"Filmmaking Is Not a Career, It’s a Calling"

By Bedatri D. Choudhury
Posted on August 12, 2020

Renee Tajima-Peña Talks Frankly About "Asian Americans" and Her Career

Renee Tajima-Peña smiling headshot

Renee Tajima-Peña

“My grandfather wanted me to be like Patsy Mink,” Renee Tajima-Peña tells me. Mink was a politician from Hawaii who became the first woman of color and the first Asian-American woman elected to Congress. She was also the first woman to be elected to Congress from the state of Hawaii. It would not be a stretch to say that Tajima-Peña has not let her grandfather down. 

A filmmaker, activist, writer, and professor, she has had a trailblazing career that has lit the way and made space for many filmmakers of color, especially Asian American filmmakers, to build careers that have strived, and still strive, to undo structural racism and address intergenerational trauma. 

As a teenager, Tajima-Peña would bunk classes and go to the beach and read plays by Tennessee Williams and Lillian Hellman. As her mother worked as a typist at the public library, she spent her time hanging out in the stacks, or leafing through issues of Life and Look. The evocative photography and the words would stick to her and come back, over and over again, when she started making films. 

When she makes a film, “it’s the nuance, the grey areas, the multiple perspectives” that interest her. She has a knack for fishing out the “personal story within the hard context of race, immigration, inequality.” 

Her 1998 road trip documentary that explored the changing perceptions of the Asian American identity, My America ... Or Honk if You Love Buddha, and her 2015 film No Más Bebés, the story of Mexican mothers who were forcefully sterilized in Los Angeles, were co-produced by ITVS. Most recently, Tajima-Peña served as the producer for PBS’ five-part documentary series Asian Americans, a sweeping series she has wanted to make forever and which premiered in May. It was an ITVS Series and Special Projects grantee. [And was a recipient of the prestigious Peabody Award in June, 2021.]

In July 2020, trying to make sense of the pandemic and the horrific fault lines of race inequity it exposed, I spoke to Tajima-Peña about Asian Americans, her career, and her association with ITVS. She has quite a few future project ideas but is trying to figure out how to film safely during the pandemic. 

What was your first tryst with filmmaking?

I was a student activist in the 1970s, when I was in high school. I had a job under the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act with a peer teaching program at the Constitutional Rights Foundation in Los Angeles. They gave me a camera and a tape recorder and I went all around the city documenting child and sexual abuse, poverty and racism, and created a peer teaching curriculum using a multi-screen slide show. That was my first experience with visual storytelling. Retrospectively, I would never let my 14-15-year-old kid run rampant across the city photographing strangers! 

Renee Tajima-Peña (at left) during Asian Americans panel at the Television Critics Association (TCAs), along with (l-r) narrator Tamlyn Tomita, comedian and participant Hari Kondabolu and producer/director Grace Lee

Renee Tajima-Peña (at left) during Asian Americans panel at the Television Critics Association (TCAs), along with (l-r) narrator Tamlyn Tomita, comedian and participant Hari Kondabolu and producer/director Grace Lee [from PBS]

Did you study filmmaking? 

I went to college with the intention of becoming a civil rights lawyer. At the time, the chances of being an Asian American woman filmmaker were almost like my chances of being drafted to the NBA. Even being a lawyer was a stretch; the only female lawyer I’d ever met was the Radcliffe alum who conducted my college interview. 

But as we now know, you did not become a lawyer…

I dated a couple of law students and that convinced me not to become a lawyer! At Harvard, I got involved in student activism and helped organize a protest even before the semester started! I joined the Asian American Students’ Organization and was the co-chair of the United Front Against Apartheid. 

So, where does film come into your life?

At Harvard, I got interested in film but was rejected from the film program. They asked for my portfolio and I had no idea what that was. I took one film studies course and the professor, Vladimir Petrić, showed one film by a non-white director—Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. There were a handful of BIPOC students in the class and we were so alienated that we sat in the back and shot spitballs when he wasn’t looking. 

