A Global Perspective: Experiential learning takes Valpo filmmakers around the world

For centuries, humans have used stories to connect with each other, and often, these stories have the power to spark emotions, create understanding, educate people, and change perspectives.

So in summer 2014, when Professor Liz Wuerffel and two digital media graduate students, Saddam Al-Zubaidi and Sarhang Sherwany, traveled to Kurdish Region, Iraq, to film a documentary about a Syrian refugee camp, they were surrounded by opportunities to capture the powerful accounts.

“Each time you work on a film is different,” Professor Wuerffel says. “Figuring out what that story is will always teach us how to decide what to include and how this film connects to a bigger picture. And day after day, we didn’t find the stories — they found us.”

Professor Wuerffel teaches video production courses in the Department of Communication’s digital media graduate program. The documentary was a valuable opportunity to apply lessons learned in the classroom, and Professor Wuerffel’s students gained valuable practical experience.

“We all learned a great deal. The weather presented a real challenge for us to stay hydrated and to protect our equipment, which overheated,” Professor Wuerffel says. “And more than the technical expertise we developed through the project, we learned a lot about the intercultural communication that was necessary to accomplish the project — both in the context of where we were filming and within our own group.”

The exchange of cultures, Professor Wuerffel says, is one of the aspects that make the Valpo campus so dynamic. And as the University continues to expand its international outreach, students and faculty will have increased opportunities to engage with and learn about cultures that are different from their own. Professor Wuerffel, Saddam, and Sarhang each brought a unique perspective to the documentary, and the project has been truly collaborative. Not only have they gained a deeper understanding of the Syrian refugee crisis, but they’ve also learned more about each other, their own cultural perspectives, and how to work together as a team.

“In our group we have a Kurdish Muslim, an Arab Muslim, and an American Lutheran,” Professor Wuerffel says. “Through our work, we were able to have very intense, meaningful conversations about everything from gender identity to cultural norms and international politics. It was an incredible opportunity for all three of us and a model for the ways the University can continue to build an international, diverse community.”

Both Saddam and Sarhang are from Erbil, which is the capital of Kurdish Region, Iraq. The Kurdish people span across Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria, and Iraqi Kurdistan is unique in that it is autonomous. Sarhang says he was impressed by the Kurdish people and government’s willingness to help those who fled Syria, even reprioritizing their own goals to help this population. He was able to interview the governor, who acknowledged that even though these refugees are not from Iraq, they are all Kurdish, and it is important for them to help each other.

“This is about more than being Iraqi or Syrian or Kurdish,” Sarhang says. “This is about humanity.”

The most recently published information from the UN Refugee Agency states there are more than 13,000 refugees living in Kawergosk, which is one of many camps across Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon. When the team wrapped filming, they had 150 hours of footage for a 30-minute documentary, featuring interviews in English, Arabic, and Kurdish. Because none of them speaks all three languages, they relied on each other to ask the right questions without in-the-moment translating. And they invoked the same kind of trust during post-production, which began late August.

“What I find exciting and what I love is that as we translate the interviews, the story is revealed to us line by line,” Professor Wuerffel says. “It’s been more than I ever expected it to be.”

The experience reminded each of them to be grateful for the basics — housing, sanitation, and security. Saddam says it was revelatory to see the conditions at the camp, which was just 30 minutes from his house in Erbil. For many people around the world, the crisis is just another news story — facts and figures that seem far away. But through this documentary, Professor Wuerffel and her students hope to showcase the human side.

“We’re more connected digitally than ever before. The Syrian war is one of the most visible wars, through cell phone videos and Internet sharing,” Professor Wuerffel says. “What might be missing is the human connection that storytelling provides. It’s easy to create distance. But when you encounter a person who explains the story of her or his life, it’s hard to get away from that. There’s power in storytelling.”

The team expects to complete a rough cut of the documentary in December. Professor Wuerffel says there are three primary goals for their project: to raise awareness of the Syrian refugee crises in the Kurdish region, to educate people about the complexities of the issues and the region, and to paint a portrait of this particular camp.