Documentaries can lie as easily as fiction, but there is a cumulative truth to the found footage gathered in Whose Streets?, a protest doc that offers an on-the-ground view of the uprisings that followed the 2014 police killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
Directors Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis collected scores of mobile-phone videos, some taken during the hours Brown’s body was left on the street and others from the ensuing days and nights of protests. While most mainstream news coverage focused on property destruction and looting, the residents’ cameras reveal something else: the countless cops, dogs, military trucks, and weapons that descended on Ferguson, essentially amounting to what one activist describes as an “unseen war.” On one chilling occasion, residents standing behind a chain-link fence are told via loudspeaker to return to their homes. When one of them shouts back, “This is my backyard!” they’re fired upon with gas canisters, smoke enveloping the screen.
The searing immediacy of these images marks the true strength of Whose Streets?, as the film otherwise doesn’t provide much context or structure. What information we do get comes largely from the activists we meet through first-person interviews. These include David Whitt, a volunteer for the police-monitoring organization Copwatch, who in a stroke of bitter irony lives just off the street where Brown was shot. There’s a small but heartbreaking moment showing Whitt at home, where he describes his toddler son as a “fighter” and tries to playfully box with him. The boy pauses for a moment, raises his arms, then falls into his father’s chest for a hug. There’s truth in that too.