I was organizing politically with a group of BIPOC students and we confiscated video equipment from the School of Public Health. We started making our own video shows. 

Did those video shows eventually turn into documentaries?

I made my first documentary with a fellow student, Corinne McIntosh. We went to Grenada in 1979 to film the first anniversary of the New Jewel Movement, which had overturned the regime of the dictator Eric Gairy. We interviewed the new Prime Minister, Maurice Bishop, his second-in-command Bernard Coard, and many of the young people leading the new country. They would all be killed or imprisoned when the U.S. invaded Grenada.

What happened after college?

When I graduated in 1980, I tried to get an internship in the film business. I wrote to every movie studio and TV network in the country and didn’t get one call back. My fellow—white—classmates were getting jobs in the mailroom or even the writer’s room and I had a hard time finding a non-paid internship serving coffee. I moved to New York and eventually found my way to the Asian American independent film movement.

And in New York, you worked as a film critic for The Village Voice. How did that happen?

I have no idea how I started writing film criticism. I’d gotten a job as an editor with the Independent Film and Video Monthly and I was the editor of Bridge: Asian American Perspectives. Both because I worked for very little money, I’m guessing. Howard Feinstein, the film editor at the Village Voice, asked me to start writing as a freelancer. I have to hand it to Howard! This was the late 1980s and there was no diversity push at the Voice, that I know of. 

"I make films when something pisses me off. That’s what keeps me going."

Did that inspire your filmmaking?

When I started at the Voice, I was finishing Who Killed Vincent Chin? If anything, my filmmaking influenced my writing. I always thought about the film through the perspective of the filmmaker’s intentions, and not how I would have made the film. I was writing about everything—from Meryl Streep movies to Chucky movies (which I dinged for being racist) to film festival indies. Watching and analyzing narrative films taught me a lot about storytelling and structure, outside of the journalistic approach that still dominated documentary filmmaking at the time.

What do you look for in a subject/ theme for a film?

I make films when something pisses me off. That’s what keeps me going. When I heard about the story of Mexican immigrant women who were forcibly sterilized at LA County hospital during the 1970s, from my neighbor Virginia Espino, I was enraged. She was one of the historians who had kept their story alive and she became the co-producer of No Más Bebés. Childbirth and motherhood were the most profound experience of my life and to think other women were denied that was enraging! 

What do you consider the role of a documentarian in society? 

Documentarians don’t just document culture, they also create culture at the same time. Because our stories and lives have been erased, when any Asian American filmmaker makes a documentary, they become a part of the project of building a collective vision of ourselves. That’s why I’ve always been involved in media activism. Because as often as not, I know I don’t have to be the one to make a specific film. I can be a part of the community supporting other filmmakers who will tell the story. For me, filmmaking is not a career, it’s a calling.

Archival black and white image of Chinese immigrant children, from episode 2 of "Asian Americans" on PBS

Asian Americans/WETA/PBS

That desire to create a visual history for the community is so evident in Asian Americans. How did you first think about making something like this? 

I’ve wanted to make a series about Asian Americans since forever. I wrote a treatment for Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) back in the day when it was still called the National Asian American Telecommunications Association (NAATA). [Interviewer’s note: The name of the organization was changed in 2005.] At the time, Jim Yee ─ who went on to become the president of iTVS in 1993 ─ was the executive director of NAATA. I remember him reading my treatment and asking me why all the stories were about sex, money or Communists. 

Let me take a detour. Did Loni Ding’s Ancestors in America influence you?

Loni Ding is the godmother of Asian American filmmaking and the founding force behind NAATA/CAAM. She produced a part of Ancestors but was never able to finish. In our first staff meeting for Asian Americans, one of our executive producers, Jean Tsien, started us off by remembering our ancestors like Loni. It was really powerful. 

