Political Filmmaking: Talking with Renee Tajima-Pena

By Sagara, M. Rosalind | Women's Studies Quarterly, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Political Filmmaking: Talking with Renee Tajima-Pena


Sagara, M. Rosalind, Women's Studies Quarterly


Renee Tajima-Pena has become a chronicler of the American scene with her films Who Killed Vincent Chin? the Academy Award-nominated investigation of the beating death of a Chinese American in Detroit, and My America ... or Honk If You Love Buddha, which won an award at the Sundance Film Festival. Tajima-Pena has written and lectured widely on Asian American and independent film and was the founding director of the Asian American International Video Festival and former director of Asian CineVision. This interview with her dates from July 2000 and was revised in October 2001.

What inspired you to get into filmmaking?

When I first got into filmmaking as a twenty-one-year-old, it was because I wanted to make propaganda. I was an activist in school where I was growing up. I had so much anger inside, and I just wanted to say these things, and I thought film would be a good way of doing that. I figured I could make a film, and just put all my ideas out there, and I wouldn't have to hear it! But it's like anything, once you get in to it and start maturing, after a few years, of course, I was much more interested in the gray areas, rather than the black-and-white, "I'm right, and you're wrong," aspects of filmmaking. I started getting interested in questions you can't answer, and with facts that have a thousand different interpretations. That made me interested in what other people had to say, and what the audience had to say.

Almost from the very beginning, I started traveling with my work, and presenting it to audiences big and small, and talking to them afterwards, listening to what they hated, and what they loved about the film. That's been half of what I do as a filmmaker. Also, there were very few Asian American filmmakers when I started out, and I was such a rebel, that made me want to do it even more because it wasn't done. I got into it at a time when the independent film movement that we know today was just starting to blossom. It's almost like Web production is now. It was in its pretty early stages. This was before the Sundance Festival. It was just a lot of very energetic young people who had really strong ideals. We just wanted to make movies.

Can you talk more about coming out of the Asian American movement, so to speak, and your thoughts on how the social climate has changed?

I grew up in the 1970s, during the height of the Asian American movement, and people were very politicized by the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, the Black Power movement, the Chicano movement, the Young Lords on the East Coast, the national movements around the world, the feminist movement. I remember when I got to college in the late '70s, the one film course I ever took was one semester of film production at MIT, and it was being taught by Ricky Leacock, who's a famous cinema verite documentary filmmaker. He'd already been around a while and was known for his very political documentaries. But at that time he was just filming young women-what they did when they woke up in the mornings. Putting on makeup, or whatever. And he wanted to film me, and I said sure because he was a famous documentary filmmaker. I thought it would be interesting to see how he operated. He asked me what kind of work I wanted to do, and I talked about political filmmaking. And he said, "Darling, that's passe, nobody does that anymore!" I said, "Well for us, it's just starting!" And really, in the late '70s, Asian American filmmaking really was just starting. That's when all the advocacy media organizations like Asian CineVision and Visual Communications were just a few years old, and NAATA [the National Asian American Telecommunications Association] hadn't been born by that time. So, we were in a parallel universe, I think.

Today, the conventional wisdom is that the activism of that time, and of the '60s and '70s, no longer exists in the new economy. But, I've been making a film about these young Asian American women labor organizers. …

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