Exploring Legacy, Learning, and Reflection Through Filmmaking
An alumna’s journey from student to documentary filmmaker to assistant professor.
October 12, 2023
October 12, 2023
As a documentary filmmaker, Iliana Sosa ’07 has a unique ability to connect with audiences on a personal level. Her journey from student to filmmaker was shaped by her experiences at Southwestern, which played a pivotal role in her ability to seamlessly blend academia and storytelling, eventually leading her to her current role as an assistant professor. Among her many accomplishments, one standout achievement is making the award-winning documentary What We Leave Behind, a heartfelt exploration of her family’s history.
Sosa’s passion for storytelling and film began during her first year at Southwestern as a student in the late Professor Emeritus of History Daniel Castro’s Latin American History class. Castro introduced her to a world of cinema she had never explored. Films like Central Station and Pixote were among the works he shared with the class that broadened her horizons and fundamentally altered how she perceived the world around her. Beyond being an exceptional educator, Castro played a pivotal role in Sosa’s life as her mentor and encouraged her to pursue graduate school for film.
After graduating from Southwestern, Sosa attended UCLA and got her MFA, initially pursuing fiction filmmaking. However, it wasn’t long until she discovered her love of documentaries, which allowed her to explore diverse narratives. When a friend asked her to co-direct a short documentary, An Uncertain Future (which premiered at SXSW 2018), the experience helped refine her skills and set her on a path toward creating her own documentary.
What We Leave Behind is a deeply personal project that took Sosa seven years to complete. The film began with the idea of preserving her grandfather’s story and evolved as she filmed different aspects of his life. The final film was not what she initially envisioned, as the story naturally unfolded during production. “At first, I had no funding, but I borrowed a camera and went to film him where he lived in Mexico. Then, I would put together samples and apply to grants,” Sosa recalled. “Finally, I got funding through the El Paso Museums & Cultural Affairs Department, and it allowed me to bring on a team with a cinematographer and a sound recordist. After that, the project took off.” The film has received support from prestigious organizations, including the Sundance Institute, the Ford Foundation, the Austin Film Society, Field of Vision, and the Gotham Documentary Lab. In 2022, it was nominated for a Gotham Award in the Best Documentary Feature category.
Sosa was deeply inspired by her grandfather’s story of resilience, hard work, and constant movement, and she embarked on a journey to document his experiences. Despite his passing before the film’s completion, she believes his spirit lives on through the project. She says the film is a tribute to his memory, capturing his legacy and the lessons he imparted about hard work and the importance of family. “Our elders have so much wisdom to share, and I want to remind others of their significance,” Sosa expressed. “I also want people to consider what legacy they want to leave behind. Life is short, and it’s important to reflect on what we want to be remembered for and by whom. The film delves into profound questions about life and death, offering a space for contemplation, which is needed today.”
Throughout her time as a filmmaker, Sosa never envisioned herself becoming an academic. However, her career took an unexpected turn, and she now works at the University of Texas at Austin as an assistant professor in the Radio, Television, and Film department. “I consider myself first and foremost a filmmaker and am still very active in making films. I had done some lecturing before and really liked it, so I thought this might be a good opportunity to do that more sustainably,” she said. “I didn’t expect to fall into this position, but I love it and am really grateful. I feel like I’m constantly being stimulated intellectually, and I’m learning so much from my students, their work, and the films they share with me.” Teaching has allowed Sosa to share her extensive knowledge and passion for filmmaking with the next generation of storytellers.
Southwestern’s interdisciplinary approach to education ignited Sosa’s passion for films, broadened her horizons, and allowed her to shape her career from a more comprehensive and nuanced perspective. Her education gave her the tools to explore diverse narratives and themes in her documentary work, and it instilled in her the importance of intellectual curiosity and open-mindedness, qualities she now shares with her students. For current students and aspiring filmmakers, Sosa encourages them to take the first step, even with limited resources, advising them not to wait for permission but to start small and learn as they go. She also emphasizes the importance of pushing boundaries and taking risks, urging students not to play it safe. Sosa’s journey through filmmaking and academia is an inspiring testament to following your passion and making a lasting impact through storytelling. Her work emphasizes the power of family, resilience, reflection, and the importance of preserving our legacies for future generations.