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Student Filmmakers Inspired by the Omar Ibn Said Collection

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This post was written by Lee Ann Potter and Kaleena Black of the Library of Congress.

Earlier this month, Michael Apfeldorf’s post “Expanding Student Understanding of Slavery in America by Exploring an Arabic Muslim Slave Narrative” introduced blog readers to the Omar Ibn Said Collection. This post adds details about the collection and a related pilot program we launched with two local high schools.

Shortly after the Library of Congress acquired the collection, plans for making it accessible to researchers began, including its digitization, a related symposium, and associated press releases. The Library also decided to try something new. Members of the Learning and Innovation team contacted two local high schools with active media production programs for students and asked whether they might be interested in learning about this collection and helping us tell its story through film. Fortunately, they said yes, and between October and early February we worked with 13 sophomores, juniors, and seniors, and 3 teachers, from Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, MD, and Richard Wright Public Charter School for Journalism and Media Arts in Washington, DC.

The Library hosts a panel conversation with student filmmakers on the Omar Ibn Said collection, February 5, 2019. Photo by Shawn Miller.

Student filmmakers from Richard Wright Public Charter School talk about their documentary during a panel conversation on the Omar Ibn Said collection, February 5, 2019. Photo by Shawn Miller.

The young filmmakers absorbed a wealth of information over several months and documented their journey along the way. Many of the students initially admitted that they were unfamiliar with Omar Ibn Said. Over the course of the project, they explored his story and life by reading his autobiography and meeting with experts from the Library’s African and Middle Eastern Division, Conservation Division, Digitization Team, and others who were working diligently to make the collection available to the public. Their visits were spent conducting interviews, collecting B-roll footage, and even getting an up-close view of the physical collection materials in the Conservation Lab. They also collaborated within their respective production teams: researching, fitting the pieces of the films together, making edits, and polishing.

In the process, they had an exciting opportunity to practice and develop their filmmaking craft, as well as a chance to discover up close the richness of the Library of Congress.

Ultimately, the filmmakers were invited to screen their films at a February 5 symposium celebrating the collection and its unveiling to the public. Their documentaries blended their research, filming, interviewing, and storytelling skills. After the film screenings, starting at 2:41:46 in the recording, the filmmakers participated in a Q&A session, and were asked about the impact of the project, their experience, and their motivations for participating.

When asked whether their thoughts about history had evolved in creating the films, one Blair student said, “Learning such a personal story, it added another layer of depth to what my prior knowledge was about slavery in America.”

As for the biggest challenges they faced on the project? One student shared, “The hardest part was definitely taking this vast amount of information…and to put it together into something that made sense…And going deeper than just the facts, to the message.”

Overall, the students had a positive experience, though. As a student from Richard Wright PCS put it, “This was the most fun film I’ve made in my life…I’m not really a history person…Just to dig into the history and make it a film?…It was a very great experience, definitely, for all of us.”

We thought so, too!

Even though these local students had the unique opportunity to explore and engage with this collection onsite at the Library of Congress, the experience they had researching, being inspired by primary sources, and ultimately sharing their knowledge can be replicated anywhere. Here are some suggestions:

  • Encourage your students to create their own films about Omar Ibn Said. They can begin by exploring the 42 items, including his autobiography, in the online collection.
  • They may be interested in viewing the documentaries created by the Blair and Wright students, as well as the full symposium, and thinking about how their film might answer questions that they still have. Alternately, your students might explore another digital collection on the Library’s site and create a documentary about, or featuring items from it.
  • Finally, contact staff working in your local historical society, archives, or museum and ask if they might be interested in working with students to help tell stories about their collections.

You and your film students may be interested in learning more about the Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film or the Next Generation Angels Awards.

How will you and your students expand their learning through documentary filmmaking? Share in the comments.

Comments (2)

  1. I’m a retired teacher and filmmaker who would like to know about the story and watch the films if possible.

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