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Filmic Texts and the Rise of the Fifth Estate

Virginia Kuhn, Author
Digital Pedagogy, page 1 of 13
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IML340: The Praxis of New Media

In 2008, I began using a thirty-minute documentary film, Iraqi Doctors: On the Front Lines of Medicine, as the central text for a university-level course at the Institute for Multimedia Literacy (IML), where I serve as Associate Director.  Iraqi Doctors charts a 2003 exchange between doctors from Baghdad and those from the Keck School of Medicine of USC. A grant from the USC Fund for Innovative Undergraduate Education allowed DJ Johnson, my colleague who created the documentary, to join me in class and lend the filmmaker's perspective. Using the Iraqi Doctors film, and its more than forty hours of secondary footage as a starting point, students conducted research in an area relevant to their interests or to their major field of study--from broadcast journalism to international relations to health care--and created digital arguments of their own, accompanied by citations and statements of purpose, as is fitting for an academic assignment. 

Whereas the use of a film or video in a classroom settings is commonplace, what is rare is the opportunity for a student to examine and manipulate, at will, any of the visual and aural media used to create a filmic text, especially one that is assigned an authoritative pedagogical voice. The repository of images, both static and moving, and aural elements can be mapped over the constructed narrative of the film to illuminate the film's visual and aural syntax. With this wealth of raw materials, the students were able to deconstruct every aspect of the film to ask pivotal questions that they were then forced to consider in their own digital authoring. Why is this image more "powerful" than another? How do these three sentences--a soundbite--out of the hundreds spoken best encapsulate an experience or perspective? How does my point of view shape the manner in which I mediate and manipulate my source materials? 

The course expanded the manner and scope in which a filmic text can be used as a teaching tool in three crucial ways. First, the students had access to all of the visual and audio material that was used to craft the documentary as well as to the footage that did not make it into the final cut. Second, the filmmaker of the documentary was an active participant in the course throughout the semester, lending his critical point of view. Third, and most importantly, the scholarly digital arguments that the students created address many of the critical dilemmas raised but left unanswered by the open-ended nature of the documentary form, thereby positioning the students as active participants in the production of knowledge that advances and broadens the narrative of the film.

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