When Rea Tajiri was experiencing one of the biggest honors of her career, playing her first feature film at the Venice Film Festival, she also experienced something terrible – her mother suddenly wasn’t sure that Tajiri was a girl her.
It was the first sign for Tajiri, a Philadelphia-based filmmaker, that her mother was developing dementia. The ensuing 18 years took Tajiri on a journey that was at times painful and at times surprisingly pleasant as she cared for her mother until her death in 2015.
This weekend, “Wisdom Gone Wild,” a Tajiri-directed film documenting that journey, will be screened at the annual festival Blackstar Film Festival — one of many films that will illuminate healthcare experiences, access and equity.
“I really wanted to work against this popular narrative that it would just end up being a tragic story about dementia,” Tajiri said. “I wanted to look at the possibilities of other ways of knowing and connecting with someone who is older – connecting with their life experiences. That was very profound in the care I did with my mother.”
Early in her mother’s experience with dementia, Tajiri often tried to correct her — “No, it didn’t happen like that,” she reminded her mother. But eventually Tajiri learned to go alone with her mother, even though she was changing her identity, and see what she was trying to convey. She ended up learning more about her mother than she had ever known.
“I really wanted to work against this popular narrative that it would just end up being a tragic story about dementia.”
“She led a really interesting life that revolved around her interests,” Tajiri said.
Tajiri’s mother stated that she was an art history professor, even though she had never gone to college. She stated that she was single and free and had been hitchhiking around Europe. Her deepest desires, passions, and interests were released for her children to discover.
Factual details about her life also emerged, including those previously withheld due to traumatic memories. A Japanese American, Tajiri’s mother grew up in the farming community of Salinas, California. Tajiri learned details of her life growing up on the farm, such as what her family would eat on their low income, or that they were part of Northern California’s abundant Japanese strawberry farming community. She also learned more about her mother’s experience of being imprisoned in one of the US internment camps during World War II.
“I just learned different aspects of it,” Tajiri said. “I felt like I had access to more of her inner life.”
While searching for caregivers for her mother, Tajiri wanted to find a doctor of color who would be able to better relate to her mother’s experiences. Awareness and understanding of those details of her mother’s life ended up playing an important role in understanding her behaviors as the dementia progressed.
While Tajiri was able to find the right care for her mother in California, which has many health care options for its aging population, Pennsylvania is seen as woefully unprepared to meet the care requirements of its residents with dementia. There are 280,000 Pennsylvanians over age 64 living with Alzheimer’s disease, the most common cause of dementia, and another 100,000 with related disorders. As of last year, few state-licensed senior care facilities have dementia-specific accommodations, with a maximum capacity of 17,157 patients between them.
Also starring on Blackstar is “Aftershock,” a documentary that tells the story of the U.S. maternal mortality crisis through those most affected by it and the activists fighting for change.
One of the film’s directors, Paula Eiselt, felt called to raise awareness when she learned that the US is one of the most dangerous industrialized countries to give birth – and it’s three times more so for black women than for white women.
Philadelphia presents an even more dire situation: The maternal mortality rate exceeds the national average, and while black women accounted for only 43 percent of births in Philadelphia between 2013 and 2018, they represented 73 percent of pregnancy-related deaths in the same time period.
“We didn’t want to make a grim, bleak movie — it’s very solution-based,” Eiselt said. “The maternal mortality crisis is a very solvable crisis. We are an outsider in the developed world, not by mistake, but by design. It’s because of the systemic racism that’s built into the medical system.”
“We didn’t want to make a grim, bleak movie — it’s very solution-based.”
From integrating midwives and doulas with doctors for more patient-centered maternal care, to providing more access to health insurance for pregnant women and new parents, to ensuring postpartum support and maternity leave, Eiselt says there’s a lot actionable solutions to make the US a safer place to have children.
“It is a human right to have a safe and dignified birth,” she said. “When you can choose where you’re going to be born, who you’re going to be born with… these things aren’t luxuries, it’s how you keep people safe.”
With the recent Supreme Court overturning of Roe v. Wade, Eiselt said the urgency around maternal health care is even more pressing, especially for people of color who are disproportionately affected by the maternal mortality crisis.
“Maternity care is abortion care is health care, it’s the same thing,” Eiselt said. “In a country that has the highest maternal mortality rate in the developed world and the least support for mothers, parents and families, and then you force people to get pregnant, the results are going to be much worse.”