Filmmaker’s Multilayered Stories Resonate at Home and Abroad
The filmmaker Francesca Soans flew to Reykjavik a few years ago to present one of her films at the National Museum of Iceland. She’d been invited by the museum, along with the United Nations University and the University of Iceland, to lead a discussion about her documentary “notes towards a history,” which combines vintage Indian tourist movies with a 103-year-old Indian woman’s colorful accounts of seeing Halley’s Comet and living under British colonial rule.
It’s personal and, apparently, universal.
“I was blown away by the very close reading by this group of international viewers, some from Iceland, some from all parts of the world,” Soans said. “It was a fantastic experience.”
Soans, who lives in Waterloo and teaches digital media at the University of Northern Iowa, recently received an Iowa Artist Fellowship to support her ongoing efforts to make films that focus, as she puts it, on “history refracted through memories.”
When she searches for subjects, she tends to steer clear of big stories in favor of small ones. She prefers overlooked details, stray strands of narrative thread that she can weave into stories that show how a sense of identity and place evolves over time.
“Film offers a way to create multilevel, multilayered experiences,” she said. “I like that ability to present something like a tapestry. You look at it and may not understand all the different parts, so it bears watching again.”
She said the fellowship application prompted her to step back and review her work over the last 20 years, to spot the patterns of subjects that have caught her interest — notably, “the unknown or the forgotten or the invisible.”
She has an unusually sharp eye for those kinds of stories. A native of India, Soans earned a graduate degree in film from Temple University in Philadelphia and moved to Iowa when her husband, Gereon Kopf, joined the faculty at Luther College in Decorah. For several years, she worked for Waterloo’s public access TV station and learned about the city from the outside in.
“I picked up on these stories that most people would have heard and dismissed,” she said. “People have all these stories, these memories they don’t think are worth recording. But that’s what I brought: I did think they were worthwhile and worth sharing with the world.”
In 2003 she started working on a five-part series called “Waterloo: A History of Place,” which tugs out and examines different threads of the city’s social and economic fabric: Black’s Department Store, the Paramount Theatre, the Rath meatpacking plant, the Sons of Jacob synagogue, and the predominantly Black neighborhood called the North End.
The series is still a work in progress, but the first part, about the synagogue, which she co-produced with the local historian Robert Neymeyer, racked up a stack of awards from the Iowa Motion Picture Association, Wild Rose Film Festival and State Historical Society of Iowa. The segment about the North End prompted Soans to spin off a profile called “Getting That Note Out,” about a local blues legend named Etheleen Morehead Wright, who is now in her 80s.
Soans is using part of her Iowa Artist Fellowship grant to distribute her films in order to showcase Iowa’s diversity to audiences both here in Iowa and farther afield.
“Film can be a powerful instrument of social change,” she said. She hopes her films — about “aging and creativity, poverty and race, gender and discrimination, history and memory, immigration and identities” — will lead to deeper understanding about communities in Iowa and elsewhere.
Each film reveals common threads, experiences that bind people together.
Each story leads to another. And another. “That’s the danger,” she said. “I can think of a thousand projects I’d like to work on at this very moment.”
But she remains undaunted.
“Every piece reminds me of what I don’t know,” she said. “Every new piece is a new exploration.”
– Michael Morain, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs