The Tender Messiness of Being Human: Exploring Life Through Film

Emma Camera Ojai

“It feels like summer camp when you’re at the lab — you’re in these beautiful lodges, having s’mores on the lawn and tie-dying Sundance t-shirts, and then suddenly you’re on a ski lift talking about your goals.” As a 2023 Sundance Documentary Producing Fellow, Emma D. Miller (Robertson ‘12) spent a week at the prestigious Sundance Producers Lab in Utah this summer, digging into her creative instincts and connecting with fellow leaders in the entertainment world.

“It was an amazing opportunity to step outside of the day to day, and honestly it made me think of things we do as Robertsons like NOLS or Senior Capstone Retreat — you’re in these spaces where you really get to connect with one another and be in nature and be reminded of why you’re doing this work.”

Emma is a producer and director based in Los Angeles, and has dedicated her creative pursuits to artfully sharing powerful stories. It’s something she’s done since childhood. “I was the kid who would be driving around in the car with my parents and ask, ‘What’s the story of those people in that house?’ I wanted to talk to everybody. Then when I was at Duke, the Center for Documentary Studies really became a respite from the larger campus life for me; it felt like such a unique place and helped me understand how to find your way into a story, doing that slow-burn work of building relationships over time.”

As an undergraduate Scholar, Emma spent time blending her craft with her studies in anthropology and human rights. “So much of the Duke documentary program is about grounding you in a theoretical foundation where you’re asking questions: how do you talk about films? How do you ask questions of people? How do you think about ethics and gaze? Who’s telling what stories? And these questions have come to be incredibly valuable in my professional work.”

Now Emma is focused on telling unique stories and amplifying diverse points of views through her nonfiction film projects. “In the ten years or so that I’ve been working in documentary, I’ve been drawn to a sort of intangible feeling of connecting and understanding each other as humans. In choosing projects, I lead with thinking about the form and asking, is this doing something artful? Is it doing something that feels like a unique voice on the part of the filmmaker? I’m trying to push forward what documentary can be. And I think the thing that seems to unite the projects that I’m drawn to, beyond just feeling like there’s artistry behind them or a unique approach, is that they’re about getting at the tender messiness of being a human.”

While Emma isn’t able to share all of the details regarding some of her current projects, she did share a bit about one she’s currently producing that she workshopped along with the four other Sundance Documentary Fellows in her cohort. “It’s set in China and it’s about a woman who has this unusual profession where she works as a mistress dispeller. She’s hired by a husband or a wife who are dealing with infidelity in their marriage. She goes undercover and befriends the mistress, and then essentially her job is to convince the mistress to end the affair of her own accord — while working to figure out the root of the problem between the husband and wife. The social backdrop is that it’s increasingly difficult to get a divorce in China, and there’s been a push by the government to return to “traditional values.” That onus usually falls more heavily on women.” While this particular story, directed by a Chinese filmmaker, may be unique to Chinese culture, Emma points out that it’s about more than that. “Fundamentally it’s a film about the messiness of relationships and how we’re all struggling to communicate, and an examination of our universal attempts to connect with one another.”

It’s another example of the complex stories Emma is drawn to. “I’m aiming to convey the wonder and absurdity of being alive, and I think that can take a lot of shapes for me. These films are about instilling more empathy in each other as fellow humans, understanding different ways that people live and navigate the world. And I think film can do that in really powerful ways when you’re drawn into somebody else’s world and you leave with a new sense of understanding and knowing. Films sit in your consciousness in a way that can be really powerful.”

For Emma, the questions she asks and the way she leads on film projects come not only from her creative desire to unpack the “tender messiness” of humanity, but also from her time as an undergraduate Robertson. “I think so much of what the Robertson did was encourage me to ask the right questions, the same way I do now as a producer. I’m trying to ask questions of my directors that will draw out certain ways of crystallizing understanding. I feel like the exercises in self-reflection that we had to do through the Robertson program and over the summers, that’s what gave me the power to put language to my experiences and think about what makes me tick. The Robertson made me ask, how do I combine these different interests, and what feels like the driving force for me? In college there was so much ‘go, go, go’ and ‘what do I need for my major?’ and ‘what classes are missing?’ — but the Robertson helped me zoom out and examine what is this uniting holistic framework that’s moving me through the world. It comes down to, what’s really calling you and driving you?”