Film Studies and International Understanding

Angela Dalle Vacche

At the Georgia Institute of Technology, our students receive a rigorous training in the sciences, computer studies and in engineering. As difficult as these disciplines may be, the Institute strives to provide a well-rounded education that goes beyond a narrow specialization. As a faculty member in the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts and a specialist in film studies, I am well aware that my students need to engage in various styles of thinking. Scientific thinking tends to be linear and systematic. Since it thrives on measurable entities and quantitative results, the young scientific mind takes images at face value, without scratching below the surface or exploring historical context. An appreciation of non-utilitarian disciplines strikes some students as a waste of time or as an uncertain choice for a safe economic future.

During our summer abroad program in Film Studies, the students learn that the special eye of the filming camera grants the opportunity to see oneself and others from the outside, by piercing through all kinds of unconscious or intentional masks.

Despite all these blocks in the direction of the liberal arts, Georgia Tech students are deeply interested in film and media, because these areas offer an outlet to their imagination, while they address moral and existential issues which any young generation is likely to appreciate in order to move forward. In our School of Literature, Media, and Communication, however, we have raised the bar of Film Studies especially high. In fact, we do not only offer classes on campus but we also make films and study the history and theory of the cinema in Italy through a four-week summer abroad program. This is a double challenge whose impact goes well beyond the book and the campus into a cultural adventure each student will remember for a life-time.

Generally speaking, in Italian culture and also throughout its cinema, improvisation, spontaneity, aesthetic beauty, historical memory, and flexibility about contingencies are valued. Yet these values do not belong to the engineering mind-set. How to reach a balance between intuition and logic, sensitivity and rigor?  Thanks to an agreement with the University of Udine-Gorizia signed by Prof. Kenneth Knoespel and Prof. Leonardo Quaresima, in 2004 I was able to take the first group of Georgia Tech students abroad. Since then, we have had nine great years.  Georgia Tech undergraduate students have been making documentary films, taking film classes and travelling all over Europe. Most importantly, by working in small film-making teams, the Georgia Tech students find themselves in the midst of a completely unknown cultural environment, and have to learn to be flexible about planning. They also learn to be ready and seize unexpected opportunities for discovery and interaction.

This more free-wheeling model of film-making, outside the controlled environment of the typical Hollywood studio, is in touch with the amorphous flow of the street. This model also thrives on surprise, and discovery. In class, the students learn that this low-budget, open-air, street-bound approach was at the heart of neorealist Italian cinema. The latter acquired international reputation in 1945 through the films of Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, Luchino Visconti, Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni.  What Italian neo-realism did for world cinema was to break away from the highly staged, Tayloristic, industrial and artificial realism of Hollywood cinema. It continues to have a major impact even today.

Thanks to the film studies and film-making Summer Program (IFS) undergraduates learn that the reality of lived experience is not something quantifiable or measurable, but always subjective, mysterious and constantly shifting. Their experience abroad complicates a potentially naïve attachment to myths of objectivity in science, law, journalistic reporting, the possibility of difference between good and bad without ambiguities. Without a doubt, a certain loss of innocence is the result of our abroad program, but the pay-off is an increase in tolerance, depth of understanding, and a stronger ability to cope with unfamiliar circumstances.

A broadening of one’s own cultural and historical horizons is obviously at stake in a course of study based on the liberal arts. This is why the humanistic disciplines in our technological world are absolutely necessary. It is only through the liberal arts that students learn to ask questions that are about why. Without the liberal arts, they would focus only on how and how much the way they already do in the context of their technical scientific education.

By asking why? and when? the students relate in first person to history and artistic self-expression, while they also learn that some questions about being human and imperfect never achieve a unique or complete answer. By underlining the deep contrast between subjective perception and external appearances, Italian neorealist cinema sent out the message that human interaction is, unfortunately, regulated by cultural clichés and stereotypes. Precisely to break through the perfect surfaces of moving images built in the Hollywood studio and super-human American ideals of good and evil, beauty and strength, neo-realism stressed a quasi-documentary approach, the use of real locations and natural lighting, the casting of non-professional actors, the ambiguity of situations, and values such as universalism, empathy, and humbleness in front of a constantly elusive reality.

During our summer abroad program in Film Studies, the students learn that the special eye of the filming camera grants the opportunity to see oneself and others from the outside, by piercing through all kinds of unconscious or intentional masks. Since external behavior reveals more than it hides, these moments of revelation through the cinema foster the possibility to see things through the point of view of another, mechanical eye. Put another way, the camera-lens is a sort of sixth sense that promotes the flexibility and exchangeability of otherwise rigid points-of -view.  At the end of four weeks spent travelling, studying, filming, making friends, whenever we watch the short documentaries made by Georgia Tech undergraduates we can all agree about one thing: they are examples of a newly-found personal and communal fluidity during the exploration of local topics.
In a sense, our students re-enact the philosophy of neorealist film-making which shies away from a detailed script and relies on the help of the local community. I feel that our IFS Program Abroad offers an amazing experience also because our students interact with a population historically marked by ethnic, ideological, linguistic and national conflicts. The craters of WWI bombings punctuate the serene countryside outside Gorizia, while German bunkers are still holding up, on top of little hills on both sides of the old border between Slovenia and Italy. For many of our students who are stepping for the very first time outside of Georgia, this means to “see” and “film” history in first person written on the landscape of another country. Cinema is a technology, but it can also become a form of humanism when it functions as an eye-opener.

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