Lessons from Avatar

Lessons from Avatar

Environmental Studies Prof. Salma Monani views environmental issues through the lens of film

When you think of media, you might think of film or video games. Perhaps you think of the Internet. Newspapers. Photography. But have you ever thought about the environment? Prof. Salma Monani has helped to formalize an entire field—called ecomedia studies—that is focused on doing just that: researching and thinking about how the media shapes—and is shaped—by nature and the world around us.

“We often think of nature as separate from society and that it’s not about people. But when you look at people and different cultures, you start to realize that nature is very much about people,” said Monani.

Salma MonaniThe environmental studies professor won a fellowship for her research on Native American film from the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, an international center that focuses on advancing discussion about the interaction between humans and nature, and strengthening the role of the humanities in current political and scientific debates about the environment.

That area of study is one she also brings to her classes on campus.  For example, she shares popular examples of films like Avatar—a film about a fictional place called Pandora that humans are looking to colonize— to make the point that movies and media are shaped by the environment, but they also have a role in doing some of the shaping.

“There was a dam that was going to be built in Brazil, and the Indigenous people there are threatened. [Avatar Director] James Cameron came to speak on their behalf. We talk about how a fictional movie like Avatar is shaped by reality, but it also has an impact on shaping how we talk about the environment,” Monani said. “What I’d like my students to know is that the environment is everywhere, and I want them to bring that consciousness to everything they do.”

Monani is one of only 31 recipients—7% of applicants—who were selected to receive the fellowship from the Rachel Carson Center. With a small cohort of other environmental humanities scholars, Monani traveled to Munich to further some of her more current environmental research—research that involves using examples of different types of Native American films, to explore the diverse environmental messages conveyed through each film’s structure or narrative, and its cultural context, from production to reception.

“Film is a really powerful tool for Native Americans to use because it has the oral aspect—that old tradition of storytelling— so it’s a good way of thinking about how to tell their stories.”

She has spent the last few years engaging with cinema made by Indigenous people, which is also called Fourth Cinema. Her research suggests that such cinema often questions popular culture’s stereotypes of Indigenous people and exposes how social categories, such as race, gender, class, and sexuality, influence environmental perceptions and interactions.  She argues that Fourth cinema is important as it often provides an angle on Indigenous lives that reveal eco-social injustices of the past and present. In doing so, it often encourages us to consider the ethics of future eco-social relations.

Monani had the chance to speak about film and its social, moral, and ethical implications this year at the Tinai Film Festival in India, where she was asked to be the keynote speaker. As the number of films dedicated to environmental and ecological issues continues to increase, there are more forums for these films to be screened. The Tinai Film Festival saw the need for such a space, allowing filmmakers, scholars, and students to share their stories via ecological documentaries.  Closer to Gettysburg College, the Washington D.C. Environmental Film Festival, which Monani takes her students to, is another such forum.

Salma MonaniWhile Monani’s primary research is in cinema, she draws on her interdisciplinary background to coach her students to think about the bigger picture when completing their senior honors theses, often asking how their projects link to other disciplines. She has a dynamic background—her Ph.D. degree is in Science and Technical Communication, but she also has an M.A. degree in creative writing and an M.S. degree in Geology.

“I don’t think I would be doing what I’m doing if it weren’t for my interdisciplinary background. The environment is not something you can come at from one angle. The humanities side of that is understanding that there are different people involved in environmental issues, and each one comes with his or her own cultural background,” she said. “So you’ll have the scientists, you’ll have the politicians, you’ll have the citizens, and to be able to understand where people are coming from, and how their cultural backgrounds frame their ideas and actions—that’s incredibly valuable.”

To learn more about Prof. Monani’s background and research, visit her page at salma.monani.org.


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Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition. Alumni include Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate, and other distinguished scholars. The college enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students and is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.

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Posted: Tue, 16 Feb 2016

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