A pop culture enthusiast lends keen eye to campus
What does a Mexican aviation pioneer have in common with the phenomenon of yard sales? They are both seldom-told tales of interesting people, and their link is filmmaker Robert Emmons, lecturer and assistant director of the Honors College in Camden.
Emmons recently completed a short film about the American penchant for buying and selling junk and plans to finish a feature-length documentary on Emilio Carranza, "the Lindbergh of Mexico" by January. The budding 31-year-old film maker hopes to market his films through PBS and NJN, and several DVD makers have expressed interest in the projects.
"I love real stories about real people,” Emmons said. “I have used video and, most recently, podcasting to document people’s stories. It’s a great way for students’ voices to be heard.”
In his role with the Honors College, Emmons advises students, teaches a seminar on comics in popular culture – another of his major interests – and a course on filmmaking for the fine arts department. He has worked closely with Paul Bernstein, assistant professor of fine arts in Camden, and Nancy Rosoff, associate dean for administration and academic program development, in developing the Camden Faculty of Arts and Sciences podcasting site. There, visitors can see and hear students talk about their research and travel abroad, as well as other academic activities that feature students, faculty members, and administrators.
Emmons’ "YARDSALE!" which debuted in September at a Mount Holly art gallery, explores what drives legions of shoppers to get out of bed at the crack of dawn on weekends and look for bargains. "I was fascinated by the fact that someone gets rid of something that no longer has any value to them and then someone else buys it and gives it new value or purpose,” Emmons said. Among the more bizarre items Emmons has encountered at yard sales include a used toothbrush and toothpaste, as well as personal letters. More commonly, he has seen "boxes and boxes of naked Barbies." As the father of two daughters with "millions of Barbies in my house," he said he understands where this abundance comes from.
His current film project, "Goodwill," is the story of a Mexican pilot who crashed in the New Jersey Pinelands in 1928, and whose memory has been kept alive by an American Legion post that has held a yearly memorial service for him ever since. Emmons was introduced to the Carranza story while he was an undergraduate at Rowan University by an adviser who gave a brief account of the incident in a book on the Pine Barrens. The 22-year-old Mexican pilot attempted a return flight from New York to Mexico after a goodwill tour of the United States, but his plane crashed in a thunderstorm in Tabernacle, Burlington County. The great-nephew of Mexico's first constitutional president, Carranza had become a hero earlier that year when he made a 1,875-mile flight from San Diego to Mexico City. Only American aviator Charles Lindbergh had flown farther, Emmons said.
According to Emmons, the pilot’s body was found by a cranberry farmer, and members of American Legion Post 11 in Mount Holly stood watch over his body before it was returned to Mexico for burial. Every year since, the post members have held a remembrance at a monument set up at the crash sight. The most recent gathering drew 250 people, Emmons said, including Mexican government officials and family members. Emmons has shot some 20 hours of footage here and in Mexico.
"My goal in this film is to focus on that idea of goodwill and how this led American Legion Post 11 to continue Emilio's mission," Emmons said. "Carranza was a very big hero in both countries, but unfortunately faded into history except in that small community in New Jersey."
Previously Emmons was assistant director of video production at the Art Institute of Philadelphia. Earlier, he worked at Rutgers in a grant program for instructional technology. He was a film major at Rowan University, earned his master’s degree in liberal studies at Rutgers-Camden, and is finishing a doctorate in popular culture at Drew University.
Emmons is one of 10 Rutgers staff members to receive an Excellence in Service Award at the President’s Recognition Program and Awards Ceremony in New Brunswick this month.