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Film project gives students insight into Afghanistan

Watch a trailer for the documentary film created by Lehigh students about the history, culture and politics of Afghanistan.

Students (l-r) Connor Skutches ’12, Michael Mutch ’11, Courtney Weintraub ’12 and Jacob Kennon ’12 edit a documentary film about Afghanistan’s history and politics in the new political science class “Engaging Afghanistan.”

When 22 students enrolled in “Engaging Afghanistan,” a new political science course that debuted in fall 2010, they hoped to learn more about the Central Asian country that has been in a continuous state of war since the 1970s.

What they didn’t expect was the opportunity to be part of an ambitious project to create a documentary film that would teach others about Afghanistan’s complex history and politics and deepen their own understanding of the subject.

While few of the students had experience in film production, they were all familiar with film consumption. In a world where students get so much of their information from video instead of from newspapers or books, they must be able to evaluate what they see.

“Our goal as professors is to teach critical thinking,” says Nandini Deo, assistant professor of political science who developed the class. “We usually teach critical thinking through essays, but once students leave university, they don’t write essays anymore. I want the students to be critical viewers of media. I want them to engage in democratic discourse in a visual sense.”

To create their documentary, students learned the fundamentals of video production—how to hold a camera, construct a storyboard and conduct an interview—through workshops at Lehigh’s Digital Media Studio. 

“The project was ambitious, but it was a challenge that we all embraced,” says Michael Mutch ’11. “How often do you get the chance to learn about a complex global controversy one minute, and then apply your knowledge through art in the next?”

Students interviewed U.S. service members who have been stationed in Afghanistan, professors at Lehigh and nearby Moravian College, and Lehigh students.

This material was then supplemented with footage shot by Deo on a summer trip to Afghanistan, sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences and the Center for Global Islamic Studies. During her trip, Deo interviewed Afghan activists, United Nations personnel, American and Indian diplomats and international aid workers.

The final documentary provides a broad introduction to Afghanistan to help inform people who may have no previous knowledge of the country.  The students also say they now appreciate Afghanistan on its own terms, not just as a foreign country that the United States invaded in 2001.

“This project gave us a lot of independence and allowed us to choose what we would gain from the experience,” says Holly Fuhrman ’12. “Each group got to pick its own topic, and we were responsible for all the research and interviews. We weren’t spoon-fed the information—we had to actively look for it.”

“I used to dismiss Afghanistan as a homogenous Islamic country that was connected to the September 11th attacks,” adds Fuhrman. “I now realize that the country is so much more than that.”

A screening of the film, followed by a short Q&A with the filmmakers, will take place at 3:50 p.m. on March 15 in Maginnes Room 102.

Story by Emily Groff

Posted on Friday, March 11, 2011

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