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Robert A. Emmons Jr

By Gary Wien

Robert A. Emmons Jr., associate director of the Honors College at Rutgers-Camden, directed and produced the film, "Goodwill: The Flight of Emilio Carranza," about Carranza's goodwill trip between New York City and Mexico City, which returned the favor of Charles Lindbergh's famed nonstop flight to Mexico City the year before. The film explores Carranza's life as "Mexico's Charles Lindbergh," and his death in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey on July 12, 1928.

A 12 ft (3.6 m) monument in the Wharton State Forest in Burlington County marks the site of his crash. The monument, installed with funds donated by Mexican schoolchildren, depicts a falling eagle of Aztec design. Every July on the Saturday nearest the anniversary of his crash (second Saturday in July) at 1:00 p.m. he is honored at the monument site by members of the American Legion Mount Holly Post 11 accompanied by an entourage from the Mexican consulates in New York City and Philadelphia. This year's memorial will take place on July 14th.

The film will debut during a free screening at Rutgers University—Camden at 7 p.m. on Friday, July 13th in the Gordon Theater, located on Third Street, between Cooper Street and the Benjamin Franklin Bridge on the Rutgers-Camden campus.

I spoke with Robert A. Emmons, Jr. about the film and the life of this great aviator.

What attracted you to the story of Carranza?
I had never heard of Carranza until ten years ago. The story was brought to me by a professor of mine who saw that I had an interest in that sort of obscure historical figures. He handed me this book ("The Pines" by John McPhee) which had a small chapter about Emilio Carranza. As soon as I had read it, I was just amazed I had never heard of it because when he was around and here in the United States this was a big deal. He met with the President, he dined with Jimmy Walker, the Mayor of New York City, and parades were held for him. This was a really big deal yet he virtually disappeared from history.

The book had a chapter which talked about Emilio and the memorial service that goes on there; immediately, I was attracted to the story and thought I needed to tell the story someday. And, for the past three years, I've been trying to do that.

He was one of Mexico's aviation pioneers, right?
Essentially to break it down for you, he was the Charles Lindbergh of Mexico. Lindbergh was one of the pioneers in pushing the idea of non-stop, long distance flights and Emilio (who was inspired by Lindbergh) was doing the same thing. They both were pushing how far you could take a plane and establishing new plane routes.

In 1927, Lindbergh flew a goodwill mission from Washington, DC to Mexico City to sort of bring the nations together in a sense. As a reciprocal effort, less than a year after Lindbergh left Mexico City, Emilio Carranza and the aviation board set up a goodwill mission where Emilio would fly out to Washington, DC and do a goodwill tour in America furthering the relationship between the two.

Is he somebody that would still be prominently talked about or remembered in Mexico?
I went to Mexico with a film crew and we would just randomly start talking to people we met. The average person didn't really know who Emilio was and when we'd tell them they would be amazed. "I can't believe I've never heard of him" and "I feel ashamed that I don't know who he is" were some comments.

I would say that in the aviation community people know who Emilio is because there is a medal given to pilots of Mexico when they fly a certain amount of miles and the medal is called the Emilio Carranza Award.

Schools rarely seem to deal with modern or recent history - especially modern history that's local to you. Sometimes it shocks people to learn what has happened practically in their backyard. Do you believe that part of being a documentary filmmaker is to bring out some of the stories that should be heard?
Right! I can't believe you asked this question because I actually spend a lot of my life dealing with this issue and what I focus on in my documentary films is just that - folk history, folk culture, local popular culture. Traditionally if we look at how students are educated in high school and sometimes in college we look at history from this top level down. We look at major events and what well known historians tell us is history, but social history is looking at folk culture and folk history. It's the idea of looking at the local level and looking at the people involved to see how they actually participated in creating that history.

And so, as a documentary filmmaker, that is one of my major goals. I look to pull out these rather obscure histories that I think have a stronger relationship to our local experience.

Your biography says you are a "digital documentary filmmaker". Does that mean you only shoot on digital film?
Yes. I put that down on purpose because whenever I talk about documentaries I immediately talk about the democratization of filmmaking because of these new digital technologies. I'm able to do what I do because this digital technology exists. I wouldn't have the money to go out and make a film like I did about yard sales in America without digital technology.

It lets you shoot at a fraction of the cost, right?
Exactly. It's really democratized this type of artistic expression. Film was one of the most expensive artistic mediums and most cost-prohibited. The new digital tools that we have to make films give a voice to a lot of people. There might be more you need to weed through, but the opportunity is there for people who have wonderful stories to be told. I think that's a great thing.

Were you able to find any film footage of Emilio?
Yes, that was one of my greatest moments.

Was it from a film news reel?
Yes. What I did was random searches because he was so big that I thought something might exist in one of those news reels they used to show in theaters before the film. I thought something must exist somewhere because I had seen photographs of him where people were filming him. After many searches, I found an archival film company that had footage of Emilio. His name was buried way down on the list of aviators that they had and I had to pay a significant amount of money to get it, but it's brilliant footage.

When I showed it to the family who I've been working with on the film - tears literally came to their eyes. They had never seen him in such reality before. They had seen him in photographs but to see him moving about was a pretty amazing experience for them and for me.

Who are the family members you worked with?
In the course of making the film over the past three years I've been to Mexico twice and traveled to Maine to visit various family members. In the film I interview two of his second cousins in Mexico who were inspired by Emilio in various ways - the main being that they went into aviation because of him. This was counter to the generation in between the two of them because after Emilio died that generation stayed out of aviation.

How did you track them down?
Once I knew I wanted to commit to the film, I went to one of the memorial services held for him in Tabernacle. I told the American Legion there that I wanted to make a documentary about Emilio and they said that one or two family members came to the service each year, so I met them and set up a trip to Mexico.

What are your future plans with this film?
I found with this film that when people hear about it they are immediately interested, so I've gotten calls about possible distribution on DVD and interest from television as well. I'll also be going the festival route.

For more by this author, click here

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View all events

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