Grace Lee, director and producer of the second and fourth episodes, Don Young, CAAM's Director of Programs, Duc Nguyen, the series’ archival producer, and others on the team had gotten their first jobs with Loni. Throughout production, we thought a lot about her, Jim Yee, and Linda Mabalot (filmmaker and activist who founded the Asian Pacific Film and Video Festival) and others who had passed on but had laid the groundwork for Asian American filmmaking.

An Asian woman steps out of a big American car in the 1950s, from episode 3 of Asian Americans

Asian Americans/WETA/PBS

When did ITVS come into the production and how did you pitch the project to them?

Don Young and Jeff Bieber at WETA were closely involved in bringing in ITVS. Their support came on pretty early and, needless to say, at a time when their involvement made it possible for us to greenlight the production. 

What would you say was their biggest contribution to the Asian Americans series?

Of course, ITVS’s funding made a huge difference but if you look at the filmmaking team, we’re all a part of the ITVS family. We’ve all made and worked on ITVS-supported films. In fact, I was part of the campaign to form ITVS many years ago. Every time I’ve gotten a rejection letter from ITVS over the years I think to myself, “at least they aren’t nepotistic!” 

The involvement of institutions like ITVS and CAAM gave us leverage to tell the truth of the Asian American story. 

What was the most difficult part of getting PBS on board?

We had to insist with PBS that Asian Americans is a story of systemic racism, shaped by a white supremacist empire. The model minority myth is so embedded that the people at PBS (I call them “suits”) fundamentally didn’t understand what racism had to do with Asian Americans. People think we’re like European immigrants—we came to the U.S., faced some adversity, overcame it, and la dee da! But that’s not the historic truth. 

The truth is the persistent national dilemma—who belongs? Who can be an American? What does an American look like? The Asian American model minority myth has been historically deployed as a wedge against other people of color and we insisted on telling that story.

Then the film released in the middle of the pandemic, when the President kept calling the coronavirus, the “Chinese virus…"

None of us could have predicted the series being broadcast in the middle of the pandemic of COVID, hate and violence. Imagine if we had made a Pollyanna-ish history? It would’ve been five hours of irrelevance. It reminds me of what [novelist] Viet Thanh Nguyen has said. I am paraphrasing, but essentially, he said to Asian American writers — don’t write for white people, write your truth. It was a very important time for us to tell our truth.

KQED behind the scenes with Asian Americans producers

Is there something you wish you would’ve done more of or differently with Asian Americans?

I wish we had the money to make the sixth episode we planned. We could barely raise enough for the five we finished! That last episode would have represented the past 20 years in the Asian American story where new communities have emerged ─ especially Southeast Asians, South Asians, all the new populations that arrived after the 1970s. That was a big loss to not be able to tell those stories. 

The consolation for us is that parallel to the series, we were all working on building A-Doc, the Asian American Documentary Network. Through that, we continue to support Asian Americans, especially from those communities, to tell their stories. 

Have you heard or read any criticism for the series? 

People were understandably upset when their own story ─ their particular ethnicity or community’s story – was not told. We had to pack 150 years into six hours, then into five parts and lost a whole episode. As Grace Lee reminded us, Ken Burns’ Country Music was 15 hours long, while we had to condense all Asian American ethnicities over 150 years into 5 hours. There just wasn’t enough time. 

"I would also advise filmmakers to develop a craft like cinematography or editing so you don’t depend on hiring other people."

Retrospectively, what advice would you give yourself as a first-time documentary filmmaker?

Schmooze more! That would probably have been better for my career. I always preferred to spend my downtime with my family and friends rather than going to events. But this is such a relationship-based business and a young filmmaker needs to network. 

I would also advise filmmakers to develop a craft like cinematography or editing so you don’t depend on hiring other people. I could do a bit of both and still do it myself in a money pinch, but I would never hire myself out to do either because I’m not good enough. In the big picture of a career, I would’ve made less films and had more kids. But that’s a personal decision I would never push on an emerging filmmaker. Unless, of course, they asked!

Bedatri Choudhury works with documentaries and is a culture journalist. She lives in New York City.

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