Archive For: Ivory Tower 2.0

Cynthia Weber on Film in IR


What role can filmmaking have in the social sciences and in particular the study of International Relations?  Cynthia Weber, a professor at the University of Sussex, is a leading voice in the field of IR among those who have experimented with film as a medium for doing academic work.  Here we are thrilled to curate some of her recent provocations, a series of short films on the Occupy Wall Street movement that are part of her larger “I Am An American” project.  Each tells a story, as she puts it, about what it means to be a US American in the twenty-first century, stories that together formed the eclectic mix that we call “Occupy.”  In addition to screening these for TVM, Cynthia was gracious enough to sit down with us and talk about how she developed as a filmmaker, how it has energized her work, and the philosophical controversies it inevitably brings to the academy.  To investigate the “I Am An American” project further, see the following:

I Am An American

‘I Am An American’:  Filming the Fear of Difference.  Bristol, UK:  Intellect Books and Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2011.

2010 – ‘Cynthia Weber’s ‘I am an American’ Project’, International Political Sociology, 4(1):80-103. 

2013 – ‘“I am an American”:  Protesting Advertized “Americanness”’, Citizenship Studies, 12(2):125-142.  Reprinted in Janelle Reinelt and Shirin Rai (eds) The Grammar of Politics and Performance.  London:  Routledge.


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:


Film in IR: Innerview with Michael Williams

Film and visuality have long been used as sources of text and political interpretation in the subject of International Relations (IR). Much more recent is the emergence of IR scholars as direct producers of films about topics of international politics. IR scholars from James Der Derian to Cindy Weber et al. have been at the forefront of this development. Using the theme of ‘Film in IR/Filming IR’, an ISA workshop held in San Francisco in 2013 (organized by Laura Shepherd and Rune Saugmann Andersen), and attended by TVM’s Roger Stahl and Seb Kaempf, tried to identify and address the intellectual opportunities and challenges of this development.

What are the challenges that emerge out of using the production of film in the context of the modern university? How does one legitimately evaluate film as a piece of academic work? How does this relate ethically to the political economy of the modern public university? And how creative do or should scholars become with film? How should scholars engage with students over the interpretation of film?

In this Innerview, Roger Stahl and Seb Kaempf talk to another attendee of this workshop, Professor Michael C. Williams (University of Ottawa), who – as a self-declared ‘sympathetic skeptic’ of this development – reflects upon the possibilities and intellectual challenges surrounding film in IR/filming IR. This video is intended as a platform to kick off further discussion of these themes within the wider academic and non-academic community. We would like to encourage you to express your views in the comments section below.

Filmed, produced and edited by Roger Stahl and Seb Kaempf. Interview held in San Francisco on 5 April 2013.


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.