Promoting Social Justice Through Documentary-making, Academic Director Ismael Saavedra Engages SIT Study Abroad Students in Bolivia

Written by Megan McBride, SIT Graduate student/ World Learning VISTA-Americorp

phot_blr_ismaelIsmael Saavedra, Academic Director of SIT Study Abroad’s Bolivia: Lens on Latin America and Bolivia: Culture and Development programs, found his passion for documentaries in a matter of minutes.  While viewing a short Cuban documentary on racism and discrimination, he was struck by the film’s ability to reflect the reality of the situation on the ground in Cuba. 

The documentary on Cuba encouraged Ismael to assess the political, economic and social situation in his native Bolivia.  Ismael felt compelled to record that reality through the medium of film and to share his films with the public to encourage discussion and action.  Ismael became convinced that film has the potential to give voice to the problems he was observing in his own country and around the globe.  This was more than 30 years ago.

Today, Ismael is busy helping SIT students find their own voices through film-making.  “I want my students to realize the importance and potential of working with the language of the 21st century and, in doing so, I want them to learn and produce quality and moving short documentaries as a result of their research.”  
SIT’s Bolivia: Lens on Latin America program offers students the chance to partner with a Bolivian film student and to research and create their own documentary film.  Students take classes on production and have access to the program’s media lab for editing. Ismael’s goal is “to have the students understand the importance, in research, of images and sounds, and to learn to apply the principles and techniques of visual anthropology.” 

Ismael, who has worked as an academic director with SIT in Bolivia since 1999, encourages students to create films offering insights into contemporary Bolivian reality.  Today, the program has an archive of over 50 student-made films on topics ranging from the Bolivia-U.S. relationship in the “war on drugs” to female soccer teams. One recent film by program alumnus Aaron Naar, entitled ‘Los hombres del lago,’ focuses on the history and pollution of a local lake and uses shots of water and mounds of fish and narration by a local fisherman. 

Ismael points out that the strength of SIT’s Lens on Latin America program lies in the minimal equipment that students use.  Students create their documentary using only a small video camera, a laptop and an external hard drive.  These three pieces of equipment easily fit inside a small back-pack, teaching students that “with this small baggage, (they are) ready to go anywhere in the world and make a brilliant, well researched, independent documentary.” 

The importance of these films does not end with the completion of the student’s projects.  As Ismael notes, the documentaries offer a way to “extend the duration of the experience and the possibility to reflect and deepen their research.”  Students regularly share their project with family, friends and colleagues once they return home and their films continue to generate discussion about social concerns in Bolivia.  If they so choose, students also get involved with social action movements that concentrate on the issues addressed in their documentary. 

Ismael worked on a number of ethnographic documentaries before becoming an academic director for SIT.  His works include Deception (Academy Award, 1992), Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo (Academy Award nomination, 1984), Chuquiago (a classic Bolivian ethnographic film, 1976), and Landscapes of Memory (prizes at Sundance and Berlin Film Festivals, 1997). 

When asked why he works with students to help them create their own documentaries, he states, “I think that one of the best ways that students have to record their experiences, investigations and findings is through documentary films.”  Given the powerful images and topics shown in students’ projects, the strength of their research and of Ismael’s teaching is evident.  “I want my students to realize their potential and to exercise their capabilities to conduct profound investigations, (and to) record and publicize their results in order to educate more people about their own and other cultures.”

Ismael Saavedra serves as the co-Academic Director for SIT Study Abroad’s Boliva: Culture and Development program with Heidi Baer-Postigo. Students on the semester program also have the opportunity to produce an entho-graphic video documentary for their independent study project. For more information about SIT Study Abroad’s Bolivia: Lens on Latin America or Bolivia: Culture and Development programs, please visit the SIT Study Abroad Find a Program webpage.

Watch the YouTube videos of SIT Study Abroad Bolivia students.

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2 Responses to Promoting Social Justice Through Documentary-making, Academic Director Ismael Saavedra Engages SIT Study Abroad Students in Bolivia

  1. Tyler Depke says:

    I was in the SIT-Bolivia program in tha Fall of 2008 and it is an unreal experience, especially anyone looking into any kind of documentary film. It gives you the perfect opportunity to conduct your own research in the form of a documentary in a foreign language. The best part is that when you are done you realize just how much you have accomplished in such a short period of time.

  2. Margaret Ann Stewart says:

    I have had the pleasure of being under the supervision of Ismael and Heidi as a student in the Bolivia program in the Fall 2007. Both are wonderful directors and mentors, and Ismael really has a great creative perspective and a love of passing that on to students as a way to incite social awareness and change.

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