Foreign Film Series Crosses Boundaries

By Kelly Jasper, Daily News-Record

professor Dan Wesnner of EMU
Dan Wessner, professor of international studies at EMU

The lights flicked on, and 40 pairs of eyes shifted their focus from the auditorium screen over to Dan Wessner.

An hour and a half earlier, he sat down with his students to watch a movie. Now, as always, discussion will follow.

“So,” he asked, “where do you want to go with this?”

It’s quiet for a moment. “It’s not easy,” said Wessner, a professor of international studies.

Over the next few minutes, students volunteered their thoughts.

“Horrific,” one decided. “Disturbing,” offered another.

Similar scenes are playing out this week at universities in Iran, India, Vietnam and Indiana. Students at the other schools, however, might have different thoughts to share. But that’s just the point, Wessner says.

Foreign Film Series

Three years ago, EMU partnered with other schools to “co-screen” films across cultures, Wessner says. Each participating school airs the movie, subtitled in English, and comes together as a class to write a paragraph on their impressions.

The discussion always starts in the classroom, but builds into an inter-cultural dialogue on the Internet, Wessner says.

His students will post their thoughts online in the coming days. They’ll read comments from students in other countries and respond.

“By the second post,” Wessner says, “we’re not talking about the film at all. It’s now about how we see each other.”

Which was, in fact, a central theme of Sunday’s showing.

professor Dan Wesnner of EMU leads a foreign film discussion
Here Wessner leads discussion of an early film in the series.

The class watched “Focus,” a 2001 film staring William H. Macy. It’s based on the Arthur Miller novel of the same name.

Macy plays a character that is mistaken for a Jew in his Brooklyn neighborhood after he dons a pair of eyeglasses. It’s the final few months of World War II and his family finds themselves grasping to escape the violence and anti-Semitism that’s infiltrated the neighborhood.

EMU picked this film. The five universities taking part in the program this semester trade turns every three or so weeks during the school year when a new movie is shown. They rely on a few ground rules – no gratuitous sex, violence or language, Wessner says – but otherwise, controversial subjects are fair game.

Past picks include “Indochine” from Vietnam and France, “El Norte” from Guatemala and “An Inconvenient Truth,” among others.

In ‘Focus’

Wessner stood in the middle of the auditorium rows, pointing to one student after another, asking for feedback. “Is this one easier because it’s our culture?” he asked.

“It’s harder than the others,” answered Brian Hackman, a 21-year-old from Pennsylvania. “It hits closer to home.”

Alicia Hertzler chimed in a few minutes later. “It’s frustrating to watch this movie,” said the 21-year-old from Pennsylvania, “because we know it was based on the past. But we continue to do that today with different people