The films of the Blackstar Festival shed light on health equity – 71Bait

When Rea Tajiri received one of the greatest honors of her career and had her first feature film at the Venice Film Festival, she also experienced something terrible – her mother suddenly wasn’t sure if Tajiri was her daughter.

For Tajiri, a film director based in Philadelphia, it was the first sign that her mother was developing dementia. The following 18 years took Tajiri on a journey that was sometimes painful and sometimes surprisingly gratifying as she cared for her mother until her death in 2015.

This weekend, Wisdom Gone Wild, a Tajiri-directed film documenting this journey, will be screened at the annual Blackstar Film Festival – one of several films that will highlight experiences in healthcare, access and justice.

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“I really wanted to work against this familiar narrative that would only end in a tragic story centered around dementia,” Tajiri said. “I wanted instead to explore the possibilities of other ways of knowing and connecting with someone who is older — and connecting with their life experiences. That was very profound in the care I gave my mother.”

Early on in her mother’s experience with dementia, Tajiri often tried to correct her – “No, it didn’t happen that way,” her mother reminded her. But eventually Tajiri learned to just walk with her mother, even when she changed identities, and see what she was trying to convey. She ended up learning more about her mother than she ever knew.

“I really wanted to work against this familiar narrative that would only end in a tragic story about dementia.”

Rea Tajiri

“She developed a really interesting life that was centered around her interests,” Tajiri said.

Tajiri’s mother explained that she is a professor of art history, although she never went to college. She stated that she was single and free and had been hitchhiking across Europe. Her deepest desires, passions and interests were unleashed for her children to explore.

Factual details about her life also came to light, including those previously locked away due to traumatic memories. Tajiri’s mother, an American of Japanese descent, was raised in the farming community of Salinas, California. Tajiri learned details of her life growing up on the farm, like what her family would eat on their low income, or that they were part of the wealthy Japanese strawberry farming community in Northern California. She also learned about the experiences of her mother, who was imprisoned in one of the US internment camps during World War II.

“I just got to know different facets of her,” Tajiri said. “I felt like I had access to more of her inner workings.”

As she searched for caregivers for her mother, Tajiri wanted to find a black doctor who would be better able to connect with her mother’s experiences. Awareness and understanding of these details from her mother’s life eventually played a significant role in understanding her behavior as the dementia progressed.

While Tajiri was able to find adequate care for her mother in California, which offers many healthcare options for its aging population, Pennsylvania is considered woefully unprepared to meet the care needs of its residents with dementia. There are 280,000 Pennsylvanians over the age of 64 living with Alzheimer’s disease, the most common cause of dementia, and 100,000 more with related conditions. As of last year, few state-licensed aged care facilities have dementia-specific housing, with a maximum capacity of 17,157 patients.

Also on Blackstar is “Aftershock,” a documentary that tells the story of the US maternal death crisis through those hardest hit and activists fighting for change.

» READ MORE: America’s racial maternal death crisis dates back to Philadelphia

One of the film’s directors, Paula Eiselt, felt compelled to raise awareness when she learned that the US is one of the most dangerous developed countries for childbirth – three times more so for black women than for white women.

Philadelphia presents an even worse situation: Its maternal mortality rate is higher than the national average, and while black women accounted for just 43 percent of Philadelphia’s births between 2013 and 2018, they accounted for 73 percent of pregnancy-related deaths during the same period.

“We didn’t want to make a doom-and-gloom film — it’s very solution-oriented,” Eiselt said. “The maternal mortality crisis is a very solvable crisis. We are an outlier in the developed world, not by accident, but on purpose. This is because of the systemic racism built into the medical system.”

“We didn’t want to make a doom and gloom film – it’s very solution-oriented.”

Paul Eiselt

From integrating midwives and doulas with physicians to provide more patient-centric care for mothers, to giving pregnant women and new parents better access to health insurance, to ensuring postpartum support and maternity leave, there are many workable solutions to making the United States a safer place, according to Eiselt to have children.

“It is a human right to have a safe and dignified birth,” she said. “If you can choose where you give birth, who you give birth to … those things are not a luxury, it’s how you protect people.”

With the recent fall of the Supreme Court by Roe v. Wade told Eiselt the urgency of maternal health care is even more pressing, especially for people of color who have been disproportionately affected by the maternal death crisis.

“Maternity care is abortion care is health care, it’s the same thing,” Eiselt said. “In a country with the highest maternal mortality rate in the developed world and the least support for mothers, parents and families, and then you force people to conceive, the outcomes will be far worse.”


The work, produced by The Inquirer’s Communities & Engagement desk, is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Editorial content is created independently of the sponsors of the project.

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