Filmmaking in the IR Classroom

Using film as a source of reading and interpretation has become a common feature for those of us teaching at university. It provides for a cognitively different but sometimes more creative way of bringing to life some of the conceptual themes and allows our students to engage in the subject matter through medium other than written text. So far, so good.

But what happens when you allow students to ‘write’ their International Politics assignment in form of a micro-documentary? In two of my courses at the University of Queensland, I offer students precisely that opportunity – with stunning results. So here is the story.

In both of my undergraduate courses students have to write a policy briefing paper in which they assess  -in the case of ‘Introduction to Peace and Conflict Analysis- a particular global issue (like human trafficking, child soldiers, nuclear proliferation, global warming, war, or inequality) or -in the case of ‘International Peacekeeping- a current UN peacekeeping mission. Here, students have to analyze the root causes of the global issue/local conflict, assess the strengths and weaknesses of existing policies that aim to resolve these global issues/conflicts, and suggest concrete policy recommendations on how to improve existing policies/peacekeeping missions. Such an assignment is central to the study of Peace and Conflict Studies, as it deepens students’ understanding of the relationship between the root causes of particular conflicts/global issues and the reasons why efforts by the international community to resolve the latter have succeeded or failed. This assignment thereby sharpens students’ awareness of how successful processes of conflict resolution depend on a prior understanding of the causes of conflict.

As an alternative to writing this briefing paper, students are given the opportunity to produce a 10-15 minute film documentary (with specific assessment criteria that differ from the written assignment). This allows students to engage with an academic topic in a more creative manner. As one of my students wrote: ‘I really loved having the option to make a film about it, I think it’s a great idea and actually was really refreshing to have another option that was creative. I felt it made me connect on a deeper level with the topic being a visual person and that there was more room to show passion and emotions. I really liked having the two mediums of visuals and sound rather than just one medium being writing and also I became more emotionally involved than I usually would when writing a paper’. I introduced this option for my students in 2009 and in each course, 10-17% of my students have chosen this option – and interestingly, the vast majority have been female students (91-100%). Thus, while it is certainly far too early to draw more general conclusions from this stunning ratio, it might actually be that this assessment format suits female students particularly well. This seems to resonate quite strongly with the principles underpinning the Universal Design of assessment items that emphasize the increased need to develop a variety of high-quality assignment options that students can choose from (Burgstahler and Cory, 2009).

Amongst the many excellent film documentaries produced by my students over the years, one in particular stands out for me. It is a documentary produced by Melody Groenenboom, then a first year undergraduate student, who chose to address the topic of ‘human trafficking’. This is her documentary featured here, together with some of Melody’s own reflections of what choosing to produce a film documentary has meant for her and the process of learning.


Choosing to make a film doc assignment: A student’s perspective

By Melody Groenenboom
Relationship Manager at Compassion International

By the time I’d finished my Bachelor’s degree, I’d written well over 100,000 words. Argumentative essays, reflections, case studies, analyses, methodological reports, literacy reviews. I really enjoyed writing – I enjoyed mastering the art of framing and unfolding an argument; finding the perfect words to relate someone else’s evidence to my own thoughts (and vice-versa); reaching that satisfying moment of finally articulating a conclusion. Yet as much as I enjoyed writing academically, I would jump straight into any opportunity to craft a piece of assessment that did not have to be confined to 12-point Times New Roman. I am aware that my real strengths lie in the visual-creative sphere, and I excel the most is when I am using those strengths. I’m sure I would’ve smashed out a visual arts degree and played more to my strengths by doing so, but visual art is not what I’m passionate about. I am passionate about international community development, so that’s where I focused my studies. This meant, however, that over the years of my study my creative side slowly suffocated, and I had to wrestle my visually-learning brain into submission to course after course of reading and writing.

So when I was given the choice one semester of writing yet another essay, or presenting my assessment in video form, it was like coming up for air after being underwater. I knew that I’d be able to submit something that would respond to the necessary criteria while allowing me to really enjoy the process of creating it. But more than being able indulge my sweet spot and take what for me was the ‘easy road’, I felt that this opportunity would allow the global issue I had chosen as my focus (human trafficking) to be communicated in a new and compelling way. I had been challenged and impressed by articles and studies that I’d read on the issue, but I had never really been moved. I hoped that empirical research and factual content combined with the pace, aestheticism and emotivism of a video piece, would allow for a deeply human connection with the issue. The written word can, at times, discriminate. But visual media rarely does. It welcomes a diverse audience and allows for widespread engagement with the issue. The video I created for a first-year university course assessment now has over 5,900 hits on YouTube and has been used by a number of anti-trafficking organizations to communicate the issue and engage support for the cause. A video may never appear on the pages of International Political Science Review, but in my experience, was a valuable experience both for myself and those who have watched it. Whether or not a piece of creative assessment goes beyond the assessor’s desk, the inclusion of creative alternatives for student assessment is critical. It recognizes the value and academic merit of various forms of communication, and the unique ways that creative assessment can be used to engage a wider audience in issues that risk being resigned to a lecture hall.

For more details on Melody’s artwork, please visit the following site:

About Sebastian Kaempf

I am a Lecturer in Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Queensland in Brisbane Australia and one of the co-convenors of TheVisionMachine. My research interests are in the mediatization of conflict in a transforming global media landscape and ethics and laws of wars in contemporary asymmetric conflicts. For more details on this and list of publications, please visit

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