Title: Using Film and Photos to Understand Complex Issues: Documentary filmmaker Azza Cohen discusses the power of visual storytelling
Interviewed and written by Mirabelle Morah and Oscar Tollast
“Journalism has really been rapidly evolving, and it’s exciting. I feel like this is an exciting time to be a visual storyteller,” said Azza Cohen, speaking at the latest symposium of the Salzburg Seminar American Studies Association, The Changing Role of the Media in American Life and Culture: Emerging Trends.
Cohen, a documentary filmmaker and historian, is dedicated to storytelling in the public’s service. At the time of interview in Salzburg, she was working on her first feature film, The Last Statesman. The film centers on the life of political negotiator George Mitchell, who helped negotiate peace in Northern Ireland with the Belfast Agreement a.k.a. the “Good Friday Agreement” in 1998, and his relationship with conflict negotiators in different countries. It is a film rooted in Cohen’s academic and visual interests, and one she hopes will “highlight positive examples of negotiation and examples of statesmanship which I think are really missing from our political conversation, definitely in America.”
“I’ve always felt – and I think especially after the 2016 [US] election – that young people don’t feel inspired by politicians and that young people don’t really see negotiation happening on a scale of the national conversation or international conversations.
“I think particularly as a Jewish person, you learn about the conflict in the Middle East, and you learn about what’s happening in Israel and Palestine, and all you see is people talking past each other. You don’t really see attempts at genuine negotiation… You have to come to the table and then decide on what gets left behind or what is a priority,” said Cohen.
Cohen has worked in documentary filmmaking since graduating from the National University of Ireland in 2017, where she obtained a master’s degree in culture and colonialism, and history. Before this, she earned a bachelor’s degree in history at Princeton University in New Jersey, USA, where one of her undergraduate thesis projects involved producing a multimedia study of racial segregation in St. Louis, Mo., USA. “I think there are ways to blend… moving images, photography, and the written word, which can give you a fuller picture of a community or an issue,” she says.
Cohen describes herself as a “big history nerd,” but it was only after attending Princeton that she encountered “how much of history informs we who are.” She said, “History is really amazing, and so many people don’t have access to understanding their own history… I think that movies and photography… can be a really great way to help people understand and be excited by history.”
Moving images can be really empowering, according to Cohen, but they can also be exploitative. She said, “It’s important that we have these discussions, especially related to this seminar… [about] the ways that media can be very harmful. I think we’ve thought about it in a lot of political sense and a lot of ways that… headlines are harmful, and memes are harmful. But I also think that moving images can be harmful, and in conversations about violence or representations of minors or children, I think there’s just a lot to think about.”
Cohen said the symposium in Salzburg continued to inspire her to consider how visual storytelling can look different – moving away from the traditional feature-length films shown at movie theaters and film festivals.
Reflecting on her experience at Salzburg Global Seminar, she says, “What is so deeply meaningful to me is the way that this place was founded. That it was founded after World War II with an eye towards restoring the idea that you have to restore Europe through intellectual, cultural, political exchange and not just rebuilding the roads and fixing the buildings that were bombed.
“I think that’s so incredibly profound.”
She adds: “What we’re missing in politics, in academia [and] in so many things is this basic idea of civility and decency, and that exchanging ideas with people you don’t know and with people from different countries is the very foundation of how we live in a world that makes sense and treats people well… To be a part of that tradition that was started in 1947 is such an honor, honestly…
“I think this subject matter is particularly resonant [and] particularly timely… I just think it’s really important to constantly be thinking about the media and the effect of technology because we don’t have any other choice… I feel very much inspired and terrified about the state of things. But the only way that you can make yourself feel better is by doing something. So, you might as well be equipped and know from experts and be able to look at things sort of dispassionately and then act passionately.”
The Changing Role of the Media in American Life and Culture: Emerging Trends features as part of the Salzburg Seminar American Studies Association (SSASA) multi-year series. You can capture highlights on social media using the hashtag #SSASA.