Renee Tajima-Peña

Professor, Social Documentation
Documentary film and video focusing on Asian American and immigrant communities, media and social change.
Office: 831-459-2826
Education and Training: 
B.A., Radcliffe College, Harvard University
Research Interests: 

Renee Tajima-Peña is an Academy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker whose work addresses Asian American and immigrant/diaspora themes.  She gives her films a populist veneer to infiltrate a marginalized culture into a mainstream consciousness by appropriating narrative conventions: the murder story, the humor of a road trip, the melodrama of a family reunion.  It is a strategy of necessity, providing audiences multiple points of entry into themes of class, race, migration, the construction of masculinity, and family.  The narrative structure of her work is cumulative, with a dense construction of text and subtext, visual and cultural references, that build over time.  These documentaries are often feature-length, which she likens to the construction of a novel that is accessible, and at the same time, traverses the complications of social and political terrain.  This stragegy allows the arc of the character's stories to evolve, sometimes collide, and makes possible the corollary thread of multiple texts conveyed through the prisim of their lives.  Some are ghost stories.  A murdered young man is the central figure of ther first film, Who Killed Vincent Chin?; in her latest, Calavera Highway, it is her husband's mother, Rosa Peña.  Vincent and Rosa were/are both dead, but they inhabit each frame.  Similarly her road movies have moved across these haunted landscapes, locating the interstital, but essential, stuff of the human condition that exists outside the grasp of empirical knowledge or language.  

Tajima-Peña is currently in production on Mas Bebes?, which investigates the history of Mexican-American women who were sterilized at the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center.  Her latest work, Calavera Highway, follows her husband, Armando Peña and his brother Carlos as they carry their mother's ashes back to South Texas and uncover their family's strangely veiled past.  Calavera Highway aired nationally on PBS's "P.O.V." series in 2008, and is the winner of a Golden Gate Award from the San Francisco International Film Festival, the Silver Hugo Television Award for Best History/Biography, and other prizes.  Her previous films have screened at the Cannes Film Festival, London Film Festival, Museum of Modern Art, New Directors/New Films, Redcat, San Francisco International Film Festival, Sundance Film Festival, SXSW, Toronto International Film Festival, and the Whitney Museum of American Art Biennial.  In addition to the Academy Award nomination, she has been honored with the Alpert Award of the Arts for Film/Video, a Peabody Award, the James Wong Howe "Jimmie" Award, the Justice in Action Award, a Dupont-Coloumbia Award, a Cine Golden Eagle and an International Documentary Association Achievement Award, and she has twice earned Fellowships in Documentary Film from both the Rockefeller Foundation and the New York Foundation on the Arts.  Her documentaries have been broadcast around the world, including BBC, CBC Canada, SBS Austrailia, Tokyo Broadcasting System, VPRO Netherlands, ZDF Germany, ABC, Home Box Office, Oxygen, Lifetime Television, the Sundance Channel, and PBS.  Last year retrospectives of selected works from her career were screened at the Flaherty Film Seminar and Virginia Film Festival.  

Tajima-Peña has been active in the independent film community for numerous years.  She was the first paid director at Asian Cine-Vision in New York, and served on the juries of the Sundance Film Festival Documentary Competition, the boards of the Media Alliance in New York, the Deep Dish Television Network, and the National Asian American Telecommunications Association (Center for Asian American Media), and the PBS National Program Service Advisory Committee.  She was a featured filmmaker in the book, Creative Filmmaking from the Inside Out.  As a writer, Tajima-Peña was a film critic for The Villiage Voice, a cultural commentator for National Public Radio, the editor of Bridge: Asian American Perspectives, and associate editor of The Independent Film & Video Monthly.  

Selected Publications: 

Calavera Highway, 2008.  The documentary follows the filmmaker's husband on a journey that retraces personal memoir as public history, as he and his brother carry their mother's ashes back to South Texas.  National broadcast: PBS's "P.O.V." series.  

Mexico Story of The New Americans series, 2004.  Chronicle of the Flores family's struggle to reunite between Kanas and Mexico, part of the 7-hour series, The New Americans, which was produced by Kartemquin Films and followed immigrants from five countries to the US.  National broadcast: PBS's "Independent Lens" series.  

My Journey Home, 2004.  Filmed essays on American identity and diversity.  National broadcast: presented by WETA.  

Labor Women, 2002.  Documentary on a new generation of Asian American women labor activists working to re-energize the union movement.  Broadcaston selected PBS stations.  

Skate Manzanar, 2001.  A meditation on skateboarding, civil liberties, and Japanese American internment camps creted for Roger Shimomura's multi-media performance piece, "Amnesia," premired at the Bellevue Art Museum, Seattle and exhibited at the Japanese American National Museum.  

The Last Beat Movie, 1997.  Cross-country search for the legacy of the Beat Generation poets.  National broadcast: Sundance Channel.  

My America... or Honk if You Love Buddha, 1997.  A cross-country, memoir-based road documentary in search of Asian America.  National broadcast: PBS.  

Declarations: All Men Are Created Equal? "The Ballad of Demetrio Rodriguez," 1993.  Senior producer of the one-hour documentary of essays on American equality, and segment director of a profile of a Mexican American steelworker's 25-year battle for school equality in Texas and Supreme Court case.  National broadcast: PBS.  

Those Fluttering Objects of Desire. 1992.  Participating audio artist in Shu Lea Cheang's collaborative installation for Exit Art and the Whitney Biennial.  I created a 1-800-DESIRE audio piece performed by Jessica Hagedorn and Robbie McCauley.  

Jennifer's in Jail, 1991.  Documentary on female juvenile offenders addresses issues of homelessness, gangs, and incarceration.  National Broadcast: Lifetime Television.  

What Americans Really Think of the Japanese, 1990.  Documentary on American attitudes towards Japan during the height of trade tensions.  National broadcast: Fujisankei, Japan.  

The Best Hotel on Skid Row, 1990.  Profiles of the residents of a Skid Row transient hotel structured in the style of an anthology of short stories, narrated by Charles Bukowski.  National broadcast: Home Box Office.  

Who Killed Vincent Chin? 1988.  The investigation of the murder of a Chinese American draftsmen in Detroit by two white auto workers, and the resulting civil rights case.  Named as one of the ND/NF Classics: Ten Documentaries from Twenty Years of New Directors/New Films, Museum of Modern Art and Film Society of Lincoln Center 20th Anniversary Retrospective.  National broadcast: PBS's "P.O.V." series.  

Calavera Highway