Wall of Light

Since 11 September 2001, as a German, I have always felt irritated by the date ‘9/11’. Growing up in Germany, 9/11 signifies something different from the attacks on the New York skyline. Of course, and this is a no brainer, ‘9/11’ for us Europeans means 9 November, not 11 September. So, for me, ‘9/11’ denotes something completely different. Especially since 9 November has been such a fateful date in German history, connected to at least five important events: the execution of Robert Blum in 1848 (a leftist-liberal democratic leader whose death foreshadowed the failure of the German March Revolution); the end of the Prussian Monarchy in 1918 (and the all-too-bizarre, nearly simultaneous, declaration of both the Weimar Republic and the Free Socialist Republic in Berlin); the failed 1923 Beer Hall Putsch in Munich which saw the early emergence (and temporary downfall) of the early Nazi Party; the 1938 Reichskristallnacht (which saw the burning of Jewish property and synagogues); and the 1989 opening of the Berlin Wall.

Needless to say, I was only (and thankfully – in most of these cases) alive to experience one of these historic events. But maybe ‘experience’ is the wrong term here. I was thirteen in 1989, and growing up in Bad Krozingen in southwestern Germany, my family – unlike many others – had no relatives or friends in the GDR. There was no personal connection through which as a child I could have understood what was meant by ‘two Germanies’, ‘the Cold War’, the ‘Red Army’, let alone the images of cheerful citizens of the GDR crossing the border across the bridge at Bornholmer Strasse in Berlin on that fateful 9th November 1989. What I remember vividly though was that I was watching the news live on TV with my parents and sister and I recall seeing my parents cry. I remember that I did not understand why they were crying – and how strange it felt seeing them cry out of happiness. But I clearly sensed that something important was happening at the time.

25 years later, the Wall has disappeared for good. In fact, so keen on tearing down the Wall in its entirety (which – as I learned yesterday – was once over 155 kilometres long), any visitor to today’s Berlin will be hard pressed to still encounter the Wall anywhere. In fact, there are only two places left where the Wall still stands. But everywhere else, it is hard to spot, let alone imagine, where the Wall used to be. Some people say this is a good thing, but as times goes by, there are others who believe that it is a shame that this previous division has disappeared out of sight (and out of mind) altogether. I always belonged to that second group, though that’s perhaps an easy position to hold for someone who never had to live with or in proximity to the Wall.

Currently I am spending half a year at the Humboldt University in Berlin and I am renting a small apartment in the former Eastern part of the city, some three streets away from that famous bridge border crossing at Bornholmer Strasse. It was here where on 9 November 1989 the first border crossing opened and some 20,000 people poured into West Berlin within the first hour alone (including, amongst those first ones, a certain Angela Merkel). It was the beginning of the end of the GDR, it lead to German reunification, the end of Communism and the Cold War. It marked a local event which had global implications. And it is one that came about by non-violent means (something unique in German history). That is the reason, by the way, why 9 November 1989 was considered as the official public holiday; but because of the legacy of the Nazi Putsch and the Reichskristallnacht it was considered as inappropriate and therefore 3 October (marking the big peaceful ‘Monday Demonstration’ in Leipzig in 1989) became the official holiday of German unification.

25 years after the Wall came down, the city has become divided again – temporarily, from 7-9 November 2014: From Bornholmer Strasse to Mauerpark and the Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Strasse, past the Reichstag, the Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie to the East Side Gallery, a light installation featuring 8,000 luminous white balloons commemorated the division of Berlin.

The re-imagining of the Wall through this Wall of Lights (developed from an idea by Christopher Bauder and Marc Bauder) was accompanied by numerous exhibitions, events, and guided tours. And at 7pm on 9 November, thousands of patrons – schoolchildren, choir singers, athletes, artists, entrepreneurs, witnesses – took their places beside their balloons along the 15-km-long stretch of the light installation, and affixed their personal message to the helium-filled balloon. As the climax of the event, they released the balloons into the air along the entire length of the installation – at the Brandenburg Gate, the Mauerpark, the East Side Gallery, and other locations. At the same time, the ‘Staatskapelle Berlin’, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, played the final movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony with the ‘Ode an die Freude’ (Ode of Joy) at the Brandenburg Gate.

Alongside hundreds of thousands, I spent significant time walking and cycling along this Wall of Light, at night and during the day. My aims were manyfold: Yes, I wanted to get a sense of where exactly the Wall had been. But I also wanted to see what visual and emotional reactions this would provoke in me – and in the people around me. And I wanted to try and capture this event visually, through film and photography. What struck me was the installation’s visual power to evoke the dimensions and brutality of the Wall. Built on 13 August 1961, the Wall went through the entire city, but not in a straight line. It literally meandered through Berlin with lots of twists and turns, alongside streets, through parks, between houses, over rivers, across railtracks and bridges. The course seemed erratic and chaotic and oftentimes cemented the division of the city, of Germany, of the global political system in ways that made me wonder. Why did the course of the Wall proceed along these exact lines? Why this one street and not the next? Why did it turn left here and not right? Why did it not go around this park instead of cutting across it? I don’t know the answers to this.

