If making a movie about one’s family could be equated with a fire-walk in August, then making a documentary about one’s partner’s family might be akin to a midsummer sauna. Yet veteran L.A. filmmaker Renee Tajima-PeÃ±a (Who Killed Vincent Chin?) signed on to a road trip with her husband from L.A. to Washington state to Texas in search of "la verdad" about the father that abandoned Armando’s mother Rosa and his six brothers several decades ago. An intimate and elegantly crafted work of cinema verité, Calavera Highway encompasses universal familial tensions, Mexican-American identity, the responsibilities of fathers (and sons) and the psychic malleability of map-drawn borders.
Tajima-PeÃ±a, who’s an associate professor at UC Santa Cruz, will receive the Golden Gate Award for long-form television documentary at the S.F. International Film Festival, where Calavera Highway screens three times in early May. Via email, she talked about searching for "Calaveras" hidden in closets and elsewhere.
This week, SF360.org runs a special series of interviews with Bay Area filmmakers in the upcoming San Francisco International Film Festival. SFIFF51 runs April 24-May 8 at the Sundance Kabuki, Castro, Pacific Film Archive, Clay Theatre and other locations.
SF360: What are the risks for a filmmaker when she’s married to the subject?
Renee Tajima-PeÃ±a: I have to confess it was a new experience for me. Production is usually pretty hierarchical, and when you’re a director you’re accustomed to a degree of cooperation, or even deference, from people on the set. So filming with my husband, my brother-in-law Carlos and my kid, who was being age appropriate, well, they weren’t impressed by filmmakers. None of them listened to me. We’d set up a scene and they’d tell me, ‘What do we need to shoot that exterior for? We already shot that.’ Oy, everyone’s a director. It’s funny looking back on it but it was really stressful at the time. It’s the first time in 25 years of making documentaries that I ever had an argument with anyone in production. I’d like to say there was a gender thing going on, but our soundperson, Sara Chin, who lives in San Francisco and is one of the best in the business, they just loved her and always did what she asked.
SF360: Do you think the tension was exacerbated because it was a roots journey for Armando?
Tajima-Pe–a I don’t want to use the cliché ‘journey of discovery’ but it was in a big way. His whole self-identity was disrupted while we were on the road, the deeper and deeper we dug into the family story. I could see when it was getting painful for him. But it’s something he’s wanted to find out ever since I’ve known him. I always used to find these post-its and scraps of paper around our house with chronologies and notes Armando would make for himself—when various people in various generations of the family were born, when they crossed over to or from Mexico, when the family lived in this town or migrated to that state, his mother’s relationships. He was always trying to figure out who he was, and make sense of the family’s history and why they were outcasts. We actually started thinking about making a film about looking for their father way back in 1993. But then Rosa got sick, life took over and it never happened. After we had Gabe, though, everything started to resurface. I remember when I was pregnant, with all the excitement and giddiness of having a baby—one day Armando turned to me and told me, asked himself really, how a man could simply turn away from his own child. He had this stricken look on his face. It was incredibly sad because there was always this undercurrent of loss, even with a new baby coming.
SF360: What input did you allow Armando during editing and post-production? How did you navigate the process with him?
Tajima-Pe–a: Johanna Demetrakas, our editor who is also a neighbor, edited at our house, so Armando did see various versions, especially when we were recording narration. I’d show him a scene and he’d respond, and that got worked into the voice-over. In many ways, I followed Armando’s lead in terms of where the story was going, and at what pace. They’re a family of storytellers. There’s nothing they like more than standing around a barbecue pit with a beer in one hand—and the ritual goes on the whole night sometimes—and half the time not saying anything, like men do, and the other half just talking story. The brothers were all really into the filming in a way that surprised me. I thought at least one of them would have problems with it, or at least freeze in front of the camera. But they were naturals.
I remember when Rosa was dying, it was one of those horrible, wrenching cancer deaths. She did not want to die. She thought she had too much unfinished business and she told Armando she wanted the doctors to keep on reviving her if her heart stopped. There was all kind of turmoil among the brothers, especially since Luis was a devout Christian and it was so difficult for him to accept that she wanted to be cremated. I had been filming the family for several years by that time, but I put away the camera. It was too intense and I felt it would be too intrusive for me to film during such a private moment. But after she died some of the brothers asked me why I hadn’t been filming her in the hospital, why I hadn’t documented everything up to the death. I was shocked! I had to realize that in the end the movie was simply another venue for their storytelling. Part of it is growing up in the South, in Texas, and growing up rural. The brothers put a lot of stock in storytelling. And Rosa was a master storyteller. She never went to school, so when she got cancer Armando used to explain medical treatments to her by using allegories of animals. It’s really an art form.
SF360: What did you learn about families in the course of making Calavera Highway?*
Tajima-Pe–a: I learned how families function—or sometimes how they sink into dysfunction—as a unit. It could be an orderly unit, which is the ideal. The Pe–as were a survival unit. I was surprised to find out that Rosa was actually pretty distant from her sons when they were kids. Not that she didn’t love them, but she was so consumed by feeding seven boys [that] she was constantly working. Like Armando said [in the film], she was like a working stiff who’d come home at the end of the day and just crash. But they knew she was the mom, the dad, the breadwinner and they loved her deeply for that. A big surprise to my generation of middle-class women, we’re all tormented that our kids resent our jobs and our careers. But kids seem to understand whether the parent is away working out of choice or out of necessity. My son certainly understands that and never lets me forget it.
