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Published: March 23, 2017
The Honors course is a travel course aimed at getting students to problem solve, think through challenges not just of filmmaking but of doing it in a foreign environment, and then being aware of the stories they are telling of a culture different from their own. Photo by Robin Canfield of Actuality Media
The Honors course is a travel course aimed at getting students to problem solve, think through challenges not just of filmmaking but of doing it in a foreign environment, and then being aware of the stories they are telling of a culture different from their own. Photo by Robin Canfield of Actuality Media
The nine students were split into two groups to produce separate documentaries. The other film focuses on Hikayat Morocco, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and reviving the ancient tradition of oral storytelling. Photo by Robin Canfield of Actuality Media
The nine students were split into two groups to produce separate documentaries. The other film focuses on Hikayat Morocco, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and reviving the ancient tradition of oral storytelling. Photo by Robin Canfield of Actuality Media

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John Keschl ’16 didn’t know much about Morocco before he spent two weeks there. In fact, he had only been out of the Eastern Time Zone two months prior and had never travelled internationally.

But a year later, reflecting on the experience that had him and his COMH 212 Social Justice Communication classmates overcoming jet lag, a significant language barrier and culture shock, he said he grew personally and as a film producer. In the 15 days the class had in country, they created a movie he is significantly proud of, and for good reason.

In six minutes and 21 seconds, they tell the story of a woman whose life is impacted by a nonprofit training facility in Marrakesh called the Amal Women’s Training Center.

“It's a story about a woman who found Amal and started working there to expand her skills and knowledge after working as a housemaid,” said cinematographer and editor Dimitra Nikiforides ’16. “She was inspired by all the warmth, help and kindness she found at Amal and wants to do the same for other people one day.”

The film, “Solace in Amal,” has been submitted, accepted and lauded at the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s film festival, which is providing a travel grant to Keschl and director/assistant editor Angel Rivera ’16 to fly up to the Visions Film Festival and Conference March 31.

“They’ve been telling Angel and John that it’s one of best submissions they’ve ever had,” said Christopher Boulton, assistant professor of communication, who leads the course along with Andrew DeMil, assistant professor of Spanish and Portuguese.

The Honors travel course is aimed at getting students to problem solve, think through challenges not just of filmmaking but of doing it in a foreign environment, and then being aware of the stories they are telling of a culture different from their own. Bouton and DeMil led students to Ecuador in 2014 and will take a group to Thailand Jan. 2–14, 2018.

The difference in this year’s trip versus the one to Ecuador is that students created their visual assembly in country and did the rest of the editing back at UT. Boulton describes traditional documentary filmmaking as collecting all of the interviews first and then gathering the imagery to support the storyline. In this class, the process was almost reversed.

“We should be able to tell what the film is about without the narration. Then you go back to find the interviews that explain or provide context to what we’re seeing,” Boulton said. “I think it’s a really innovative model.”

It’s one of the reasons he chose to lead the course through Actuality Media, which is an expert in visual storytelling, with the tagline, "Make Movies. Change the World."

For the “Solace in Amal” team, which also included assistant editor Rebecca Lopez ’16 and Jami Zimmerman ’18 who helped with sound, this meant a lot of planning and research. For the semester leading up to the trip, the class met weekly and began forming teams, learning about Morocco and getting a sense for their strategy to maximize their time in country.

“People might think you’re going on vacation, but you’re totally not. You’re going there to work,” said Keschl, adding that the most challenging aspect for him was adapting to his new environment while continuing to work, but is something he is proud of his team for overcoming. “It’s very difficult to make a documentary, let alone go to a different country, shoot it in two weeks, edit it in four months and have already submitted it to two film festivals. In my book that’s an extraordinary accomplishment.”

By reversing the process, students received more one-on-one time with Boulton as they edited their films back at UT. The end result can be in “Solace in Amal” and the buzz it’s receiving. Because of the quality of the students’ work, they have been able to extend the impact of the course and their learning.

“The travel portion allows students to experience a completely different culture and language, which prepares them for interaction with people from all over the world. The course portion allows people with or without experience in filmmaking to dive right in and learn on the job,” said DeMil, who served as the cultural liaison and linguistic and communication expert. “This is a marketable experience, and it is a positive experience that prepares students to go on to make positive changes in the world.”

Some of the students in Boulton’s course will be presenting on their films Thursday, March 23, in an Honors Symposium at 4 p.m. On April 22, the students will be part of a panel discussion at UT’s Human Rights Conference, the theme of which is migration, immigration and refugee rights.

“I learned so much about the people and the history of the country, and I think one thing my entire group could agree on is that while being there we truly understood that we are all part of something much bigger, that this world is so vast and there are so many stories that need to be shared,” Rivera said.

Interested in going on next year’s trip? COMH 212 heads to Thailand in January 2018.


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