In more than 50 short films, SOMASAPIENS features dozens of people (and their pets) from the South of Market neighborhood, an ongoing documentary project attempting to capture the lives of SoMa’s denizens.
Sponsored by the SOMA West Community Benefit District, the series, which bills itself as a takeoff on “Human of New York,” launched its website earlier this month for the public to view all the films for the first time.
The collection features homeless residents, social workers, artists, pole dancers, poets, sound engineers, and many more of those living and working in the neighborhood.
“When I showed [the community benefit district] the first four films, they were like, ‘We want 60 of these,’” said Grant Thompson, the filmmaker behind the series.
Thompson, 33, started working on SOMASAPIENS three years ago, documenting the experiences of a homeless outreach worker, a man who just lost his home, an old-school guitar shop and a SoMa community motorcycle workshop, which has since closed.
Then, in early 2020, he met Christian Martin, the executive director at the SOMA West Community Benefit District, a nonprofit organization that provides cleaning, maintenance and public-safety programs in the neighborhood.
The two built a rapport and stayed in touch. Later that year, Thompson brought up the idea of taking portraits of homeless residents, and Martin showed interest in sponsoring the project. But he wanted to expand the series to include others living and working in the neighborhood.
“It feels like you’re just hanging out,” Thompson said about spending time with his film subjects. “Then you make a piece of art existing outside of you that has its own life, like a sand castle.”
In one of the films, Carlo Gascon, known as C-LO, tells his story of growing up in the neighborhood, from selling drugs to helping kids create a safe space. This happened, he said, by listening to the kids, playing basketball with them and organizing guest speakers and art sessions.
He now works at United Playaz, a violence prevention and youth development organization in the heart of SoMa.
“It takes the hood to save the hood,” C-LO says in the film, referring to the United Playaz motto. “This gives me a sense of purpose, and I won’t trade it for anything else.”
In another film, Shinya Nakahara, a sign-painting enthusiast, talks about flying from Japan to San Francisco a few days before Christmas in 2015 to apprentice at New Bohemia Signs, one of the oldest sign shops in San Francisco.
He stayed and apprenticed with the shop’s owner, Damon Styer, for three months. In the video, he is shown hand-painting signs while dressed in an oversized T-shirt.
Nakahara went home to Tokyo to open his own sign-painting shop in 2016, but then returned to work at New Bohemia Signs in August 2021.
“Every day, it feels like I’m living one of my dreams,” Nakahara says in the film.
SOMASAPIENS is still an ongoing project, with at least two more films to come: One about D’Arcy Drollinger, the San Francisco Drag Laureate, and the other about Ewin Moore, who spent decades in jail and now is a team lead at SOMA West Community Benefit District, working double shifts at times when the organization experienced staff shortage.
In the future, Thompson wants to focus on those outside the workforce — like elders and kids — to reflect the age diversity in the neighborhood.
To view films in the project, visit somasapiens.com.