Part-time JCU philosophy professor, Christina Rawls, along with a crew of student volunteers created an original documentary entitled, “A Horse for Alhazen,” which incorporates elements of philosophy that connect to behaviors and communication of horses and the history of filmmaking.
Being Rawls’ second documentary made alongside JCU students, “A Horse for Alhazen” will premiere on Sunday, April 24 at 6 p.m. in Donahue Auditorium.
After a year in production, Rawls and her student crew took a different approach to this project in comparison to her first documentary that premiered last spring entitled, “The Delay.” Rawls immediately began working on “A Horse for Alhazen” on May 2, 2015, the day after “The Delay” was debuted on JCU’s campus.
“‘The Delay’ was on racism in America and it was sad and hard to really enjoy the aesthetics of making art in a documentary,” said Rawls. “However, this one turned out to be a little sad too, by default. It took on a life of its own, interweaving the history of film with clips on film-making and related issues. The first film ever was made about a galloping horse.”
Rawls continued, “But before that came the philosophy reference from the Arab polymath Alhazen who discovered some of the mathematics that led to the way optics and light work, which led to the creation of the camera. I have to put philosophy in everything I do. It’s in my blood. In this film, there’s this wonderful connection through the history of film and photography and light all from this philosopher.”
Rawls’ angle for the film stretched even further to include a relationship with another species, horses.
“This year, I had been watching broadcasted horse races, mostly because one particular jockey’s name was Victor Espinoza and I am a doctor in the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who was the leading world lens grinder in optics for microscopes in the seventeenth century,” said Rawls.
This connection between Rawls’ study in philosophy and interest in horses led to a deeper understanding of these beautiful animals.
“Just last year, right in the middle of when we started production, they discovered that horses use more facial expressions and muscles to communicate to each other than chimpanzees,” added Rawls. “They have high levels of intelligence and they communicate with each other, forming friendships even with their human companions, and they heal people without people knowing why or how. Equine therapy is exploding right now. This is how we formed these connections to make this documentary.”
Junior Brittney Seals, a communications major and philosophy minor who has been the lead on this project since the summertime, said, “The horse communication within the film creates a philosophical connection and shows how there’s more than one way to communicate. It’s not just us. This can really open peoples’ minds.”
“I have a totally different perspective on horses now, just from being part of the documentary,” said senior Mohamed Yugo, who worked in post-production on the film. “There’s a lot of room for us to learn from these animals.”
Junior Britttany Antognazzi, who helped with creative input, editing and project decision-making, shared, “This project opened my eyes to so many things, especially how these philosophical issues are connected to horses. People take horses for granted.”
Ironically, the healing power of these animals became evident through one of the crew member’s survival stories.
Junior Shanna Etchinson, who is featured in an interview section of the documentary, had previously suffered from an injury that paralyzed her for six months.
“It was our third meeting I attended, we were talking, and I mentioned that I had owned a horse. Chris asked me why I had owned a horse, and I explained that a horse was donated to me to use as a type of therapy after breaking my back,” said Etchinson. “I used the horse to help me. The horse saved my life.”
She further explained how the horse would physically become her legs throughout the healing process and helped her feel as if she was walking again.
“Her horse would take her to beautiful, scenic places she couldn’t get to on her own,” said Rawls. “Her story became a huge part of the documentary.”
With the help of the Center for Digital Media and the Philosophy Department at JCU, in addition to two crews made entirely of students volunteers, Rawls created this documentary and simultaneously taught her students using up-to-date editing software and newer film cameras while providing hands-on experience visiting horse farms during the summer.
“This time we also used an iPhone setting that slows down footage for you. We’ve literally been trying to incorporate all kinds of technology, whatever we can, in this project,” said Rawls. “I just can’t believe we are pulling it off, but we’re having fun and learning.”
Yugo added, “I wish that everyone could be part of an experience like this. It gives you a lot of perspective and perception about these topics.”
“Last year, we did a documentary on race and social justice issues. I think this documentary is also about social justice issues but in a very different way. The issues are very intersectional. They relate to each other, whether you realize it or not,” said Seals.
“People look at horses as if they are just animals and they don’t have feelings or that they don’t communicate. But they do. I think this documentary really shows the connection between humans and animals. I hope people who see this documentary will respect animals more and think more about those deeper connections that you can make with people or other species,” Seals said.
Antognazzi added, “I want audiences to realize how many things can be connected to each other, even things I wouldn’t typically notice.”
“Philosophy can be connected to anything and anything can be connected to anything else,” concluded Etchinson. “Philosophy isn’t its own little thing. Everything is philosophy. Everything can be connected.”
With a surprise ending in store, “A Horse for Alhazen” pushes understandings on philosophical ties to animals and calls audiences to action to take better care of animals that have such an effect on their surrounding species. Editor’s Note: “A Horse for Alhazen” premieres on Sunday, April 24 at 6:00 p.m. in Donahue Auditorium.