Main content
Emory College filmmaker wins coveted national award for early-career professors
David Barba

David Barba has been selected as a 2024 Mellon Emerging Faculty Leader. The award will support his latest documentary, which tells the story of three Mexican women brought to the U.S. as children who, after being deported as adults, must rebuild their lives.

— Sarah Woods, Emory Photo/Video

The Institute for Citizens & Scholars has selected Emory College filmmaker David Barba as one of its 2024 Mellon Emerging Faculty Leaders (MEFL).

Barba is just the second Emory faculty member to receive the prestigious award, which recognizes exceptional work and a commitment to a diversity of perspectives in any field of the humanities or social sciences.

An assistant professor in the Department of Film and Media, Barba works in documentary and fiction films. His current project is a feature documentary that tells the story of three Mexican women brought to the U.S. as children and then deported as adults to Mexico, a country they barely know.

“David is an inspirational researcher, artist, teacher and mentor,” says film and media department chair and associate professor Michele Schreiber. “We are thrilled to see him recognized for his excellence as a filmmaker and for his work to foster community and mentorship of our production students, especially those who are Latinx, first-generation and LGBTQ. These are also communities that he speaks to and about in his films.”

The award, which comes with a $20,000 stipend funded by the Mellon Foundation, will support Barba’s final filming and early editing of the documentary, “Regreso/Return,” this summer. He plans a 2025 world premiere for the film.

“I am excited that Emory, and now Mellon, recognize filmmaking as research,” Barba says. “Filmmakers are inspired by an idea, ask questions and find answers through a visual medium.”

Barba’s interest in repatriated migrants stems from trying to define his own “Mexican-ness” with a bicultural, bilingual upbringing in Mexico City with his Mexican father and Scottish mother.

His curiosity deepened throughout his undergraduate study at Stanford University and while earning his master’s of fine art degree from Columbia University. Privileged to travel freely between the two nations, he wondered what life would look like for someone forced to return to what was essentially a foreign land.

Barba remained intrigued even as he produced several award-winning short films and three feature documentaries, including 2009’s “Pop Star on Ice,” about Olympic figure skater Johnny Weir. That film led to creating and producing a two-season series about the athlete on Sundance TV and Logo TV.

Barba decided he was ready to pursue the returnees’ project shortly after arriving at Emory with fellow assistant film professor Dehanza Rogers in 2019, part of an initiative to grow the department’s film and media production offerings.

He had just connected with a nonprofit that helped him locate returnee migrants to interview directly when the outbreak of COVID-19 delayed his plans. He ultimately traveled to Mexico in 2022 to record audio interviews with nearly 30 migrants.

The film focuses on the three women with the most compelling stories, who battle financial uncertainty, emotional hardship and toxic masculinity as they take charge of their own stories of rebirth.

Some are rebuilding lives without any family left in the country. All are separated from their own mothers, who remain in the U.S.

“What I find inspiring is that these three women are redefining what it means to be Mexican, flourishing and finding meaning in a very different world from where they grew up,” Barba says.

“These are just three stories out of hundreds of thousands of people who are American except for their legal status,” he adds. “And all of them must find the resilience to rebuild their lives in countries they don’t really know.”

Paula Acocal, who earned Emory’s Sudler Prize in the Arts when she graduated in 2023 with a degree in film and creative writing, served as Barba’s student researcher on the project.

The documentary will credit Acocal as an associate producer for her work. She began by researching grants and eventually completed detailed logistical work, such as finding drone operators and other crew in both the U.S. and Mexico and helping transcribe interviews.

Acocal also happened to be visiting family in Mexico when Barba was filming about two and a half hours away, allowing her to serve as a production assistant on site.

“Not only was it educational, but it provided a very grounded experience for the work I could possibly do,” says Acocal, who is now teaching elementary school while also applying and sharing her film skills with organizations focused on gentrification in New York.

“Gaining access to these skills allows me to do the work and also share what I’ve learned with anyone interested in giving back to their community by sharing their stories,” she adds.

Barba plans to expand his work with the Emory community in the coming academic year. He will be looking for a student researcher to help develop a social impact campaign this fall when he will also teach his “Queer Visions” course where students examine LGBTQ+ media and create moving-image projects of their own.

He plans to share more of the project with Emory’s Latin American and Latinx Studies Workshop, a monthly meeting for faculty and graduate students from all disciplines to discuss their research. He shared an early cut of the documentary trailer with the group, who provided feedback and information from their fields.

“This is a crucial moment for the documentary,” Barba says. “The Mellon award will allow me to complete filming and share these inspiring stories.”

Recent News