On May 13th, Stanford students in Wallenberg Theater watched in awe as a team of American students discussed the Iraq war with a team students in Baghdad. Bridge to Baghdad, a two-part documentary depicted videoconferences between students in New York and students in Baghdad a few months before, and three years into, the Iraq war. This powerful film resonated in beautiful, technologically equipped Wallenberg Theater, marking the Cross Cultural Rhetoric Project’s new collaboration with the Stanford Film Lab in this inaugural campus-wide event.
Content of the videoconferencing students’ conversations ranged from serious to light-hearted, as students asked each other about topics ranging from their educational opportunities to their opinions of President Bush to their music tastes, one Iraqi music fan claiming to be an “Iroqer” in the first conversation. Students discussed their feelings about the impending military conflict; while a diverse set of American students presented very mixed responses, Iraqi students overwhelmingly answered against war. When asked about their opinions of Saddam Hussein and the prospect of democracy, one young woman stiltedly replied “we feel that this person represents us well and would not want another leader.” Only at the beginning of the second film did the audience learn that Iraqi students were being censored and fed answers by government officials standing just out of the camera’s view.
The second film opened with footage of Baghdad laid nearly to ruin. This time, Iraqi student response, though mixed, was honest. While some students longed for the universities and leisure activities which had been bombed and burned, others recognized the destruction as the temporary price of their newfound free speech. While one young woman showed footage of the machine gun her family had to buy for protection, proclaiming that “this is Bush’s new freedom,” another young man was delighted that “after eighteen years I can now say ‘Saddam is sucks!’”
Wallenberg’s state of the art technology combined with the documentary’s unique style gave Stanford students a very unique, first-hand look into the students’ conversation. The documentary was filmed such that the camera zoomed in on the students who were answering a question, at times without showing any of the surrounding apparatus. Panning closely to the videoconference screen allowed the audience to look directly into the other students eyes, making students feel like they were taking part in the videoconference themselves. Wallenberg’s surround sound system, theater quality screen, and intimate seating synergistically complimented the film’s rhetorical strategy to make the experience incredibly powerful for all who attended. Stacie Chen, a sophomore who attended said of the experience, “Seeing the film made me think about the war in a whole new way. I was truly moved by the students and their stories; I now see the war as a much more complex issue than before.”
The screening of the Bridge To Baghdad was made possible by collaboration between the Cross Cultural Rhetoric Project and the Stanford Film Lab. “The Cross-Cultural Rhetoric Project…brings together students from around the world through video conferencing and blogging…” said Christine Alfano, PWR Lecturer and Technology Specialist for the Cross Cultural Rhetoric Project (CCR), “Our goal is to use such activities and conversations as a way to help students to develop greater intercultural sensitivity and communication skills.” Over the last three years, CCR has already conducted more than 40 workshops, using technology to connect PWR classes to classes in Sweden, Australia, Singapore, and Egypt. Recently, CCR and the Stanford Film Lab received a grant from the Stanford Institute for Creativity in the Arts (SiCa). In upcoming months, CCR and the Film Lab plan to co-sponsor a series of special events, from film screenings, to guest speakers, field trips, and in-class workshops, all of which are designed to all of which help students situate their understanding of the arts within a global perspective.