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Though it may have come later than he would’ve liked, history professor James Le Sueur has been granted a new lease on life.

Le Sueur, a Samuel Clark Waugh distinguished professor of International Relations at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, teaches history related to colonialism, decolonization and terrorism. Over the past two decades, his fascination with history has led him into a second career as an award-winning independent filmmaker covering similar topics, but with a focus on the first-hand accounts of those who lived through historical events. 

Although he dabbled in professional photography prior to attending college in the late 1980s, Le Sueur said his attention was eventually drawn away from the camera and deeper into academia. He would have to wait until the turn of the century to discover his fascination for filmmaking, and then even longer before his first official film release in 2020.

Le Sueur said he’d always had a fascination with history, especially as told through first-hand accounts. His first idea for a documentary project, titled “The Peril of Dissent,” drew inspiration from that interest, seeking to tell the stories of writers and artists who were forced into exile by terrorist groups, radical Islamist movements and authoritarian states in the Middle East.

He also began working on another project that explores the proliferation of terrorism leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks. However, both projects have remained in the pre-production phase for years due to another project he started, which would eventually become his first theatrical release.

“As I was moving towards finishing those two, I decided to just do this crazy idea of trying to make a movie about Václav Havel [former president of the Czech Republic] and the dissidents in Czechoslovakia who were driven underground by the communist regime and then eventually came to power in 1989 after the Velvet Revolution.”

Following three years of production, the result was 2020’s “The Art of Dissent,” published under his self-made production company, Fox Hollow Films. His first official release won Le Sueur five filmmaking awards, legitimizing his work as more than just a side hobby.

“I think it’s fair to say we’ve made it,” Le Sueur said. “And that’s kind of raised the bar at Nebraska substantially because a lot [of filmmaking] was done here before, but never quite like this.”

Le Sueur’s most recent project hits much closer to home. “Seasons of COVID” will cover the whirlwind of events surrounding the pandemic that defined the past few years, with a greater emphasis on how it affected Nebraska.

“[‘The Art of Dissent’] was really heaviest about intellectuals and writers,” Le Sueur said. “This one is not like that. This one is about us; it’s about our stories, about the state of Nebraska. It’s also about police reform and racism, medical difficulties. It’s about anti-science movements. It’s about the alt-right infecting our political discourse.”

Beyond the messages he attempts to convey through his work, Le Sueur said he’s grateful for the expanded freedom he’s found in how he can convey ideas through the visual medium of filmmaking compared to writing books or essays on a subject. Furthermore, he said he especially appreciates being able to control the filmmaking process at every stage of its production.

“[Filmmaking] allows me to speak in different languages, not just with words, but with visual images. I think I can connect to people different with my camera work,” Le Sueur said. “I do my own cinematography and sound and lighting, so I’m really unique in the world in that sense, probably the only professional historian who can actually do this stuff.”

Le Sueur said the informative language of documentaries in particular is especially apt for the current times.

“This is the age of documentaries,” Le Sueur said. “There are people who just want more from cinema, and there’s more people who want more from their TV.”

Though he places great significance on his self-sufficiency as a filmmaker, Le Sueur doesn’t try to do it completely on his own, and in delegating parts of the work to others, he said he’s found a different kind of fulfillment.

“I think one of the cool things now, because I’m in this kind of good position, I can help other emerging filmmakers,” Le Sueur said.

Shema Yahya is one such benefactor. A junior integrated science major from Rwanda, Yahya got in touch with Le Sueur through a mutual acquaintance, and he’s now been tasked with helping Le Sueur to animate the maps and various other graphics for “Seasons of COVID.”

Yahya said the job has been challenging, but he’s grateful for how it’s pushed him to grow.

“It’s a really creative-based type of job. It forces you to really think outside the box, and just, you know, very hands-on learning,” Yahya said. “That’s kind of how he’s helping me develop my skills. And also my communication skills because I have to really explain to him, like, coming up with an idea that maybe makes sense to my brain, but make sure he understands what I’m saying.”

Yahya said what stands out to him the most about the professor’s most recent project is the potential for broadening peoples’ perspectives on the pandemic.

“During COVID, everybody was very much in their homes, and they were seeing things through the window, so to speak,” Yahya said. “He had this cool idea of trying to show basically all the things you can’t see because you can only see from one window.”

Looking beyond to the future, Le Sueur said he hopes to make a big splash on the market with his production company without leaving Nebraska.

“What I’d like to do in the end is [keep the production company] in Nebraska, so we can actually make a major filmmaking move here,” Le Sueur said. “I know I can do it, I just need to figure out exactly how to assemble the pieces. But I’m not going away, and I’ve been able to be successful by just being determined not to fail.”

culture@dailynebraksan.com