Studying film isn’t something that Samantha Schwarz ’12 planned when she began her undergraduate career. If college has taught her anything, says the English major, it is to seize opportunity when it comes along. This spring, she’ll be among the first Lafayette students to graduate with honors in film and media studies.
With raging debates about whether it is still too soon to process the events of 9/11 through art, Schwarz is breaking a bit of new ground through her honors thesis by using 9/11 as a historical framework to examine how the work of filmmakers reflects cultural concerns that emerge post-9/11. While the films she chose—Children of Men (2006), Frozen River (2008), The Hurt Locker (2008), and Man on Wire (2008)—do not reference 9/11 directly, Schwarz believes they are the vehicles by which filmmakers attempt to understand the world and help their audiences do the same. She’s presenting her thesis at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research hosted by Weber State University in Ogden, Utah.
“Examining how films reflect cultural concerns enhances appreciation for the work that filmmakers produce,” says Schwarz, who is especially interested in how border politics are enacted post-9/11 and the role politics play in controlling human movement across borders. “I want to complicate how 9/11 is understood as a historical event and use film to show the possibility of perceiving the world and human events in different ways.”
Schwarz is the ideal film student, says Andy Smith, associate professor of English and chair of the film and media studies program, who is her honors thesis adviser along with Nandini Sikand, assistant professor of film and media studies. He credits students like her with spurring the College’s creation of a film and media studies major. Schwarz displays a passion for film and loves discussing it and sharing ideas with her peers.
Each time she watches a film, Schwarz says, it’s always a different experience because she views it having had a new set of experiences herself. Watching a film is an exercise in introspection, challenging her to pinpoint how and why she holds certain beliefs.
According to Smith, film is the dominant art form of the early 21stcentury, doing “all the best things that art does”—conveying meaning, power, history, emotion, argument, change, and hope. It’s up to the audience to ask smart questions, which is exactly what Schwarz is doing.
“She’s reading the conversations these films are having with their historical, cultural, and human contexts,” he says. “What’s also exciting is that she is doing this soon after the films have appeared, and so is among the first to notice these important patterns and interpret what may be going on.”
Schwarz has worked with Smith as an EXCEL Scholar on a variety of hands-on production work, including a video entitled People, Planet, Profit for the Sustainable Business Network of the Lehigh Valley as well as a promotional video for the organization. She also worked with Sikand, an award-winning independent filmmaker and television producer, on Cranes of Hope, which tells the story of David Heard and The National Crane Project.
It was Sikand’s World Cinemas course that first exposed Schwarz to studying how cultural context influences and shapes the work of filmmakers. Researching the historical and cultural influences on films gave her a fresh perspective on how to engage with and study film. Schwarz has taken several classes with Sikand, who has enjoyed watching Schwarz’s evolution into a serious film student.
Conducting honors thesis and EXCEL research has opened up new career possibilities for Schwarz, who plans to work a few years before going to graduate school. Working with Smith and Sikand has helped her reevaluate how she thinks about the world.
“Quite often, the paths that appear are better than the ones imagined. I certainly think this is true for me,” she says. “Professors Smith and Sikand’s wisdom and guidance have helped me navigate whatever challenges have appeared. Most importantly, they teach students the value of voice and action. Sometimes, it takes a lot of courage to stand up for our personal convictions. [They] inspire me to act and care about whatever project or initiative I take on.”