The L.A. Woman Questionnaire: Renee Tajima-Peña

The director and professor is dedicated to helping others tell their stories

Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Renee Tajima-Peña has called Los Angeles home for decades (she moved here when she was eight), but she’s a Chicagoan at heart—at least when it comes to sports. “I’m still a Cubs fan, Bears fan, Bulls fan, Blackhawks fan—the whole nine yards. Sorry, Los Angeles,” she says. Even so, L.A. provides the backdrop for her latest documentary, No Más Bebés. The film tells the story of a group of Latina women who brought about a civil lawsuit after they were sterilized while giving birth at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center in the 1970s. It’s heavy material, but for Tajima-Peña, who is a professor at UCLA and a mentor to young filmmakers, it’s a story that needed to be told.

We asked her to answer our L.A. Woman questionnaire.

How you got interested in your field: I wanted to be a civil rights lawyer and went to Harvard as an undergrad. I dated a few guys from the law school, and that really turned me off from being a lawyer. I thought, “Oh my god, I’ve got to figure out something else to do!” There were just all these really interesting, young students of color playing around with video. The president of the school gave me money to go to Grenada, because Grenada was celebrating its one-year anniversary of the social revolution. I went with a couple of other students and made my first documentary. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, but that’s sometimes good when you make films.

Why you and co-producer Virginia Espino decided to make No Más Bebés: Virginia is a historian and grew up in this neighborhood. She did her dissertation research on the story. When our kids were really young, they’d have play-dates and she’d tell me about the research. Here I was having gone through pregnancy and childbirth and being a mom. It was just so profound. I couldn’t imagine not being able to have a child. I was so floored by what happened, and we said, “Someday we have to make a film about this.”

How do you think L.A. has factored into your success: My husband’s Mexican American, I’m Japanese American, so the city is made for us in a way. My kid does Dia de Los Muertos, he does Little Tokyo, and I think Asian American and Latino arts and culture is so alive.

How female-friendly is your field: Documentary filmmaking is a ghetto for women filmmakers in a way, because women don’t have opportunities in feature films. However, I’m a documentary filmmaker because I realized I don’t like feature filmmaking. I’ve been to the weirdest places; like, I remember hanging out with these bicycle gangs in Alabama. It was kind of scary but really fun, and the people were great. It’s like, how did this little Japanese American woman from California ever end up hanging out with bikers in the woods? I just really love documentary. But I think because of the barrier, women are excluded from directing and editing. Things are changing a bit in episodic TV, but for the most part, it’s been really bad.

Kick-ass moment: I was making an HBO documentary about the denizens of the Madison Hotel in Skid Row, and everyone told me I had to get security. There’s a cottage industry of off-duty LAPD officers who you can hire. We go out to shoot, and he’s clearly law enforcement even though he’s not in uniform. We also spent a lot of the time riding around in a car, since it was safer. It was a complete bust; no one would talk to us because we were clearly outsiders. It was so expensive hiring the guy that the next day I went out on my own with my camera and sound person. We got out of the car and just talked to people like you would with any neighbors. That’s when the place opened up to us. During the rest of production, people were watching out for us. I’d forgotten that not only did I have family roots there, but the reason I’m a documentary filmmaker is because I love the one-on-one connection.

Future plans: I’m starting one of those PBS history series about Asian Americans. It is a massive project, but it seems like my whole life has been leading up to this—saying everything I ever wanted to say and finding out everything I ever wanted to discover.