Alongside the Wall of Light, little info boxes told stories about eyewitnesses, about escape tunnels, about people being shot while trying to flee. They bring to life what normally cannot be seen and what has been grown or built over. But then there are other parts where you can clearly see that the Wall impacted on where entire rows of houses were built in the past, and where others had been torn down to make way for the Wall – here the invisible (and temporarily illuminated border) explains some of the city’s past and current geography.

But while visually evoking the brutality of the Wall, the 8,000 lights with their helium-filled balloons are stunningly beautiful. I marvelled in the aesthetics of them floating in one endless line of balloons, especially at night. They illuminate dark parks, go under and across bridges, up and down, left and right, and they generate a strange warm feeling inside me during these cold November nights. Oftentimes, they seem to criss-cross each other – and they make me walk or cycle along parts of the city I had never seen before. What must it have felt like living in one of these apartments looking from say (former Eastern suburb) Prenzlauerberg cross the Wall into (former Western suburb) Wedding with the Wall just two meters away from your balcony? And what must it have felt like living inside West Berlin – caged inside the Wall and playing football on one of those pitches right next to the Wall? And what must it have felt like to – as out of nothing – see this division disappear overnight?

I overhear a lot of conversations, older couples talking about their experiences; I hear a tour guide explaining to an English group of tourists what it was like back then. But most of all, I hear nothing. There is a wonderful quietness to this experience with people just walking at night and trying to take in the experience whilst having the occasional desire to try and articulate what they feel. It’s a nice thing to observe – and I guess it speaks to the power of this artistic project that it inspires in ways I find hard to describe.

For me, I have to also think beyond the immediate aesthetics and history of the Wall. How Berlin was one of many (but perhaps the most important) physical manifestations of the old Cold War world. It was here that the Soviet blockade of the city for several months in 1948/1949 lead to the American airlift; where the Cold War nearly turned hot when American and Soviet tanks faced each other at Checkpoint Charlie; where the Wall was built by a regime afraid of its own people leaving. Maybe it is because I was brought up with the knowledge that walls are brutal and therefore need to be brought down that I feel so irritated by seeing other countries building walls themselves – after 1989. And yes, I am thinking of the Israeli government, but I am also thinking of Cyprus, North Korea and the European Union. Along the Berlin Wall, those who helped citizens of the GDR escape are today celebrated as heroes whilst at the same time we look at those involved in helping refugees enter the EU as criminals. Can we compare these or are these entirely different issues?

But what ultimately hit me was the sense of wonder and amazement: that the fact that I can walk here and allow myself to be puzzles about all of this, to be inspired by these thousands of illuminated balloons, was brought about peacefully. It’s such a remarkable thing to accomplish and it drives home the power of non-violence – something that so often seems counter-intuitive to us humans. But it can work, and this illuminated Wall is proof of it. It shows, as Gene Sharp (one of the key contemporary thinkers on non-violence) has said: ‘The dictators are never as strong as they tell you they are. They have their weaknesses. And the people are never as weak as they think they are… they have great power because all governments are based on the cooperation and subordination of the citizens they rule.’ Governments are in power because people consent to their power. In the course of 1989, the citizens of the GDR withdrew their consent peacefully and the result was the collapse of the regime and of the bipolar division of the world. The real 11/9 stands for this message – and it’s a nice and important message for us humans at a time when the world seems to have taken an ever more violent turn.

Video edited by Sebastian Kaempf
Footage taken from


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:


Reimagining Communities: Opening up History to the Memory of Others

By Jean-Louis Durand and Sebastian Kaempf; filmed & edited by Julia Schmitz

Modern nation-states cherish their history. It is a constitutive element of the national collective self-concept that has been used to educate successive generations about the frontiers of the national community, its worth, its values, its place vis-à-vis others, and the trauma and glories that the country had to traverse and that together make it a unique and proud place. Few, if any, instruments shape a nation’s psyche and consciousness more powerfully than the material used in schools. As a consequence, the practice and teaching of history is a foundation stone of national identity and one of the poles of nationalism. As teaching materials, history textbooks are deeply anchored in national traditions that are ultimately used to legitimise the rationale of the nation-state. Their pedagogical vocation makes them constitutive of the national and cultural identity of new generations, and as such they constitute ‘sources of collective memory’ and can thus be read as ‘autobiographies of nation-states’.

