A new documentary film by UNI Associate Professor of Digital Media Francesca Soans explores Waterloo’s rich cultural history through the life and works of local blues musician Etheleen Morehead Wright.
“Getting That Note Out,” which has a virtual sneak preview screening from UNI’s Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center this week, explores Wright’s life as a Waterloo native and musician. Wright learned to play guitar by watching her grandfather. She went on to perform in several bands, including The Mixers and Louis and the Blues Reviewers. Wright has traveled as far as Washington, D.C. for performances, but her story is one tied to Waterloo history.
“One of the things that I’m interested in doing as a filmmaker is to just tell the stories of what I see around me, to be connected to the community,” said Soans. “[Wright] had a story about the early beginnings of music as it developed in the North End … I thought, ‘here’s a story that I want to tell.’”
The film follows Wright as she prepares to join her band, Etheleen Wright and the North End Blues Review, for a series of performances at Waterloo’s North End Arts and Music Festival, which was founded to help promote arts and culture in Waterloo’s North End. Interspersed are intimate interviews with Wright as she reflects on her art and life, and tells a story that is much bigger than herself.
Waterloo’s African American community has a storied history, and the city’s North End has become known for its contributions to local culture. Soans was intrigued by the history of the North End, a neighborhood associated with African American history in Waterloo. She worked closely with organizers of the North End Arts and Music Festival on the documentary.
The festival itself was founded, in part, to help address stereotypes about the North End neighborhood and Waterloo in general, a mission shared by Soans’ film. Soans points to the many community organizations and individuals who have worked for years to transform this part of Waterloo.
“For many years they’ve been working to recognize the vitality of an area in Waterloo that used to be dismissed as an area of crime and poverty,” said Soans. “There's long been an assumption that Waterloo is not something to be proud of; it’s a city that suffers from various challenges, which I think ignores the good things in Waterloo — the courage in Waterloo, the richness of Waterloo, the diversity of Waterloo. It’s something that many don't know about and I think it's important to know.”
Soans’ commitment to sharing the good qualities of her community helps enrich the Waterloo/Cedar Falls community by shining a spotlight on the rich culture that’s present here. By focusing specifically on Waterloo, she helps spread the word about the opportunities available to students beyond Cedar Falls. Matt Boyd, co-founder of the North End Festival and backup guitarist for Etheleen Wright and the North End Blues Review, was inspired by Soans’ mission.
“I love Francesca. She's incredible. Her dedication to doing this stuff is just amazing,” he said. “I’m really happy about her working on the North End because there’s some history in this area that has been sort of lost for a long time and it’ll be good to get the true stories of people that were there in the beginning.”
While her film is focused on Wright’s personal story, the film has a bigger message.
“A key decision I made was that I wasn't going to make this a biography. This ended up being really mostly about her connection to her music,” said Soans. “It's the story of a blues guitarist reconnecting with her music. That interested me as a fellow artist … I’m hoping people will be able to connect to [the film[ and to Etheleen… both in terms of the story it tells … as well as in terms of the larger story of creativity and connection to creativity.”
“Getting That Note Out” is just one of Soans’ many film projects. She’s also working on a separate documentary about the history of the North End Neighborhood, which is a part of “Waterloo: A History of Place,” a five-part documentary series about the history of Waterloo, a project developed since 2003. The series explores everyday places and the memories connected with them. The first part of the series, “Sons of Jacob Synagogue,” has screened at international film festivals and won several awards.
Soans is inspired to tell the stories of everyday people. She graduated from Temple University in Philadelphia with a degree in film and media arts, then moved to Waterloo to work at Waterloo’s public access television station, where she developed her passion for local stories.
“This brought me into contact with a rich diversity of people who were interested in using the television station, wanted to get their particular stories or projects or organizations out there. It was a really wonderful experience for me … to get to know Waterloo through these different communities,” she said. “Living in Waterloo, hearing or knowing some of the people that have long been connected to Waterloo and to Waterloo’s histories, has shaped some of my interests.”
As a UNI professor, Soans’ films often have a special impact on the campus community — her students often assist with filming and editing for her films, gaining hands-on experience on documentaries and fiction films. For this project, several of Soans’ students from the Digital Media major helped out with shooting the musical performances that are featured throughout the film.
“For them it was a challenging thing to have to do, because in a documentary shoot, you can’t stop and restart, you just have to run and hope that everything works out, so it was a good experience,” said Soans. “Every situation is different, so it’s always an ongoing learning experience for me and also hopefully for the students.”
UNI alum and Retention & Mentoring Program Coordinator for UNI’s Department of Diversity, Inclusion and Social Justice Dacia Carter assisted with the editing stage of the film. As a student, Carter took two classes with Soans as electives to support Carter's Interactive Digital Studies major. Carter approached Soans about opportunities to gain experience with video, and Soans brought her onto the project. Carter was thrilled at the opportunity to apply what she had learned in class.
"I had no idea that the classes I had taken, specifically with Francesca, or what I had learned in her class would be utilized – working directly alongside her,” said Carter. "I’ve learned a lot while working alongside Francesca … Francesca sets the same standards for all of her students in the classroom and beyond it. She brings her skills, energy, and creativity to the table and she expects you to do the same."
According to Carter, the opportunity to work on projects like Soans’ film is one of the many opportunities available to UNI students.
"Attending UNI provided me the opportunity to connect with people who have been a significant influence in my personal and professional journey,” she said. “There are amazing people at UNI, hidden gems, who are willing to help you carve out a path in the direction you want to go. How I came to be a part of this project, working with Francesca, is evidence of that.”
In addition to her Waterloo series, Soans is working on another documentary project, about an independent radio station being developed by a village in the Himalayas. Soans filmed footage for this project over a period of three years, starting in 2013. All of her work comes from her passion for sharing stories that aren’t often told. She recalled a screening of the “Sons of Jacob Synagogue” documentary in Paris, where attendees made connections between the film and their own experiences.
“These stories do not make it to the national stage … nobody wants to tell the stories of the smaller places, but it’s important,” said Soans. “To dismiss a local story as being irrelevant to the national story, I think is wrong, because I think that the national story is made up of a lot of small local stories. These small local stories are also universal stories. I feel fortunate to be able to work with these stories and these people.”
UNI’s Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center will host a live-streamed sneak preview community screening of “Getting That Note Out” at 7 p.m. on Friday, April 9, followed by a Q&A hosted by Ms.Rocki & Chaveevah from the North End Update. The screening is co-sponsored by the North End Cultural Center. To request access to the screening, visit the GBPAC website.