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Beeld: Ruben van Gaalen, Fruitful Roots

Something else than writing an essay: Ruben made a documentary for an assignment

Ruben van Gaalen used a very unique approach for a course of the research master Colonial and Global History: instead of writing an essay, he went to Dublin and made a documentary about African rappers in Ireland.

For the African Studies master's programme, Ruben participates as a student assistant in an interdisciplinary method course. In this course, students attend guest lectures from experts in the field of digital skills (e.g. audio, video, and photo). The lectures also show students the practical side of digital research and give them the opportunity to apply different formats to their own research.

Ruben van Gaalen

Something else for a change

For the course Connecting Dreams, students were free to choose the form in which they submitted their final assignment. ‘Right from the first lecture, the teacher told us that we were allowed to make a film, podcast or website,' says Ruben. ‘It's nice to be stimulated to do something different. After so many years, I was a bit fed up with writing essays and I happened to be at a lecture by a visual anthropologist, which was very cool. That's why I chose to approach my subject, African rappers in Ireland, from a different academic perspective; with a documentary.

During the lectures, the connection between Europe and Africa in the broadest sense of the word is discussed. Students are free to choose their own subject and format. Ruben chose to write about one of his own interests: music. ‘I read an article about African immigrants giving a boost to hip-hop culture in Ireland and wanted to find out more’, he explains. ‘Hip-hop is a perfect topic for a documentary, it's a very audiovisual culture. Hip-hop is not only about music, but also about dance, clothing, and graffiti. So it made sense to me to choose an audiovisual method.

Ten days in Dublin: ‘I’m just going to do it’

Through social media, Ruben contacted three rappers. One of them eagerly responded with ‘Cool, let's do it’. Armed with a university camera, he left for the Irish capital Dublin for ten days. Ruben: 'I thought to myself: ‘I’m just going to do it.’ It was a bit awkward, but it was very informal. We were about the same age, so it was like talking to my bro. It was a fun interview, in between filming there was also time for some laughs.

‘People that stick to their roots, end up being more fruitful at the end.’
- Huva, one of the hiphop artists interviewed by Ruben

On the spot, Ruben asked two more rappers if they would like to take part in his project: 'I was at a hip-hop event and I happened to recognize one of the rappers there. The other rapper I had sent a message via Facebook and he invited me to come to the studio, which was very cool. He edited the interview clips into the short documentary Fruitful Roots. To give more background info and to reflect on his film, Ruben wrote a short paper and built a website on which he also published the unedited footage.

‘New’ scientific methods

Would he advise other students to make a documentary? ‘Sure, it's a lot of fun. Technically, you are creating your own content and research. My film itself isn't award-winning, but it's nice to see the progression: the last interview went better than the first’, says Ruben. It also helped, of course, that I was able to experiment with a subject that really interests me.

In the digital age in which we live, more and more different scientific methods are being used. As a history student, Ruben often works with archives and other physical sources. He adds: 'Sometimes you have to get out of the University Library. You don’t necessarily have to go far away for fieldwork, but the world is becoming more visual and virtual, and it would be crazy if our way of research does not reflect that development. I especially like to see what my options are and to experiment with different possibilities.

Innovative education

At the master's programme African Studies they use innovative (digital) teaching methods, for example, making a documentary. Professor of African Linguistics, Maarten Mous, explains in the video below how they apply these methods.

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Text: Suzé Klok
Images: Ruben van Gaalen

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