“They say that studying abroad changes you,” a voiceover begins in a University of Wisconsin-Madison student’s award-winning short film. “But what I did not expect to learn or realize is that I had been living but only half alive.”
“Take The Goggles Off” is a short film by Sami Stidham, a senior at UW-Madison studying journalism and digital studies. The film centers around her semester abroad in Barcelona in the spring of 2023.
Stidham traveled to Barcelona through IES Abroad, a leading nonprofit study abroad provider based in Chicago, IL. She was one of 13 semifinalists in this year's 9th Annual IES Abroad Study Abroad Film Festival. “Take The Goggles Off” won first place, earning Stidham the $1,500 Grand Prize as well as claiming the new $5,000 IES Abroad Barbara Bobrich Annual Scholarship for a future UW-Madison study abroad student in financial need.
Stidham chronicles her explorations in rhythmic prose and striking imagery, and she expresses how living in a new world pushed her to appreciate beauty in the everyday. She encourages her audience not to become mindless in repeating the habitual and mundane.
The compassionate and life-affirming film finds meaning and awe in little details and small moments.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
How did you decide to make your film?
I was studying in Barcelona through IES Abroad, and I found out a month-ish into my semester that they hosted a film festival competition every year. I'm getting a Digital Studies Certificate and, through that, I've gotten really into film and have fallen in love with it. I knew I wanted to find something to do a film on for the festival.
How new was this filmmaking process for you? Was there anything that was harder than you were expecting?
I’ve done a fair amount of filmmaking for my classes, but nothing huge. Everything has been really short mini-documentaries, video stories and other one-minute projects, both for digital studies and for my journalism classes as well. My short film is actually the longest thing I've ever made.
Writing the script was a little difficult because I wanted it all to rhyme. And then I also wanted to communicate specific things and include specific memories, and I had footage I really wanted to include. So that was difficult, to get it all to sound the way I wanted to sound while at the same time communicating the message I wanted to convey. Then, editing just took forever, because editing always does. But I really enjoy this stuff, so it was fun to do.
I was really struck by the shot selection you chose to accompany the voiceover, and how that combination added to the message of the film. Did you plan to take those shots ahead of time, or was it a matter of looking through footage afterward and finding what fit?
Both. There were a couple of shots or memories I recorded that I really wanted to include. And then there were other things where I didn't have planned out footage I wanted. A lot of it was just writing the script and then finding footage I thought fit.
How did it feel to finally present your film at the festival?
I am proud of it. There are always things that I would change about it, but I feel like that's always true for creative works. It's a message I really believe in, so I was really excited to have other people see it.
But creative works are so subjective. It was nerve-wracking to have that be put out there. I got over that a little bit by the time the actual festival rolled around. I had to be a politician and ask all of my friends and family to go watch it and vote for it, so I got over a little bit of that like, “oh, go watch my short film.”
I was really excited to have it out there, but definitely a little nervous to find out if I won as well.
Were there any big elements that didn’t end up making the final cut?
I went to London with a friend from Madison for a weekend, and on the flight back I ended up talking to the woman next to me. She was from Bulgaria and lived in Spain. I’m a camp counselor in the summer, and I had a little friendship bracelet — it was red, white and pink — on my water bottle. And this woman was like “Oh my gosh, is this from Martenitsa?”
Martenitsa is a Bulgarian tradition where they make hair ties, bracelets and necklaces from red and white string twisted together. It’s something with spring renewal, and you wear it until you see your first sparrow or your first tree blooming. Then, you tie it to a tree, and it’s supposed to bring good luck and good fortune.
I thought that was a really cool, unique experience. Then, a week later back in Spain, I was walking home from class. Right outside my host mom's apartment there were a bunch of trees with red and white string tied to them.
I really wanted to include something about that, but it was hard to fit it in. And I could not figure out how to rhyme the word Martenitsa. So that ended up not getting in, but I still included the footage without the story.
What were some of the lessons that you took away from the experience?
I learned through my journalism classes that I don't want to be a traditional reporter. There are a lot of things that I would not jive with even in broadcast or film journalism. I just don't like having a new thing every day and having to do something more surface-level. The longest piece of one thing on broadcast news is two or three minutes.
I really enjoy having one topic and getting a lot of time to really dive into it. That's why I want to go into documentaries and longer-form journalism. This experience has definitely been really helpful for that endeavor, I mean, the reception of it was really good. It seemed like a lot of people connected to it and liked it, which I was very honored by.
More than anything, it's just given me some confidence. I'm graduating in the spring, and I'm going to have to figure out what to do with my life really soon. It's definitely helped me realize I'm on the right path, career-wise.
Are there any documentary topics that you're really interested in or something you might want to explore in the future?
You can probably tell from my film, but I love travel, and I love nature. I grew up camping and road tripping, and my parents are both pretty hippie-dippie. As a result, I feel a really strong connection to nature.
Obviously, the environment and the climate are facing quite a bit of hardship right now, with climate change and all this stuff going on. So I am really interested in going into documentaries about the environment and what we can do to help.
Finally, what’s your favorite memory from your semester abroad?
I went to Italy for spring break with a group of friends, and we were in Rome for a couple days. We all toured the Colosseum, but I went on a different day because I booked my tickets too late. I ended up going alone to this tour of the Colosseum, and I met this older married couple on the tour.
They were some of the most genuine and kind people I've ever met. And they had three kids of their own who are all grown up. We got to talking, and they seemed really interested in my life. I think they just noticed, “Here's this young girl, doing this thing on her own.” They almost became my adopted parents for the tour.
I had a lot of experiences abroad where I was so astounded by the kindness and generosity of strangers. They were so sweet, they would always make sure that I had a spot at the front of the group so I could hear our tour guide better. They made sure I had water because it was hot and took pictures of me because my friends weren't with me.
Then, at the end of the tour, they had this really sweet parental heart-to-heart with me, where they essentially were just like, “You have to go after the things that you want in life. Like if you want to live abroad, it's scary, but you just got to do it. You got to take that leap of faith, and your family and support system will always be there to back you up if things go wrong.”
It was a really unique experience. And that literally will stay with me forever.
“Take The Goggles Off” is available on YouTube.