- Alumnae Spotlight
Sabaah Folayan '09: Filmmaker
Sabaah Folayan ‘09 co-directed Whoose Streets?, a film that chronicles the birth of the moment for black lives in St. Louis, MO, following the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown Jr. at the hands of police.
Whose Streets? chronicles the birth of the movement for black lives in St. Louis, Missouri, following the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown Jr. at the hands of police. Sabaah Folayan ‘09 co-directed the film. She was the primary overseer of the logistics and finances of the production, and an equal collaborator in the creative direction of the film. She was also a writer on the film, creating the texted narrative pulled from Twitter, and helping to structure scenes.
On her path from doctor to documentarian:
I graduated from Columbia University in 2013 as a premedical student. During what was intended to be a gap year after graduation, I took the MCAT and began working at a non-profit that did re-entry work, supporting incarcerated people in putting their lives back together. I had already started to feel disillusioned by the idea of becoming a doctor because of how poorly the U.S. medical system is structured and began to consider public health as a career. In my new job, I soon found myself frustrated by the limitations of the non-profit sector and began to realize an important fact about myself: I don’t like boxes! I felt like in order to address the issues that other systems failed to adequately respond to, I needed to work for myself. With this in mind, I went to Ferguson hoping to do an independent public health study showing how police and civilians facing off would cause long-term trauma in this community, along with my classmate, photographer Lucas Alvarado Farrar. We quickly realized that this moment was too chaotic to conduct a clinical type study, so we began filming and asking questions. From there, the documentary was born.
On civil rights and human rights:
Police militarization is a major threat to free speech, which is an integral part of democracy. When police display massive weapons of war, it discourages political dissent. When they deploy these weapons on civilians, it feels like a declaration of war by America against its own citizens. Indeed, it was later revealed that Ferguson protesters were referred to as enemy combatants in internal communications by police. This is a question of civil rights, but it is more so a question of human rights. What collective value do we place on human life versus property, or a superficial sense of peace? As the descendant of Africans who were enslaved in this country, I have had this question passed down over to me over generations as a matter of survival. As a black woman living in America today, I risk encountering police bias on a daily basis. In order for me to envision a safe and fulfilling life for myself and my loved ones in the United States, it is imperative that this question be answered, that the humanity of black people be fully acknowledged in practice as well as in law, and that the value of life be prized about all else.
On Marlborough’s influence on her chosen career path:
My time at Marlborough gave me a sense of the value of experience itself. I lived in South Central LA at the time, and the dichotomy between my neighborhood and Hancock Park couldn’t be more striking. Through this, I realized how easy it is for us to live our lives in totally different worlds, never fully seeing or understanding one another. My drive toward social justice has always been present. I was taught American history at home from an early age. I was very young when I was first struck by how physically segregated Los Angeles is, and how darker-skinned people always seemed to be worse off. At Marlborough, I started to believe that with a good education, racism could be overcome, which is why I chose to pursue hard science instead of social justice. But once I got to Columbia, I had a rude awakening: Racial bias is just as present in science as any other field. That is when I realized I could not avoid social injustice and decided instead to tackle it head-on.
Photo by Maarten de Boer/Getty Images