race, Gender, and the Power of Education". Glamour. Retrieved 2016-12-17.
  3. ^ a b "Alumnae Profile: Sabaah Folayan '09 Directs Documentary Film, "Whose Streets?"". Marlborough School. February 13, 2017. Retrieved July 12, 2017.
  4. ^ Davis, Melissa Hunter (June 8, 2016). "Sundance Institute Names Projects for its Screenwriters Lab, Documentary Edit and Story Labs and New Theatre-Makers Residency". Sugarcane Magazine. Retrieved 2017-02-07.
  5. ^ i-D Staff (November 25, 2016). "13 New Yorkers on the Importance of Black Lives Matter". i-D. Vice. Retrieved 2017-07-12.
  6. ^ a b c Berger, Laura (2017-01-17). "Sundance 2017 Women Directors: Meet Sabaah Folayan — "Whose Streets?"". Women and Hollywood. Retrieved 2017-02-07.
  7. ^ a b c d Rizov, Vadim. "Damon Davis and Sabaah Folayan". Filmmaker Magazine. Retrieved 2016-12-17.
  8. ^ Siegel, Tatiana (November 30, 2016). "Sundance Unveils Competition Titles, Including Gulf War Drama, ISIS Doc, Pair of Post-Ferguson Films". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 2016-12-17.
  9. ^ Barnes, Brooks (2016-11-30). "Sundance Film Festival 2017: Four Films to Know". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2016-12-17.
  10. ^ Olsen, Mark (November 30, 2016). "Sundance Film Festival 2017 likely to feel more political, on purpose or not". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2016-12-17.
  11. ^ Fink, John (2017-01-21). "Sundance Review: 'Whose Streets?' is a Vital, Historic Look at Ferguson and BLM". The Film Stage. Retrieved 2017-07-13.
  12. ^ Mejia, Paul (January 26, 2017). "This New Ferguson Documentary Will Remind You What Really Matters". The Fader. Retrieved 2017-07-11.
  13. ^ Hoffman, Jordan (2017-01-20). "Whose Streets? review: searing film gives a voice to the people of Ferguson". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2017-07-11.
  14. ^ Rooney, David (January 20, 2017). "'Whose Streets?': Film Review | Sundance 2017". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 2017-07-11.
  15. ^ Dry, Jude (January 20, 2017). "'Whose Streets?' Review: Vital Ferguson Doc Depicts Black Lives Matter". IndieWire. Retrieved 13 July 2017.
  16. ^ Lang, Brent (2017-02-07). "Magnolia Buys Sundance Documentary 'Whose Streets?'". Variety. Retrieved 2017-07-12.
  17. ^ Hipes, Patrick (7 February 2017). "Sundance Ferguson Doc 'Whose Streets?' Lands At Magnolia". Deadline. Retrieved 11 July 2017.
  18. ^ McKinney, Jessica (16 May 2017). "'Whose Streets?' Captures Aftermath Of Mike Brown Shooting". Vibe. Retrieved 13 July 2017.
  19. ^ Mueller, Benjamin; Southall, Ashley (2014-12-13). "25,000 March in New York to Protest Police Violence". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2017-07-13.
  20. ^ DiBlasio, Natalie; Alcindor, Yamiche (December 13, 2014). "'Justice For All,' 'Millions March' draw tens of thousands of protesters". USA TODAY. Retrieved 2017-07-13.
  21. ^ a b "10 Filmmakers to Watch in 2016: Damon Davis and Sabaah Folayan". Independent Magazine. 2016-03-16. Retrieved 2016-12-17.
  22. ^ O'Falt, Chris (January 22, 2017). "How 20 Sundance Festival Films Got Their Start the Sundance Labs". IndieWire. Retrieved 13 July 2017.
  23. ^ Walker, Julie (January 19, 2017). "A very Black guide to Sundance Film Festival 2017". NBC News. Retrieved 13 July 2017.
  24. ^ "Meet our 2017 Vimeo Share the Screen Fellow – Sabaah Folayan". Made in NY Media Center By IFP. IFP. Retrieved 12 July 2017.

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