Sasha Waters Freyer, Cinema and Comparative Literature, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Films by Sasha Waters Freyer don’t fit neatly into a category.
There’s Whipped—a documentary about “the mundane day-to-day” work of dominatrixes. Or The Waiting Time, which explores her experience becoming pregnant in midlife, incorporating lots of footage of farm animals standing around...waiting. Razing Appalachia exposes the environmental and social effects of strip-mining in rural West Virginia, chronicling a town’s fight to end it. And her most recent documentary, This American Gothic, weaves together history of the painting and the plight of four women working tirelessly to build a visitor’s center in Eldon, Iowa, where Grant Wood created his masterpiece.
But there is a common denominator to her eclectic body of work: she pursues stories of marginalized populations—women, mothers, workers, residents of rural areas—“people you don’t always hear from.”
The native New Yorker joined the Cinema and Comparative Literature faculty eight years ago after earning a bachelor’s degree in photography at the School of Visual Arts in New York, working professionally in the film industry for five years, and picking up a master’s degree in film from Temple University in Philadelphia.
Waters sat down with fyi to discuss the most important lesson she teaches students, a birthday gift to herself, and why she loves her front porch.
How did you get into filmmaking?
I studied photography as an undergraduate and was interested in documentary photography—being out in the world, meeting people with my camera. It naturally evolved into an interest in documentary film. I wanted to be able to capture those encounters more fully with audio.
Do you have a certain style as a filmmaker?
It’s probably a smarter career move to have one thing you do well and keep going back to it. That allows people to recognize your work. Like Ken Burns: he makes a range of historical documentaries, but has a dominant style. I don’t. I tend to let each individual story inspire me.
Which film are you most proud of?
The most recent short that I finished, Her Heart Is Washed in Water and then Weighed, which is a meditation on motherhood and mortality. It has so many elements—footage I shot in Rome, an autopsy of a human brain, footage from a child’s point of view. A section based on an interview I did with my mother 10 years ago pulls everything together. I’m proud of that film because I tried and failed so many times to make it work, but I think it succeeds conceptually and aesthetically.
What do you teach? What’s the take-home message for your students?
I teach intermediate nonfiction video, advanced editing, advanced video, 16-millimeter film, and producing. I really try to teach my students that you have to be passionate about the story you’re telling. When you make a full-length film, you might be working on it for a couple of years from researching the idea to getting access, shooting and editing. A big part of succeeding in that is knowing you’ll be interested enough in the topic to stay motivated to work on it. You never want to feel like ‘this is a really boring documentary but I have to finish it.’ And, chances are, if you’re curious enough to stick with it that long, other people will be interested in watching it.
Tell me about your family life.
My husband is John Freyer; he teaches photography here. He did a book called All My Life For Sale. For an art project, he literally sold everything he owned online and then drove around the country visiting his stuff, staying with whoever would let him stay with them. Our daughters are Georgia, 4, and Ruby, 1. We do a lot of kid activities: the playground, the park, the library, the farmers’ market. We live in a very “neighborhoody” neighborhood—lots of kids and dogs. We have a big front porch with a table, and we eat there a lot, spend a lot of time hanging out there as a family. After growing up in New York City, having a front porch and a backyard is so great.
Do you have any hobbies?
Textile screenprinting is a new hobby. I did one evening class on it and thought it was awesome. The immediate gratification factor is fantastic—it’s the opposite of filmmaking, which is so drawn out. I had this party book from the 1940s with cool illustrations, so I printed them onto handkerchiefs. I’m going to make my sister a set of napkins for Christmas. I sew also. I decided I’m going to make myself a new dress before my birthday, which is Nov. 19.
What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken, and did it pay off?
Moving to Iowa and taking this job in a community where I didn’t know anyone. To be completely honest, I didn’t feel especially committed to being a teacher at that time. I had some teaching experience, but it wasn’t like I knew I wanted to teach. I thought it could be interesting. Now, I love it and I can’t believe I ever thought about doing anything else. So yeah, it definitely paid off.
by Nicole Riehl