"Using 'Homemade' Documentary Video
in Religious Studies"


by Scott C. Alexander


(1) This adjective ["homemade"] is taken from the title of a November 1996 AAR panel in which the piece I will discuss below (_Abraham’s Children: Interviews with Jews, Christians, and Muslims in a Midwest College Town_) and another film (Valerie Hoffman’s _Celebrating the Prophet: Sufi Dhikr in Egypt_) were presented as examples of videos "tailormade" for courses by instructors. In this sense, then, "homemade" does not necessarily mean "amateur." In the case of both films presented, considerable professional talent was utilized in the editing and narration processes, and in the case of my film every aspect of the filming and creative editing—including lighting and sound—was done by Ralph Zuzolo and the other professionals on his staff in Indiana University’s Media Production division of Instructional Support Services. Without Ralph and his team, our video project could never have been realized.

(2) This and other kinds of role playing—such as assigning the students sides in a theological or legal debate that reflects the tensions between different doctrinal schools of a particular tradition—seem to be very effective activities which I continue to incorporate in my current, substantially revised version of the course discussed below.

(3) For example: the text of ancient Christian councils and some annotation regarding the socio-political roles these gatherings played in the formation of the early church, coupled with the NY Times coverage of the closing of the Second Vatican Council and an article on the proceedings of a recent Presbyterian assembly and its consideration of such timely and controversial issues as whether or not to ordain openly gay and lesbian people to the clergy.

(4) Recently, in another course, I assigned a field report on Muslim worship practices at the beginning of the semester which had a deadline of six weeks. I placed each of the students in small "field groups" of five or six people. I then asked each group to choose a "captain," and assigned a volunteer "host" from the local mosque to each of the groups, giving both the captain and his or her respective host each other’s telephone number and e-mail address. I then gave the groups class time on more than one occasion during the first and second weeks of the semester to confer about convenient times for a mosque visit so that the captains could then speak with their respective hosts to arrange for a visit. In this particular case, it was helpful to segregate the field groups by gender because of the segregation of space at the local mosque which requires all women to observe/participate in the women’s section of the mosque with a female host, and all men to observe/participate in the men’s section with a male host. This "field group" scheme proved to be a very successful and effective way of requiring a visit to a local religious community without a) placing undue stress on a small community to host a large group; and b) demanding that students skip another class or miss work in order to attend a one-time field trip. I am currently considering introducing this scheme into my upcoming offering of R152, although the logistics of having the group captains arrange three visits with three hosts, instead of only one, will be a bit more challenging. Even with this field trip scheme in place, however, the course video—which I will discuss below—will still prove invaluable for giving students the kind of "personal" contact (i.e., acquaintance with the thoughts and feelings of discrete contemporary Jews, Christians, and Muslims) they desire.

(5) Although the Abrahamic overtones of Smith’s original "faith" would not be inappropriate for a course like R152 on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (all three have concepts of "faith" or "faithfulness"), I have chosen to use "personal commitment" because it broadens the application of Smith’s insights to the degree he had hoped in his original selection of, and attempts at redefining "faith."

(6) Of the many side benefits of developing a "homemade" or "tailormade" video are the leftovers—the indirect compilation of an archive of footage that never makes the final piece. In editing any video, practical editorial decisions involving time considerations, quality of the interviewee’s presentation, and overall "editability" of a proposed segment, all result in leaving some very interesting and illuminating material "on the cutting room floor," so to speak. In the case of Abraham’s Children, the archive we compiled to make our sixty-minute piece totals well over twelve hours. In these twelve hours are moments in interviews—sometimes too awkward to be edited or too long to be included in the final piece—which can be enormously useful in a classroom setting where I, as the instructor, can provide the necessary context. Just one example that quickly comes to mind is the eight- or nine-minute segment in which one of the interviewees tells a Hasidic tale which he points out (although not in these exact words) is a kind of personal myth for him. I find this piece very useful in initial R152 discussions on the nature and function of myth for the religious community and/or individual. (See below, note 8.)

(7) The following reconstruction of the conversation that ensued is from memory and thus not likely to be 100% accurate. I made every effort to avoid embellishing with my historical imagination, but—thanks to theorists such as Hayden White—we all know that to do this in any absolute sense is impossible.

(8) In the first three weeks of R152, the students spend most of their time learning how to interpret and use two important words in the analytical vocabulary of the study of religions: "myth" and "ritual." This brief unit on elementary religious studies methodology is an important part of the course because R152 is meant to function, not only as an introduction to three religious traditions (i.e., Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), but also as an introduction to the discipline of religious studies.

(9) Some students who have attended voluntary field trips to the religious communities featured in the video report having met some of the interviewees and having had some genuine conversation with them. Of course, for those who may use the video outside the Bloomington context, as well as the majority of my students, this opportunity does not arise. This is why it is important for me to underscore the fact that the video is by no means a substitute for field experience, and why I am attempting to incorporate into the course required field visits of the type discussed above in note 4.

(10) Mark Edmundson, "On the Uses of a Liberal Education: I. As Lite Entertainment for Bored College Students" in Harper’s, September 1997, pp. 39-49.

"Using 'Homemade'
Documentary Video
in Religious Studies"
Vol. 1, No. 2
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