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March 22, 2004

Two new documentaries by award-winning UCSC filmmaker will air in coming weeks

By Jennifer McNulty

Award-winning documentary filmmaker Renee Tajima-Peña won’t be watching the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) premiere of her new film later this month. She’ll be teaching a class in Social Sciences 2 instead.

Renee Tajima-Peña says she takes pride in giving voice to “faceless, voiceless” people who nevertheless have rich, complex lives. She directed an episode of The New Americans, above, focusing on immigant families. My Journey Home is a documentary about four Americans who travel to their ancestral homelands, below.

Tajima-Peña, an associate professor of community studies who joined the UC Santa Cruz faculty last fall, directed an episode of The New Americans, a documentary miniseries that traces the journeys of America’s newest arrivals from their homelands through their first years in the United States.

The scheduled broadcast on March 29-31 at 9 p.m. conflicts with Tajima-Peña’s video production film class, which meets Wednesday evenings from 7 to 10 p.m. “It’s OK, though,” she said. “I’ll catch the second half at home.”

Tajima-Peña’s film tells the story of Pedro Flores, a Mexican immigrant who works as a meatpacker in rural Kansas to support his wife and six children in rural Mexico, and the family’s tireless efforts to be reunited in the “promised land.”

“Pedro Flores was in this country for 13 years, working different jobs, and he’d go home to Mexico every year or two, but he wanted to bring his family here legally,” said Tajima-Peña, who followed Flores and his family through their immigration application process and eventual relocation to the isolated and destitute farming community of Mecca, California.

“They’re glad they’re together, but they had a whole life in Mexico,” said Tajima-Peña. “Would they do it again? I don’t know.”

Renee Tajima-Peña's next project is about a Vietnamese orphan.

By telling the stories of people like the Flores family, Tajima-Peña and her colleagues on The New Americans hope to build greater understanding for the plight of contemporary immigrants. Produced by Independent Television Service (ITVS), the series will be followed this spring by a companion book, and a web site offers educational and community resources.

“For a family like the Floreses, they’d never be able to tell their stories otherwise,” said Tajima-Peña, who takes pride in giving voice to “faceless, voiceless” people who nevertheless have rich, complex lives.

Her next project, My Journey Home, a two-hour documentary about four Americans who travel to their ancestral homelands, will air Wednesday, April 7, at 9 p.m. on PBS stations nationwide. The film presents the stories of writer Faith Adiele, journalist Andrew Lam, and Tajima-Peña’s husband and brother-in-law, Armando and Carlos Peña.

A leading documentary filmmaker whose first film, Who Killed Vincent Chin?, was nominated for an Academy Award in 1988, Tajima-Peña is in the enviable position of having producers approach her with funding for projects.

“I had done a film called My America, which was a road movie in which I went in search of Asian America,” recalled Tajima-Peña. “I tried to be humorous, poignant--the whole thing. So PBS called and asked me if I would do film about American diversity.” The result is My Journey Home.

Never faced with a shortage of projects, Tajima-Peña is already at work on her next documentary, a film about a Vietnamese orphan who is reunited with her father and his new family in the United States at the age of 12.

Despite her successful career as a filmmaker, Tajima-Peña jumped at the opportunity to join the new social documentation program in the Community Studies Department.

“I’d never taught before, because I was always busy making films, but when I heard about this program, I couldn’t believe it. There’s nothing like this anywhere else,” she said.

The program will train students to use social science methodologies to analyze social problems and to capture people’s lives and culture in visual, audio, or print media. “The focus on critical thinking in a social science context is unique. They don’t do this in film school, they don’t do it in journalism school, and they don’t do it in communications programs,” said Tajima-Peña. “This is an opportunity to train students to do what I do, which is make social change documentaries.”

Tajima-Peña, 45, said teaching is like having a child at the age of 40, which she also did. “I keep asking myself, why didn’t I do this earlier? It’s so much fun!”

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