Motorcycling across Minnesota with a saddlebag full of stories


Joanna Kohler is a filmmaker, a motorcyclist, and a believer in the power of stories. Last month she rode her motorcycle for 23 days and traveled solo, carrying camping gear and a video camera. Kohler traveled to Grand Marias, Hovland, Ely, Duluth, Hugo, Forest Lake, Grand Rapids, Plymouth, Coon Rapids, Chaska, Anoka, White Earth Reservation, Brainerd, Red Wing, Jackson, Appleton, and Mankato. As she drove, she stopped to ask 32 Minnesotans the question, “What fear have you faced that has changed your life?”

Joanna Kohler’s interviews will be available for viewing on her Web site this October or November.

Kohler said her trip was not actually solo, because strangers opened their hearts and homes and offered her food. “Facing a fear often led people to contribute to their communities,” says Kohler. “For example, two young people who had lost their fathers went on to help others cope with the loss of a parent. In general, people want a quality of life plus have their basic needs met: to be accepted, to give and receive love, and feel connected.”

“I’m not interested in imported stories.”

She heard several stories of people fighting cancer. She also heard from veterans such as Paul Beulieu, of Baxter. After the Vietnam war, Beulieu struggled to make sense of the world and himself. A veteran identified simply as “Don,” from White Earth, said that he found “community, honor and love in White Earth.” Don and his wife, Laurie, now run a youth program for Native American kids.

Kohler’s dream of asking strangers about their fears began five years ago. Kohler, a filmmaker, creates social documentaries. She became hooked on film making when she was a young adult, making her first film with three other young people. “Stories are magical,” she says. “Filmmaking gets stories heard and visible that would otherwise be untold.” She believes that the stories of ordinary people can shape our lives. “Sweetland is a great example of a movie about Minnesotans. I’m not interested in imported stories.”

Kohler is also a youth media educator and coordinator at Twin Cities Youth Media Network, bringing together organizations that help young people create films. “Social documentaries have the power to shape and create a life,” she says. “I want to entertain, engage a community, and confront power.”

Jeanette Fordyce contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.