AIFF recommendation: Rogue Award for activist and documentary director Renee Tajima-Peña
Renee Tajima-Peña is an Academy Award-nominated filmmaker whose work focuses on communities of color, immigration, gender, and social justice. A week or so ago, she had a bundle of her films shown on PBS—Asian Americans, the first docu-series on Asian American history—and recently launched the Building History 3.0, an interactive exploration of Japanese American incarceration camps through Minecraft, and is screening a wrenching documentary, No Más Bebés, at AIFF, and she is receiving this year’s Rogue Award for an outstanding director.
Her film My America . . . or Honk if You Love Buddha screens on Sat June 6. No Más Bebés screens on Sun June 7.
Rogue Valley Messenger: The topic of the documentary is stunning. During the 1960s and 70s, immigrant women who gave birth at LA County were sterilized. The ensuing legal case was resolved in 1978—and had far-reaching impacts, for consent and notification. You made the film 35 years after these events. What first brought them to your attention? And what was your first reaction when you first learned about these incidents?
Renee Tajima-Peña:The story of the Madrigal 10, the plaintiffs of the Madrigal v. Quilliganlawsuit, was virtually forgotten for decades. A handful of academics and activists kept the story alive, including the historian Virginia Espino, the producer of No Más Bebés. We’re neighbors, and we live only a few miles from the hospital. We have boys who are the same age, and I remember at one of the playdates with the kids, Virginia told me about her research into Mexican immigrant women who were sterilized without consent at LA county hospital. It hit me in the gut. As a mother myself—pregnancy, childbirth, raising a child is an experience that is so commonplace yet so profound. I never considered the possibility that I would ever be denied the right to have a child. Virginia and I decided that we wanted to document the story on film.
RVM: I know this is a question that opens an opportunity for an entire PhD dissertation, but in a shorter answer more appropriate for a magazine article, is it possible to explain how you see the role of documentary film in the mechanics of cause-and-effect for social change?
RT-P: I don’t look to filmmakers to change the world. People create change. People organizing together move history forward. Films play a role in shining a light on the truth, in making a visual argument, and humanizing the issues. I also don’t see activist filmmaking as necessarily advocating for a partisan position. Getting to the truth, poking at conventional wisdom, finding voices and telling stories that are usually unheard, are all a part of the tradition of social justice filmmaking.
It’s always important to me to get multiple perspectives, and in this case I wanted to talk to all the key players in the story, including the mothers, the doctors who performed the sterilizations, and the lawyers on both sides of the lawsuit. I do make films when something pisses me off, and this outraged me as much as it saddened me. But inevitably in the production process, you start seeing the nuance and complexities of the story. I also wasn’t interested in making a simplistic story about heroes and villains. What happened was so systemic, it can’t boil down to the actions of a few. And it wasn’t only happening at LA county hospital. Women were being sterilized without their consent at hospitals and clinics across the country—Native American, Puerto Rican, and African American women, white women in the Appalachians. The common denominator being, they were poor.