A Young Female Filmmaker Talks Race, Gender, and the Power of Education
By Shay Maunz
We here at Glamour's philanthropic initiative, The Girl Project, started our new video series, "Get Schooled," to highlight the success stories of girls who have overcome huge obstacles in pursuit of an education. But we didn’t stop there. We also wanted the videos to be made by female filmmakers, young women with inspiring stories of their own.
Enter Sabaah Folayan, a young director who lives in Brooklyn and has already made a name for herself as a storyteller and human rights champion. She's currently at work on a film, Whose Streets?, about the unrest and rioting in Ferguson, Mo., following the death of Michael Brown.
For the first video in our series Sabaah met with Kylee, a high school senior from Ottawa, Kansas, and discovered she had more in common with the teen than she anticipated. Last week we caught up with Sabaah to talk about that experience and about what it’s like being a female filmmaker of color.
How did you become a filmmaker?
I was pre-med in college but I was always a writer, even though I didn’t know where it would take me and wasn’t confident enough to really pursue it. But then a couple of years ago I saw what was going on in Ferguson following the Michael Brown shooting, and in the media I didn’t see a sense of humanity in the people who were protesting — I just didn't see that being portrayed in a way that was nuanced. I wanted to do that, and I wanted to use film because it’s a medium that can connect with people often more quickly and dramatically than writing can. It was scary to do that, it was hard, but also it felt right. For the first time in my life I felt like I was doing something that was giving me energy instead of taking energy away from me.
Do you think that race and gender have an impact on your work?
I think when you’re trying to make a film with someone who is similar to you, if you have a lot of things in common you might be able to go a little deeper. But on the flip side, coming into a situation from a totally different background, sometimes you can offer a different perspective, a bit of critical distance. I do think it’s important that people of color be able to tell stories about people of color and that women be able to tell stories about other women, because I think we are going to be able to tell stories other people couldn't tell.
At the same time, I don’t want to be locked in as a black director, a black woman director, because I don’t want to be only able to make movies about people of color or about women. If I want to make a documentary about a quarterback in Vermont, I should be able to do that. As a black women there’s a temptation to box me into this particular lane, whereas a white guy can just be a storyteller and tell all kinds of stories.
Tell me about filming this segment of "Get Schooled."
What made it great was Kylee. Kylee was really incredible and she made my life easy — she was really open and honest and welcoming. Going to Ottawa I was nervous because I was like, I don’t look like anyone within a 20-mile radius of here. I knew that before I even got there. Coming from a place like New York with a bunch of cameras you feel like you’re descending on this little town and making everyone really uncomfortable, like it’s going to be a culture clash. But Kylee was so great about it.
And it seems like you were able to really relate to one another.
Yeah, I had lived in Hawaii for five years in my childhood. It was a really rural place and there wasn't a lot of infrastructure, it was all about living off the land and growing food. And Kylee talked about trying to fit in after coming to the town from her childhood home out in the country. And I totally understood that because I remember coming from Hawaii and having to learn how to deal with other kids and deal with school.
Also, we both have single moms, so we could connect about that. I think it’s really interesting because there’s this legacy of girls pushing over obstacles to get an education, and that’s what we both did.
How important has your education been in your life?
I think it was extremely important. From a really early age my mom always told me I was going to college. It was expected of me and it wasn’t so much expected of kids in my neighborhood. My mom always pushed me and always put me into environments that would nourish me. She got me into a private all-girls school through middle and high school which really changed the trajectory of my life. It broadened my horizons in ways that stretched far outside the classroom.
Another thing that Kylee and I shared was that there has to be someone who really sticks by you and pushes you forward. My mom was that for me, and Communities in Schools was that for Kylee.
Watch Sabaah meet with Kylee in the first installment of the series "Get Schooled."
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• Eva Longoria: 10 Women Who Changed My Life
• What It's Like to Work With Award-Winning Women Directors
• We Should All Try to Be a Little Bit More Ambitious
Photo Credit: Get Schooled