Summer 2017 Fellows Presentation Summary

Wed, 03/07/2018 - 11:40am

"USC Research With Testimonies: Featuring the Center's Summer 2017 Research Fellows"
Noha Ayoub and Maria Zalewska (University of Southern California)

February 8, 2018

USC Research With Testimonies: Featuring the Center's Summer 2017 Research Fellows

This lecture features two of our summer 2017 research fellows: Maria Zalewska, PhD candidate in Cinema and Media Studies and Mellon PhD Fellow in the Digital Humanities, USC School of Cinematic Arts, and Noha Ayoub, USC undergraduate student majoring in Law, History and Culture and minoring in Middle East Studies.

Zalewska’s project engages with the Institute’s Visual History Archive by comparing the testimonies of memories of the pre-World War II spaces in which Poles and Jews interacted with their cinematically narrativized counterparts. Ayoub contextualizes testimonies in the Institute's archive through her research on nationalism in Rwanda and the ways in which fictionalized narratives against Tutsis perpetrated by the state led to genocide over 20 years ago.

The USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research bestows summer research fellowships to USC undergraduate students, graduate students and faculty across disciplines. Fellows spend one month in residence at the Center during the academic summer break to conduct innovative research using the Visual History Archive (VHA) and other unique USC resources. At this event, two of the three Center Summer 2017 research fellows gathered to publicly present and discuss their research.

Noha Ayoub (DEFY Undergraduate Research Fellow, Major in Law, History, and Culture, and Minor in Middle Eastern Studies)

Noha Ayoub’s presentation, entitled “Of Monsters and Men: Understanding the Genocide of the Tutsis as a Process of Decolonization and a Result of the Nation State Project,” focused on the political identities of the Tutsis and the Hutus and the ways they changed over time. The presentation examined what needs to happen politically to incite people to violence, including the normalization and legitimization of violence in public discourse, and the relationship between a nation-state project and political violence. Ayoub argued for the Rwandan genocide as a decolonization project resulting in state-sponsored mass violence. She used her one-month long residence at the Center to watch and analyze testimonies about the Rwandan genocide in order to contextualize history and better understand the role of socio-political institutions in the incitement to violence.

Reviewing Rwanda’s colonial history, Ayoub noted that the identities of the Tutsis and the Hutus were historically fluid. However, Belgian colonialism fixed and racialized these identities, transforming the Tutsis into the Belgians’ imperialist enforcement tool over the Hutu majority. Then Rwandan independence and the newly-created nation-state, Ayoub explained, were marked by Hutu nationalist movements and a widespread understanding of the Tutsis as an alien settler population. Ayoub asserted that this subsequently led to discrimination and dehumanization of the Tutsis, ultimately culminating in the 1994 genocide. 

In the second part of her presentation, Ayoub focused on the contributions of socio-political institutions to the legitimization of and incitement to violence, including schools, workplaces, and radio. In particular, Ayoub discussed the interrelationship between language and violence relating to these institutions, including racial slurs and scapegoating, bullying, nationalist radio shows, and nationalist propaganda. 

Finally, Ayoub reflected on both the utility and the limitations of testimonies from the Visual History Archive as they pertain to her research project. The Q&A period following her remarks included discussion of the impact of the thirty-year delay in the decolonization project; the influence of European racial ideas, triggers and factors that led to the genocide and that are different from other colonial societies; and a discussion of what she characterized as the “anecdotal nature” of testimonies.

Maria Zalewska (Ph.D. Candidate in Cinema and Media Studies at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, 2016-2018 Mellon Ph.D. Fellow in Digital Humanities)

Maria Zalewska’s presentation focused on how she set about conducting her research in the Visual History Archive for her project concerning how Poles remember pre-World War II spaces in Poland. 

Zalewska began her presentation by recounting some of the theoretical questions driving her research, including how visual culture mediates memory on individual and collective levels, how memory is transmitted, enacted, and changed through media, and how media influence remembering and forgetting.

Zalewska continued by describing a documentary film, entitled “Po-lin: Okruchy Pamieci” (2008), that sparked her interest in the topic and ultimately led her to do research with the Visual History Archive testimonies. This documentary presents a nostalgic and idyllic picture of pre-WWII Polish life in which Poles and Jews coexisted peacefully. The film includes original footage from American Jews traveling to Poland and filming their families before World War II. The footage of these pre-war spaces only reinforces the idyllic depiction of life in pre-war Poland. 

Zalewska set out to conduct research with the testimonies in order to compare testimonies with this cinematic narrative. She wanted to investigate how survivors in testimonies actually remember and describe the places and landscapes pictured in the film. In order to do this, Zalewska identified fourteen Polish villages and searched for them in the testimonies. In her presentation, she discussed the methodological challenges she encountered during her research and the ways that she addressed them. Zalewska noted that one of her goals was to find evidence of Polish-Jewish tensions in pre-WWII life in these places. While she did find some evidence of this, Zalewska explained that most of the memories found in these survivors’ oral histories are focused on family life. 

In the Q&A following her presentation, Zalewska reflected on the challenges of reimagining the landscape, the ways digital media can be integrated into history education, and the presence and absence of survivors located at the sites included in her research. 



Summary by Badema Pitic