A Global Semester documentary on democracy, made democratically
It was 10 p.m. in the Czech Republic, and the voices of four St. Olaf College students filled the room as they attempted to write a conclusion for the documentary they had been working on for the past three months. They were trying to fit global travel, wide-ranging conversations about democracy, numerous sleepless nights, unforgettable moments, deep friendships, and countless arguments into one concise conclusion. It wasn’t easy — and what they had so far just didn’t quite capture the impact of the experience they had had.
“We stopped, we closed our laptops, and we started talking about what this experience actually meant for us,” says Inna Sahakyan ’23. “We already had a conclusion written, but it felt like a school project rather than a summation of our experiences. It didn’t make any sense.”
The group of students on Global Semester, led by Associate Professor of Theater William Sonnega, had set out to create a documentary about media and democracy around the world. The project quickly developed into one of passion for the students, summarizing, culminating, and becoming a living memory of their experience. It’s why on that late night in Prague, they struggled to put it all in words.
“At that moment we were not even talking about the documentary or how this conclusion would fit into it,” Sahakyan says.
In the end, says Markian Romanyshyn ’23, the documentary was more than an assignment.
“The assignment aspect of it was just a push to finish it in time,” Romanyshyn says. “Along the way, we were always creating a story that we cared about and that we believed in.”
The documentary was part of the Global Semester course that Sonnega designed titled Media, Democracy, and the Global Village. Since 1968, Global Semester has taken Oles across Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and South America. Following a two-year hiatus due to the global COVID-19 pandemic — including multiple cancellations, postponements, and a reconstruction of the program itself — the 2022 program was a long-awaited return of one of the college’s signature study-abroad programs. Sonnega saw an opportunity to bring his expertise in documentary filmmaking into the program.
I have been teaching documentary filmmaking for two decades, and this is one of the most satisfying projects I have ever undertaken.Associate Professor of Theater William Sonnega
Combining experiential, hands-on, and classroom learning, Sonnega pushed students to deeply engage with the places they visited, observe with a critical eye, and ask important questions. The result is a 37-minute documentary titled “Worth the Fight” that surveys the current and future status of democracy in Ecuador, Jordan, and the Czech Republic, and includes interviews with academics, politicians, artists, activists, and others.
“I have been teaching documentary filmmaking for two decades, and this is one of the most satisfying projects I have ever undertaken,” he says.
Lessons in Teamwork
As they began the program in Quito, Ecuador, the students were introduced to the project and challenged to operate like a small film production company to create a cohesive narrative documentary centering around the theme of democracy and media.
As producer, Sonnega chose to give the students ample room for self direction. He was there to consult, ask guiding questions, and provide a launchpad, facilitating space for students to find and tell their own story.
“The cool part is we didn’t come in with top-down ideas of what we would do with the project,” says Gabriel Marinho ’22, a quantitative economics major who was a director and editor and produced motion graphics for the documentary. “Together we got to decide what we wanted to do and how we wanted to do it.”
Instead of splitting up into small teams, each with their own projects, the students worked all together. Sonnega then assigned distinct writing, directing, researching, photographing, and editing roles to each student.
Operationally and logistically, conducting the project as a large team was more difficult. “But because everybody has to contribute for it to really work, there is a higher level of communication, collaboration, and cooperation. It’s worth the extra effort,” he says.
Aerin O’Malley ’22, a political science, economics, and American studies major who contributed as a screenwriter and did the voiceover, says, “It was a huge lesson in collaboration.”
Marinho admits that he wasn’t sure it would even work. He now sees the value in it. “If I had the chance to go back, I would do it the same way that we did. It was great and exciting, and I’m glad I was part of it.”
Romanyshyn, a political science and philosophy major who served as a screenwriter for the project, says his biggest takeaway was truly learning what it means to be part of a team. “Although I understood it theoretically — I got the concept, and I had been on teams before — I had never been on a team quite like this one,” he says.
