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March 9, 2018

Documentary Filmmaking and Social Change

By Phenia Hovsepyan

Audrey Emerson graduated in May 2017 with a Bachelor of Arts from the USC School of Cinematic Arts Division of Cinema & Media Studies. Her undergraduate years were filled with ambition, success, and immense potential in the documentary filmmaking world. Less than a year after receiving her diploma, Emerson found herself at the intersection of media and social change, working on finding new ways of telling stories about the human condition which inspire action and advocacy.  

A Massachusetts native, Emerson attended Walnut High School for the Arts, where her creativity was nurtured and cultivated. She did not always intend on being a filmmaker, unaware of what would come of her love of theater as a teenager. It was not until Emerson worked as a stage manager for a drama production her senior year that her wide range of talents came together to spark a new curiosity. “I loved being with the director and making last minute decisions,” Emerson says, remembering how quickly she discovered a passion for being behind the scenes. She knew she had an innate ability to multi-task and problem-solve, and began to wonder what opportunities there were in the film industry to expand on those skills.

Coming to USC as a theater major, Emerson found where she truly belonged after taking a couple of film studies classes. Although her interest in cinema was rapidly developing, Emerson knew that she wanted to learn more than the technicalities of film, making her a perfect fit for Cinema & Media Studies. “When I decided to transfer to the Cinema School, I knew I still wanted a liberal arts education. I was very interested in looking and analyzing the world through the lens of film, and the program allowed me to do that,” Emerson says, adding that, “I wanted to come out of school with a comprehensive understanding of the world. I wanted to learn how to think differently and have my ideas challenged, and I loved my Cinema and Media Studies classes for that reason.” Emerson saw that if there was something she wanted to learn at USC, she could learn it, and if there was something she wanted to do, she could find the support to do it. She took full advantage of this fact and embraced every opportunity that came her way, completing two internships at IMAX, participating in the Large Format Cinema Club, and receiving the Order of Troy for her leadership and service to the community. Furthermore, Emerson financed and directed two short documentary films during her time at USC, was awarded the African Student Travel Fund Grant, A Puffin Foundation Grant, a USC Women in Film Scholarship, and was selected by USC as a Global Scholar Prize Winner: Emerson truly is an example of the endless pathways to success and recognition at the School of Cinematic Art!

All of Emerson’s talents converged in the art of documentary filmmaking. For her, it was very much like being behind the scenes in theater productions, where everything happened in real time. As she put it, “I liked making things happen, and I liked real things. That’s what I love about documentaries. You have to listen and see things as they happen. It’s messy, real, and exciting.” In addition to the immediacy of documentaries, Emerson discovered a space where she could truly involve and expand on her passions for social activism. Her quick wit and knack for resourcefulness, combined with a relentless drive to tell meaningful stories, made her a perfect student to work with the USC Media Institute for Social Change. “I want to understand and connect with people, and am so grateful to be doing so at a time when the media and social impact space is growing,” Emerson says, having found a great mentor in cinema Professor and Executive Director of the institute, Michael Taylor. For his part, Taylor sees Emerson as a young woman with the kind of spirit and intuition that will take her career wherever she wants it to go. “I was very impressed with how tenacious and focused Audrey was. A great part of being a producer is problem solving, and she is very intuitive at spotting and finding solutions for problems. It was quite remarkable to see how undaunted Audrey was about how ambitious of a project she was taking on.”

The project Taylor is referring to is Emerson’s short documentary film, The Pamoja Project, which she spent all of her sophomore and junior year working on. Shot on location in Tanzania over a three-week period, it is the empowering story of three women making a real difference in their local communities despite social and economic hardships. The film, which Emerson produced, directed, and found financing for, went on to win first place at the USC Symposium for Scholarly and Creative Work in 2016. Furthermore, it delighted viewers at film festivals all over the country, and even took Emerson as far as Yerevan, Armenia, for the Fresco International Film Festival of Modern Art and Spiritual Films. “My lens was the lens of love. I wanted to show the hearts of these women,” Emerson says in talking about The Pamoja Project. She adds that, “It all comes down to empathy and connection for me. Everyone has a story, and if I can share those stories and create connection, I can make an impact as a filmmaker. We all have so much to learn from each other, and I am interested in stories that are authentically showing how we can come together.”

Emerson could not have made a film as impactful and inspiring as The Pamoja Project, while still working on her degree, without the network and resources of the USC School of Cinematic Arts. “At SCA, you are in a bubble with people who are crazy about making film, so the opportunities are endless and everything is possible. Our whole crew was USC, all of our equipment was donated, and there was never a time when I was not supported and encouraged,” Emerson says. Even more so, “These connections do not end when you graduate. We all work together and help one another. There is no substitute for being in L.A. and having access to the best of the best at school.” However ambitious of an undertaking her trip to Africa and back to make this documentary was, when Emerson wanted some time to relax after post-production had completed, she did so by going to Beijing, China, with the USC Global Exchange Fellowship in July of 2016. There, she directed and produced a short documentary about illness and alternative modes of healing, With Cancer, which went on to become a semifinalist for the 2017 Student Academy Award. Before graduation in 2017 Emerson also produced a documentary short for the Al Jazeera Witness series, Mind Over Battle, which chronicled the difficult yet rewarding path out of gang violence and addiction in Los Angeles. Truly, this young woman did not waste any time perusing her passion to understand as much as she could about the world through the lens of film.

Today, Emerson is working as a special projects coordinator for Creative Visions, doing exactly the kind of filmmaker and social activism collaboration she had embraced during her USC years. “I get to do something I really care about, and this is exactly where I want to be right now,” Emerson says. Looking back, she realizes how instrumental it was that she always felt accepted for her ideas and avant-garde spirit at the School of Cinematic Art, where there was always room for experimentation and exploration. In thinking about her time at USC, the one over-arching piece of advice that Emerson wishes to pass down to future cinema students is, “Failure can be growth and success doesn’t always look like what you think. Trust your gut and follow your instincts, and when you do fail learn how to fail gracefully, because there is growth in learning how to shift your perception.”