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Filmic Texts and the Rise of the Fifth Estate

Virginia Kuhn, Author

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The Fifth Estate and Activism

One issue that arises with regard to digital arguments deployed in the public sphere and the pedagogy of the Fifth Estate concerns the results of such efforts. Can any real change occur from the attempt to raise awareness of issues such as US intervention in Iraq? Are people moved to act upon such knowledge? What is the real cultural work of this pedagogy and does it constitute any form of activism beyond developing a more socially aware student cohort?  Since my pedagogy and my research are so closely connected, the reflective aspect of any course I teach is both informed by, and reflected in my scholarly efforts. I struggle with these questions, and they become crucial areas of inquiry in class. The following student projects represent the type of provocative issues we consider during the semester. Given their complexity, we often raised more questions than answers, resisting the impulse to have the last (definitive) word (or image) on the subject. Many of these changed my own preconceptions, and some became issues for my ongoing research. 

Student Simone Andrews's early work in the class in Arabic Enemy 101 raised awareness of the stereotypes of Muslims that circulate in US. After having learned about the distinctions among Islamic groups, she did this early piece in response to a segment of the Iraqi Doctors film which featured a female Iraqi doctor who expressed exasperation about narrow and uninformed views that Westerners have with regard to Iraq. Simone was also struck by a segment in Iraqi Doctors in which one of the doctors mentions the damage brought about by economic sanctions. In many ways, we both became convinced, economic sanctions were more brutalizing to the civilian population than military intervention. 

Another student, Natasha Yashir, focused her project on the case of Youssif, the young Iraqi burn victim whose story of being doused with gasoline and set on fire by insurgents garnered international attention. Youssif was flown to the US for medical treatment and over 10,000 donations totaling over $300,000 were sent for his care. Now in school in Los Angeles, Youssif remains the subject of media attention as he heals and grows up in the US. Natasha wonders how it is that so many other children victimized by the war in Iraq are ignored while Youssif becomes the beneficiary of so much support. Although no one would argue against helping Youssif, Natasha wonders how much good might be done if more than one child's story reached the public eye.

In working through this project with Natasha, both my colleague DJ and I suggested that perhaps the Youssif case represented a type of collective symbolic catharsis, which accounted for his copious news coverage and the outpouring of donations. His injury came at a time when public support for the war in Iraq was waning, thus this focus on a young child brutalized by insurgents no doubt assuaged much guilt about US presence in Iraq, while it surely renewed many people's commitment to finishing what was started. Who can forget George W Bush's repeated statements that he did not intend to "cut and run"?

However, there seems to be more to the Youssif story than such a facile explanation reveals and it became an issue I investigated further. The propensity to focus on individuals in dire circumstances is taken up by Nicholas Kristof, the Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times journalist whose tireless efforts to raise awareness of the atrocities taking place in Darfur were chronicled in the documentary, Reporter. Kristof's writing in the Times is very moving but tracing his work in sound, text and image through Reporter proves extremely illuminating on a very different level. As the camera captures him meeting with warlords in Congo, the narrative takes on a less removed tone. Still clearly mediated, the filmic text, with its registers of sound and image, feels fuller. Indeed images do impact viewers in ways which are only recently being understood. Reporter traces Kristoff's research and, in particular, his work on viewer habits and activism.
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