Within the large team of students, the four screenwriters spent hours developing, writing, and perfecting the story of the documentary itself. Along the way, they learned the importance of empathy in communication, compromise, and self-advocacy.
“It’s so much harder to put four voices into one script than anybody can imagine,” says screenwriter Sahakyan, a computer science and film and media studies major.
O’Malley says the writers were known among the larger group for their passionate, at times heated, discussions about the script. “It was a big joke for the Global Semester that you knew a writers meeting was going on because you would hear a lot of yelling,” she says.
But pushing ideas back and forth, getting frustrated with one another, and making concessions, Romanyshyn says, was integral to their work. “Disagreement was core to it, and part of the fun of being on a team,” he says.
Integrating recordings and experiences into a single narrative is the hardest work of all, says Sonnega. And without deep, foundational trust and respect, or space for vulnerability, the team of students would not have been able to work together at such a high level.
“All of the writers were uncomfortable with something at some point,” says Sahakyan. “We had to speak about it and try to get it resolved, whether or not it was easy.”
Sonnega knew there would be conflict, and that everyone was going to have to make concessions. “How we are enfranchised and enfranchise one another into these kinds of experiences, through our generosity, through our empathy, and through our understanding is what predicts the quality of our work,” he says.
Sahakyan says the script is diverse, human, and not focused strictly on the political aspect of democracy because of the difference and disagreement that went into it. Romanyshyn says it is synthetic and incorporative of all their perspectives because they allowed each other to be pushed out of their comfort zones.
Finding empathy and trust in their communication with one another, the students also brought empathy and open-mindedness to the experience as a whole, paid attention to their subject position, and were mindful of how they investigated democracy and wrote about both themselves and others.
Sahakyan, an international student from Armenia, has lived in many places around the world. She’s found that people spend so much time connecting on what makes them similar, but she prefers to ask a different question: “What do you have that is so different from me?”
O’Malley says it’s really about “learning to love people for exactly who they are and not because you have this shared something together.”
Approaching the story, the writers had to recognize an unavoidable base-level of subjectivity, embrace it within themselves, and allow it to be shaped and changed by new ideas and perspectives.
The students challenged their own assumptions about democracy, discovered that democracy changes from place to place, and explored tension between democratic ideals and the realization of them. They found that the underlying values of discourse and community engagement were present everywhere they went.
Marinho, an international student from Brazil, has a different experience with democracy than some of his American peers. Exploring democracy in Jordan, Ecuador, and the Czech Republic, Marihno says they saw people fight for democracy everywhere they went. He adds that observing what people in other countries are doing to keep democracy alive was an eye-opening experience. “I felt personally connected, thinking about democracy at home too,” he says.
In the conclusion of their documentary, the students find democratic values manifesting most intensely in community with other people. They note that it’s not as much about the institutions as it is the communities empowered by those institutions.
“Democracy is found in the people because democracy is all about the people,” says O’Malley. And, Sahakyan adds, “the core to it is the humanity of the people.”
Democracy is found in the people because democracy is all about the people.Aerin O’Malley ’22
In the middle of finding community in three very different systems of government, and researching and writing about democratic values, the students realized that they themselves were practicing democratic values –– and getting better at them.
It didn’t matter whether they were in a country that praised democracy or not, says Sahakyan. “Relationships and human connections made us who we were at the end of this program,” she says.
Relationships and human connections made us who we were at the end of this program.Inna Sahakyan ’23
The greatest challenge of concluding a documentary project like this one, says Sonnega, is to listen for the consistent themes or persistent questions and tell that story.
Having taken leaps of faith and gone beyond the comfortable, embracing new relationships through the Global Semester experience and documentary project, the students found that at its core, democracy is about being okay with discomfort and embracing it as something beautiful.
When it came time to write the conclusion, the students took time to reflect on their experience and coursework while navigating the documentary’s balance between school project and passion project.
Marinho was speechless and in tears when the conclusion was first presented to him. “It was a very special moment because we were very connected amongst ourselves and to that documentary,” he says.
Watch the full documentary below.