What this means is that the writing of history is a highly political process and in order to understand the writing of a particular history properly, it is necessary to engage in political reflection. At least since the early 19th century, history textbooks have been found at the centre of political conflicts about ‘memory’, both internally in national debates and internationally when two countries dispute mutually opposed versions of history. Often, school textbooks present a version of history in total contradiction of a neighbour’s version, for example Japan and South Korea or China, India and Pakistan, West Germany and the German Democratic Republic, the United States (US) and the Soviet Union, or Israel and Palestine. As such, selecting what to include in history textbooks remains an important political stake. It is here where images of the Other are formed, communicated, and oftentimes cemented. This certainly has been the case in France and Germany, the two historical ‘hereditary enemies’ who between 1871 and 1945 fought tree major and catastrophic wars.

And yet, there comes a time when transmitting the history of a national past fails the context of the political present. France and Germany have shared tortuous historical experiences, yet the two are at the forefront of an unprecedented pedagogical development: for the first time ever, two nation-states have created a common history textbook (called Histoire/Geschichte) that is used in their senior secondary schools. As such, each country, to borrow Ernst Gellner’s formula, has abandoned – qua this textbook – its monopoly of legitimate education. Histoire/Geschichte detaches history from its exclusive national past and introduces the learners to a post-national present. It speaks in a tone that is demanded by a different time and by the new conditions of peoples who are living in a common political space. And most importantly, it is designed to transform the image of the Other.

This article, written by Dr Jean-Louis Durand and Dr Sebastian Kaempf from The University of Queensland, reflects on the meaning and reach of this precedent by first analysing the explicit political and pedagogical explanations inherent to the book. It then identifies and investigates some of the less evident effects of the textbook relating to rethinking war and history, rethinking the monopoly of education, rethinking national identity, and to offering another path to rapprochement. The two authors, based as colleagues and friends at the University of Queensland in Australia, grew up about one hundred kilometers from one another across the French-German border (one in Alsace-Lorraine, the other in Baden-Wuerttemberg). They themselves have thereby experienced, at different times, the historic legacy as well as the change in Franco-German relations. From the first steps of rapprochement in the 1950s and 60s to the end of border controls across the River Rhine, both have participated in youth exchanges and the learning of each others’ language and perspective. In the process, they themselves were forced to re-evaluate their emotional and cultural predispositions. A choice had to be made: either to take refuge in the ‘comfort’ and ‘certainties’ of the original position and refuse to contemplate the validity of the alternative, or to venture into the unknown and there dare to see the new reality as it is contemplated through the eyes of the Other. In that sense, the authors today are the outgrowth of the dramatic and remarkable transformation of the shared history between France and Germany – which explains their shared academic interest in exploring the meaning and pedagogy when they found out about this next history textbook. The idea arose immediately to research and write about this book as it lies close to the heart of both authors.

To read the article:

Dr Jean-Louis Durand:

Dr Sebastian Kaempf:


Richard Jackson’s Confessions of a Terrorist: A Novel

TheVisionMachine’s Sebastian Kaempf talked to Professor Richard Jackson (University of Otago, New Zealand) about his Confessions of a Terrorist: A Novel, recently published by Zed Books. In this Innverview, Richard provides insights not only into his novel, but also the motivations to branch out of the conventional academic forms of writing and the challenges when writing a piece of fiction that engages with important phenomena such a terrorism.

PREFACE to Confessions of a Terrorist [Abridged] By Richard Jackson

The premise of this novel is quite simple: if you sat down face-to-face with a terrorist, what questions would you ask him or her? What would you like to know about their life, their upbringing, their reasons for taking up armed struggle, their aims and goals, their sense of morality, their feelings about what they do? This question is important, not least because terrorism seems to be everywhere these days, and yet paradoxically, we appear to know almost nothing about the people who perpetrate it. It is on our television screens and in our newspapers virtually every day, and everywhere you go there are reminders of how much efforts to prevent terrorism have fundamentally changed our way of life. In fact, there has never been so much public discussion and information about terrorism at any time in history. And yet, paradoxically, whenever a terrorist incident occurs, the first question on everyone’s lips is: why did they do it? What turned this person into a murderer? What is really going on in the mind of a terrorist? There’s another reason why this question is important: if we don’t understand what really goes on in the mind of terrorists, we will be forced to simply try and imagine it. We’ll have to just guess at what they’re thinking.

I suggest that this is actually what we have been doing for many years now: guessing, imagining, fantasizing about what goes on in the mind of a militant. And thus far, if novels, movies, television shows, and media portrayals are anything to go by, we imagine that terrorists are insane, fanatical, psychologically damaged, cruel, immoral, essentially ‘evil’, and most importantly, quite inhuman.

The problem with viewing terrorists through this veil of ignorance, with trying to understand them through the lens of our usually frightened imagination, is that ultimately we cannot help but turn them into monsters and bogeymen. They cease to be real people, human beings with a history, a childhood, feelings, life experiences, aspirations, values. They are instead reduced to what they’ve done or what they perhaps intended to do. And when this happens, they inevitably become a ‘cancer’ and a ‘scourge’, a ‘savage’, an ‘animal’, an ‘extremist’, an ‘evildoer’.

