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December, 2018

For Lessons on War, a New Class Turns to Film


By Maggie Master

Students view a clip from the week's assigned movie "Dr. Strangelove."

Associate Professor William Barbieri has discovered a popular way to get his students thinking about some of life’s weightier questions such as war, ethics and social responsibility.

Hint: It goes well with popcorn.

His new course, War, Ethics, and Film, offers a survey of the major conflicts of the 20th century and their ethical legacy, through the silver screen. The biennial elective is part of the Peace and Justice Studies minor and the Media Studies major. The 25-person seminar generated so much student interest that Barbieri had to turn additional students away in order to preserve the more intimate quality of a seminar.

For Barbieri, director of the Peace and Justice Studies minor and dean of graduate studies in the School of Theology and Religious Studies, the idea to sync these three spheres was only natural. There has always been a historical connection between war and films, the longtime ethics professor notes, both in terms of wartime propaganda that bolsters support for a conflict, as well as retrospective documentation of wars past, providing historical record. And as historians and filmmakers attempt to reconstruct these battles and tell the stories of the soldiers and civilians swept up in the tumult, such films also become a study in ethics and morality.

There’s another, less-weighty reason for bringing film into the college classroom.

“Movies are a touchstone for students,” Barbieri notes. “It’s an experience they readily identify with and it’s more engaging than textbooks.” Barbieri says he attempts to strike a balance between scholarly ethical works and the more visceral medium of film, showing movies that he hopes leave students with a pit in their stomachs and questions in their heads. “From my point of view, it’s a positive if they’re made uncomfortable by some of the films,” he says.  In fact, the range of subject matter these films cover — from world wars to genocide — seems ample fodder for uncomfortable contemplation.

The chosen films vary from some lesser-known but challenging documentaries to mainstream Hollywood motion pictures such as “Schindler’s List,” “Saving Private Ryan” and “Hotel Rwanda.” Students attend a weekly, on-campus viewing of an assigned film and keep journals analyzing the film’s ethical content and implications. They are then often asked to share portions of their journals at the following class, providing a springboard into class discussion about the film.

But don’t think this course is just one, long Netflix subscription. Barbieri’s students, in addition to film screenings, are assigned roughly 100 pages of text a week to supplement the visceral with the scholarly. Texts teach students how to “read” a film and understand the connections between war and cinema, but some of the course’s core readings also explore the tragedies of war independent of the silver screen, solely through an ethical prism. Students discuss the concept of “just” and “unjust” wars, civil disobedience, and the role of religion in conflicts.

Students also have grappled with the difficult question of where a person’s religious beliefs fit into war and violence. One of the course’s first film offerings, “The Mission,” tells the story of an 18th century Jesuit mission which tries to protect a remote South American Indian tribe from a pro-slavery Portuguese government. One priest’s decision to fight the Portuguese prompted a class debate over if and when it was acceptable to put aside religious views of nonviolence for a greater good.

“I’m pleased with the level of maturity I see in these students,” Barbieri says of in-class discussions and journal entries.  “I see even more reflective commentary as we go further into the course.”
Although students are required to view movies outside of class time, Barbieri sometimes begins class with a clip to kick off class discussion.

For some students, some course topics — and the ethical questions that surround them — hit closer to home than others.  Beth Midgette, a junior in the Army ROTC program, says that as a soldier-in-training, she grapples with reconciling the idealistic with the realistic when viewing the chosen films. In a perfect world, she says, soldiers could determine for themselves which wars were “just.” But in reality, if individual soldiers could pick and choose their battles, the army would be in a state of constant flux and chaos.

And watching very realistic historical adaptations, like “Saving Private Ryan,” can be especially difficult for students training to someday face combat. “Seeing battle, when you know it’s the life you’ve chosen for yourself, it’s eye-opening,” Midgette says.

In a discussion of War, Ethics, and Film, it would seem impossible for present-day conflicts, such as the Iraq war, Darfurian genocide and the War on Terror, to escape class discussion  especially given that the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States already have spawned two films, “United 93” and “World Trade Center.” For example, early in the course, students discussed a recently produced Iraq war documentary as a present-day example of a war documentary. 

The starting point for the course was World War I. Students are working their way forward through the twentieth century, although Barbieri says he often punctuates historical discussion with today’s comparisons.

“When students came to watch a documentary about French villagers hiding Jews during World War II, a study had just been released announcing that 655,000 Iraqis had been killed in this present war,” Barbieri notes. “I asked them how that relates to the numbers [killed] in a film like “Weapons of the Spirit,” or to the number of French Jews — 75,000 — killed in the Holocaust.

Uncomfortable? Perhaps. Eye-opening? Definitely.

The Peace and Justice Studies Program, in association with University Archives and the Department of Media Studies, will host a director’s screening of the new documentary “The Peace Patriots,” which chronicles dissent in a time of war.  Look for details on the date of this screening, which is free and open to the public, in an upcoming issue of This Week @ CUA.

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Last Revised 30-Oct-06 04:04 PM.