Renee Tajima-Peña received the Ashland Independent Film Festival’s Rogue Award for her “films of lasting significance and current relevance.”
Her films, “My America…or Honk if You Love Buddha” and “No Más Bebés,” were screened on the second weekend of AIFF2020’s three-week virtual film festival.
“No Más Bebés” tells of immigrant mothers who sued doctors, the state, and the U.S. government after they were sterilized while giving birth at the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center during the 1960s and ’70s.
A Harvard graduate in East Asian studies and sociology, Tajima-Peña is professor of Asian American studies and filmmaking at UCLA. We visited by telephone.
EH: How did you become a filmmaker?
RTP: I was a student activist in high school and college. In college I got interested in filmmaking with other activist students; we did our own videos. We decided to make videos about things we cared about. We did that as part of being activists. It was very rudimentary.
EH: How did you get interested in filming “No Más Bebés?”
RTP: I was a new mother, and I couldn’t imagine being denied the right to have a child. I had always looked at reproductive freedom as a question of abortion. I had thought eugenics was a practice way in the past.
EH: How did you structure “My America…or Honk if You Love Buddha?”
RTP: One book I really love is “On The Road” by Jack Kerouac. I’m more influenced by fiction than by other films in terms of structure, tone and voice. In “On The Road,” he doesn’t go in a straight line, he goes all around and back and forth. I liked that it wasn’t a straight line. Also, there is a real exuberance for the land and the people of America; but yet he’s encountering this subculture. I thought that was a real metaphor for the way I understood Asian Americans and my relationship to America.
In the ’90s, when I was making “My America,” it was a time when Asians had become the fastest-growing population in the U.S. After the 1965 immigration reform and the fall of Saigon, you had this huge arrival of new immigrants from all over Asia. We had seen very little migration before, so the identity for Americans was really changing. I thought revisiting the road would be a way to figure out what these changes mean.
There was a thematic chronology, in terms of tracking Asian American history during the 20th century. There were also the different people I met along the road. The road itself was the driving thread of the whole film.
EH: What impact does film bring to the audience that other media don’t?
RTP: It’s emotional, and it evokes the human side of an issue or event. It’s not a historical text. There’s a different logic to it. In film, we’re more interested in visual storytelling. If I watch a film, I always remember the cumulative emotional impact: being immersed in a place and in people’s lives. That’s where documentary film has a lot of power.
EH: How does film influence politics?
RTP: I don’t think films create social change. I don’t see films as the driver of social change, people are. People have to be on the ground working at different levels of organizing. People organize, and they move history. I think that films can be a part of it. Films can communicate the human story. Social change depends on empathy and being able to make connections, being able to see yourself in other people, even if they are different people. That’s one of the roots of solidarity, films help to build that.