At this point, we also give permission for them to be treated as less than human. Cancer is to be eradicated, after all; scourges are to be quarantined; animals are to be hunted or tamed. In other words, it is precisely because we have failed to see the humanity of the terrorist, because we have imagined them as something other than a fellow human being, that we have tortured, rendered, imprisoned without trial, and summarily killed thousands of people we suspect or imagine to be terrorists in the past few years.

Apart from compounding the original wrong of terrorism, I would argue that this is a counter-productive and ultimately self-defeating approach. It cannot work to end or prevent further acts of terrorism; its only certain result is to create more terrorists and engender more violent retaliation. Sadly, it seems that artists, novelists, film-makers and others who write about terrorism have embraced this veil of ignorance which currently characterises our collective understanding. This is surprising, given that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of former terrorists and militants one could quite easily talk to, and hundreds of published interviews, autobiographies, and in-depth studies with them.

So what’s going on? Why do we stutter and stumble about in trying to explain their actions and motives when they are perfectly willing to explain it all, and when there is plenty of information available to understand them? I believe it is because, as anthropologists tell us, there is kind of taboo against ‘talking to terrorists’ or trying to understand them at a human level. A taboo is an unspoken prohibition that functions to maintain the limits of social behaviour and which is designed to protect society from certain culturally determined dangers. In this case, the terrorism taboo is designed to segregate terrorists and militants, and to protect society from their perceived malign influence. Talking to them, listening to their voices, hearing their arguments, trying to understand their point of view is therefore prohibited. The fear is that getting too close to a terrorist may lead to some kind of infection or contamination, and thus will the cancerous evil of terrorism spread.

This taboo is so powerful and so prevalent that you will almost never hear the real voice of a terrorist in a public forum such as the media. They are not allowed to speak for themselves. A central purpose of this novel therefore is to try and break through the taboo on ‘talking to terrorists’. As such, it treats the terrorist as a fully human being, not a stereotypical monster or an inhuman, incomprehensible fanatic. More importantly, the novel allows the terrorist to speak and have a real voice, uncensored and unrestricted, honest and intimate. Of course, the danger of taking this approach, as warned by the taboo, is that in listening to the voice of the terrorist, we will begin to comprehend their point of view. Their reasons may become understandable to us.

The key point is that understanding – or even sympathising – with the goals of the terrorist is not the same as condoning and legitimising their violent actions. I can understand the necessity of resisting oppression without accepting the need to strap on a suicide vest or leave a bomb in a train station to kill commuters. However, without understanding the mind of the terrorist in the first place, we are left with nothing but our terrified imagination as the foundation on which to construct a counter-terrorism policy.


Shooting Death: Kevin Sites and the Siege of Fallujah

In an age of instantaneous, 24/7, and live news coverage, in an age of SoJos (solo journalists, who travel with their own cameras, satellite phones, and blogs), how can news reporting from the battlefield still be controlled? With the rise of digital new media in 2002, this particular challenge has confronted many militaries. Our micro documentary offers a rare glimpse into the world of war reporting in today’s transformed media landscape.

Kevin Sites is an American author and freelance journalist, spending nearly a decade covering global wars and disasters for ABC, CNN, NBC, and Yahoo! News. He is considered the ‘granddaddy’ of solo (or backpack) journalism, helping blaze the trail for intrepid reporters who work alone, carrying only a backpack of portable digital technology to shoot, write, edit, and transmit multimedia reports from the world’s most dangerous places. His first book,<sup> </sup><i>In the Hot Zone: One Man, One Year, Twenty Wars</i> (Harper Perennial-October 2007), shares his effort to put a human face on global conflict by reporting from every major war zone in one year. He is now a professor at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre of the University of Hong Kong teaching bachelor and masters programmes.

In 2004, Kevin Sites embedded with US Marines as a freelance war reporter for NBC in Iraq. During the siege of Fallujah, the biggest battle fought by the US military since Vietnam, he shot footage of a gruesome incident in which a US Marine shot and killed a wounded Iraqi captive lying on the floor of a Mosque. This film, drawing on the original footage (courtesy of Kevin Sites), retells the incident of the Mosque shooting and its aftermath, of what happened to the video footage, and how it was or was not reported in the media across the globe. The episode raises questions over the politics of war reporting, modern day (self-) censorship, the ethical responsibilities of those covering conflicts on the ground, and the importance of visual footage in our news streams.

This micro documentary was filmed and produced by Peter Mantello and Sebastian Kaempf, who tracked down Kevin Sites in Boston in 2010.  Edited by Ali Rae and Ben Walker.