SF360: The film is primarily about the relationship between first-generation Mexican-Americans and their Mexican-born parents. What do you think the film suggests about Mexican-Americans today?
Tajima-Pe–a: Armando has always seen his family’s story as a metaphor for the Mexican-American experience—cut off from their roots but never feeling legitimate in either country. They were like tumbleweeds, in constant movement, fatherless. Their grandparents started migrating here around the turn of the century, and came and went with the opening and closing of the border. In fact, my family started migrating from Japan at the same time. Same reasons, similar jobs, but a completely different circumstance. My family could never go back to Japan so they fashioned a forced stability here. But then again the Japanese government negotiated far more favorable immigration terms than other Asian countries and more Japanese men could bring wives, and families could stay intact.
SF360: Although only Armando has a white-collar job, all of the brothers seem to have succeeded pretty well financially. Were you intentionally trying to demolish certain stereotypes about Mexican immigrants?
Tajima-Pe–a: That’s an interesting observation. I never thought of it that way. Some are doing OK, others are struggling. The brothers are typical of a lot of Americans. They may have their trucks, a big TV, but their finances are fragile. It’s the illusion of comfort. Robert [the eldest] lives in a nice subdivision in Brazos County outside of Houston. It was a good move because it meant his stepdaughter went to a good school and was surrounded by very stable families. But his house is on the last lot right next to the main road, and there’s a huge lighted billboard literally shadowing over his backyard. Just my luck it wasn’t lit when we were shooting â€“ it’s completely surreal, like having Blade Runner over the backyard barbecue. Armando and Carlos are really touchy about credit. They’re really averse to taking out any kind of loan because of what happens when people get overextended. When I met Armando, he hated Christmas because every year his mother did one of those Christmas loan clubs so she could buy presents. She went into debt at ridiculous interest and it would take her the next year to get out of it. It’s taken my family’s mania around the holidays, and our son Gabe’s absolute, complete bliss during Christmastime, for Armando to get any joy out of that time of year.
SF360: It felt like you used the fact that viewers are familiar with the road-movie structure to push it a bit. You compressed both time and distance without feeling the need to explain it, for example. Was this in your minds when you began?
Tajima-Pe–a: The road movie is the perfect foil for drawing people into lives that would otherwise be marginal to their own experience. When I first started making films in the 1980s about Asian Americans, I thought the most difficult barrier was how do you make a non-Asian audience care for, and understand the nuances of, an experience that was so far off the map. I think conventional literary structures—the hero’s journey, the road trip, the love story—can give the audience a dramatic anchor so they could navigate the specific cultural and historical details.
Armando and I both grew up on the road, very aware of issues of race. But my family was middle class, my epiphanies arrived on family vacations down Route 66. Armando’s arrived in summers as well, but migrating summers to work the fields. With Calavera Highway though, it was really Armando’s fascination with Juan Rulfo’s novel, Pedro Paramo, the seminal magic realist novel. When he was in college trying to figure all these things out about his family, who he was, he was attracted to Latin American literature and drawn to ‘Pedro Paramo.’ There are all kinds of similarities — the father named Pedro, the journey to the town Comala which sounded like the stories of Pedro Pe–a’s home, San Ramon de Martinez, that Rosa had described to Armando when he was small. Comala was Armando’s fantasy of the Mexico that Pedro Pe–a inhabited. While we were making the film, the connection became more pronounced. The protagonist Juan Preciado goes to Comala after his mother’s death to find his father and take what is rightfully his. It’s a journey through ruins, among ghosts, and in so many ways that was Armando and Carlos’s journey. They meet various characters from their father’s life along the way, and ultimately discover that they’re all dead. Everybody’s dead.
SF360: What do you think might be special about showing the film in San Francisco, as opposed to, say, Los Angeles or Texas?
Tajima-Pe–a: Since the Pe–as don’t have a fixed sense of place, other than the Rio Grande Valley, I don’t think the venue matters as much for their story. They’re tumbleweeds, migrants. San Francisco means a lot to me, though. My first film, Who Killed Vincent Chin?, screened here and I haven’t had a film here since. It’ll be a big celebration. So many of the people who worked on the film and helped us get it done are up here. Spencer Nakasako, who was a story consultant, the folks at the Center for Asian American Media and BAVC, my department in Social Documentation at UC Santa Cruz, people on the crew like Sara. And our premiere’s during Cinco de Mayo weekend and Armando’s birthday. Very fortuitous.
SF360: What does the Golden Gate Award mean for you and the film?
Tajima-Pe–a: I think this is only the second time I submitted a film for the Golden Gate Awards in the past 25 years. I didn’t quite think it was attainable. I’ve noticed we’ve gotten emails from other festivals [since] SFIFF was announced. It’s a very classy festival, a classy venue. Rosa would have been thrilled. Man, I wish she could be there.
We’re slated to air on [PBS’ documentary series] ‘P.O.V’ on Sept. 23, so our whole trajectory is moving towards the broadcast. We’re really interested in how to circumvent the gatekeepers to reach audiences. We spent 10 days at BAVC last summer developing digital platforms to take the stories to the web and mobile. A whole new world. It used to be you did festivals, theatrical, broadcast and then educational, and the film was a fixed artifact in all these different venues. But now a film can be more malleable. It can live in a lot of different forms. Or rather the content, the stories and the characters can inhabit a lot of different worlds.
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