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April 20, 2009

Transcending Text

Students Use Sound and Image to Shape New Meaning

By By Jimmy Kelly

Creating good cinema has always required extensive teamwork, but students enrolled in a new course at the Institute for Multimedia Literacy [IML] are taking collaboration to higher levels as they use sound, images and database materials to construct new endings (and new meanings) for a partially shot documentary about doctors in wartime Iraq.

Dubbed IML 340: Praxis of New Media, the course's main goal is to provide students from multiple backgrounds with a critical understanding of how to create and interpret media, a skill set that, as technology expands, is assuming the same vital importance as being able to read and write with traditional text.

Associate Director of IML, Virginia Kuhn.
"We live in a highly mediated world," said Virginia Kuhn, associate director of the IML and professor for the class. "We're visually mediated, and unless you can actually talk with images as well as suck them in, you're out of luck."

IML 340, which first began in the fall 2008 semester and continues into this spring, features a documentary project entitled Iraqi Doctors: On the Front Lines of Medicine as its "central text." Crafted by IML Director of Video Production D.J. Johnson, Iraqi Doctors follows a small group of physicians from that nation as they toured from USC to the White House in 2003 before going home to war and an uncertain future. Due to the potential dangers posed to both the doctors and the filmmakers from the conflict in Iraq, production came to a standstill shortly after their return.

Fast forward to 2008. Though five years had passed, Johnson's passion for the project had never diminished and he knew the time had come to finish the story. Given the inability to continue filming the doctors in Iraq, the question was how.

"There had to be a way to finish the film," said Johnson. "We had part one. What about part two?" Thanks to his long experience with the IML, Johnson knew how he could tell "part two" in a way that not only finished the story, but allowed USC students to join the dialogue as well. Structuring the course around Johnson's doc, the students were challenged to respond to Iraqi Doctors through their own creations of visual media.

"The metaphor that we came up with is that it's like a flower," Johnson explained. "The documentary is like the stem and the students' creations are like the petals." Johnson assists Kuhn in the course by guiding students, many of whom study outside of SCA and have no formal filmmaking background, in editing their own video projects using materials from a specially provided media database. From there, the students apply their own backgrounds in majors such as international relations, print and broadcast journalism, business administration, and cinema production, to name a few, toward giving their own commentary on the state of healthcare or other issues directly tied to Iraqi Doctors.

"The work that the students do informs the reading of the documentary," said Johnson, "and fleshes out questions that the documentary raises, but never answers."

Sean Hough, a sophomore in the School of Cinematic Arts production program, was one of the first students to flesh out those questions as a part of last semester’s course. Hough's project used news footage alongside pieces of Johnson's film and Michael Moore's Sicko to delve into the comparisons between problems in healthcare faced by those living in Iraq to those living in the U.S. Hough, used to dealing with traditional narrative storytelling at SCA, took an avid interest in the opportunity to create what he called "a research-based visual argument" in IML 340.

"People don't often have the time to sit down and read a 30-page dissertation of how healthcare is bad," said Hough. "But if you can make an eight-minute video about it and show the cogent points that make your argument and if you can also add an emotional element, then I think that that makes a much more accessible argument."

After this semester, the IML 340 projects will be combined along with Iraqi Doctors to create a final, larger work, but that won't mark the end of the course. IML 340 will be open to all students next fall using a new core text. Kuhn recognizes her course as a special opportunity in the development of new media education in the years to come and is excited to move forward.

"I think interactive media is the future," said Kuhn. "It's not just part of the future of education. We're at the moment where we used to just need to consume media to be literate and now we need to be able to consume and produce it."

Zoe Weintraub, a freshman majoring in international relations, concurred with Kuhn. "It definitely launched a small interest in multimedia and film into a larger interest," said Weintraub. "I didn't realize what the knowledge of the two [international relations and film] could make."