Moody Fellow to graduate with distinction in creative works

Rice senior Ayla Davis used fellowship to complete documentary about sister’s hearing loss

Ayla Davis

The exchange is a personal one, captured on camera by Rice senior Ayla Davis, who is interviewing Nathania Davis-Fox about her hearing loss.

“How do you feel about that?” Davis asks after Davis-Fox shares that the condition may eventually result in total hearing loss.

“Scared. Anxious,” Davis-Fox tells Davis. “A little hopeless. Kind of desperate.”

The conversation is part of Davis’ documentary, “The Idea of Never,” which spotlights her older sister’s challenges living with a hearing disability.

“She discussed how her hearing loss can sometimes be difficult in social situations and at work because people don’t realize that she’s hearing impaired,” Davis said. “It’s been really interesting for me to get to know more about her experience and her relationship with everyone around her.”

For the past 10 months, Davis has been making the drive from Houston to Fort Worth where her sister lives to film interviews and document Davis-Fox’s life.

“She’s lost about half of her hearing so far, and she’s only 24 years old,” David said, adding that Davis-Fox is married and attending law school at Texas A&M University. “What I’m trying to get at in my documentary is figuring out what it’s like to live with this hearing disability and how can I make her life easier?”

Ayla Davis
Rice senior Ayla Davis presented part of her documentary "The Idea of Never" to the School of Humanities Advisory Board April 5. (Photo by Brandi Smith)

“The glory of the filmmaking is the fact that the process of making has served to bring the lives of both sisters closer together,” said art professor Brian Huberman, who has taught Davis throughout her Rice career. “She started during the challenging COVID days when classes were online, and she was a thumbnail on my monitor.”

Davis is, in Huberman’s words, “a jewel in the filmmaking community.”

“A lot of students try the film experience but move on when they discover the stamina and discipline that is required to work in this medium,” Huberman said. “Ayla demonstrates with her documentary that she has the right stuff.”

A recipient of the Elizabeth Lee Moody Undergraduate Research Fellowship in the Humanities and the Arts, Davis was provided $3,500 in funding to work on the research project of her choice with the expectation that she invest at least 200 hours in it. The fellowship’s goal is to create a vibrant undergraduate community at Rice focused on advancing critical and innovative scholarly and creative endeavors in the humanities and arts. By allowing students to select their own project, the program fosters diverse forms of humanities-driven exploration and innovation, encompassing everything from traditional text-based research to creative and curatorial projects.

“I thought it was great because it was so open-ended,” Davis said, explaining why she decided to apply for the fellowship. “You truly pursue or research whatever you’re interested in. I saw it as an opportunity to work on a film.”

She also tapped into experiences within the Department of Art to produce, shoot, write and edit the documentary, most recently in assistant art professor Sindhu Thirumalaisamy’s film studio class.

“She’s been watching my cuts of it and giving me feedback,” Davis said. “She’s honestly one of the best professors that I’ve ever had, but it is a very hard class.”

Davis also attributes her success at Rice to mentors Huberman and Charles Dove, professor in the practice of film and director of Rice Cinema.

“She is the living embodiment of what we hope for our majors within the art department,” Dove said.

Dove listed off Davis’ accomplishments, which include planning events and the annual festival of films as an intern for the Houston Cinema Arts Society, programming and introducing a series of Robert Frank’s experimental films as the William Camfield Fellow for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and working as projectionist for Rice Cinema.

“She combines the filmmaking side of working in the arts with the exhibition side,” Dove said. “She has an understanding of the ways in which films circulate through museums and universities that can help her moving forward in her life. She has the kind of personality and poise that are necessary for that work.”

For that reason, Davis received one of the art department’s senior awards April 18, which is also when Davis learned she will graduate with a distinction in creative works.

“The film program is what you make of it,” Davis said. “All the most valuable things that I’ve learned have been from meeting people. You can learn so much just from talking to other artists. So everyone should do that. All the time.”