‘War on the Global Commons’ micro-seminar engages

Fueled by sushi and Panera, the mixed group of students, professors, alumnae/i and Director Jude Ratham discussed topics relating to wartime trauma.

I skidded into Taylor 203, huffing and puffing. To my shock, students, faculty and alumnae/i packed the auditorium, with even more sitting along the stairs. This was the first film screening in the Engaged Pluralism Initiative (EPI) Global Campus and Studies’ week-long mini-seminar on the “War on the Global Commons.” In my front row seat, I craned my head up to the screen, settling in for a week of film screenings, workshops and discussions about the relationship between traumatic wartime experiences, the liberal arts and what it means to be human.

Even though the EPI emails leading up to the event emphasized that any level of participation was welcomed, I felt obligated to commit to all the film screenings and discussions occurring throughout the week. The mini-seminar kicked off on Monday with Miki Dezaki’s “Shusenjo: The Main Battleground of the Comfort Women Issue.” Dezaki’s film guided viewers through the arguments denying and acknowledging the existence of comfort women during World War II, as well as Imperial Japan’s involvement with comfort stations. The film relied on logical argumentation but also included scenes that caused reactions ranging from gasps of shock to bursts of laughter. EPI topped off the night with dumplings and a Q&A led by Dezaki and President of the Korean American Forum of California Phyllis Kim. Tuesday evening featured Ramadan Suleman’s “Zulu Love Letters,” a film depicting South Africa post-aparthied. Finally, Jude Ratnam’s “Demon in Paradise,” a documentary that followed Ratnam’s telling of the Sri Lankan Civil War. In some moments, the auditorium filled with sniffles; in others, snickers.

If you were to walk past the Rose Parlor last Thursday, Oct. 26th, you would’ve seen an eclectic circle of people: students from all grade levels, professors, alumnae/i, one director and one prospective student. The director was Ratnam, who stayed after his film screening for the Thursday and Friday discussions. Pizza and refreshments broke the ice for conversation ranging from dehumanization language to interpretations of the word “demon” to what it means to “do something.” From 6:00 p.m. to 10:45 p.m., the group brought forth puzzling questions and thoughtful answers.

Being surrounded by knowledgeable professors, alumnae/i and upperclassmen, firstyears may have felt somewhat hesitant to speak up. But after some exchanges, shyer students spoke. Their age and experiences did not discount their contributions. Within the circle, each person had the chance to contribute meaningfully.

The inclusivity of the week’s conversations extended beyond its participants. Within the mini-seminar, big questions did not demand immediate answers nor neat conclusions. The messiness of trauma and complexities of being human were acknowledged in the breadth of the topics touched on. The benefits of empirical evidence and storytelling were debated. While some feared becoming desensitized to suffering, others feared experiencing too much empathy. Differences among participants allowed for a more interesting and complex discussion.

Friday, Sept. 27th, marked the final day of the mini-seminar. The conversation continued throughout the day-long workshop in the President’s Conference Room, where people were allowed to come and go as necessary. Topics varied, but each fostered lively debate. Narrative or theory? Which is considered more compelling when analyzing traumatic events? Professor of Political Science Himadeep Muppidi spoke about the sheltered way in which students are taught, noting that in learning environments, “Students can be disturbed, but not too much.” For some students, the mini-seminar felt both intellectually and emotionally jarring.

Reshan Selvavelautham ‘23 and Githu Krishanakumar ‘21 can attest to a similar sentiment. Considering the volume of events constantly happening on campus, it came as no surprise when Selvavelautham learned about Ratham’s “Demons in Paradise” screening mere hours before the event. Immediately, he cleared his schedule for that evening. Selvavelautham remarked, “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me to learn about my family’s history.” As Tamils, Selvavelautham’s parents were forced to flee during the Sri Lankan Civil War. The family moved to America where Selvavelautham grew up. Selvavelautham admitted, “I don’t know other South Asians, don’t know other Sri Lankans like me. So I never got to learn— besides my parents’ perspective—I never got to learn in an informative environment like a school environment.” When Selvavelautham spoke with his mom, he said she didn’t like that the film talked about how Tamils fought other Tamils. The film screening gave him an alternative perspective that his parents couldn’t provide.

Krishanakumar described how she felt after Thursday’s discussion: “I think I learned a lot, and it definitely gave me a lot to reflect on. Like, last night…I was supposed to go out with some friends, and I ended up just staying in my room on my laptop. My laptop screen was open, but I wasn’t really doing anything—I was just thinking about the conversation we’ve been having.” In the same way, I found myself drifting back in time to think about our conversations.

During the mini-seminar, countless topics were analyzed. Out of curiosity, I asked Ratham what his favorite topic we discussed was. He reflected: “In a pedagogical institution we’ve been talking about ghosts. Ghosts and demons. We become like kids.” He then burst into laughter. For such a high-brow institution, we spent hours earnestly talking about ghosts and demons. Despite the heavy topic of trauma, the mini-seminar was fun. We were kids being playful and learning from each other.

When I was watching the films, it puzzled me to have kernels of joy amongst the stories of sorrow. Throughout the week’s conversations, I experienced something similar. Moments of gravity intertwined with moments of merriment. It seems like a contradiction to feel both in the face of tragedy. Though, if I’ve learned anything, it is that nothing is black and white. The easier explanation is that humans are complex; the harder explanation would require another mini-seminar.

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