By Noma Faingold
In the nearly nine years that it took to complete her first feature-length documentary, “How to Have an American Baby,” it was just Leslie Tai and her camera capturing all facets of the underground birth tourism industry. The director/producer/cinematographer/editor stayed with pregnant women from China, who were living in suburban Los Angeles maternity hotels.
She chronicled the mundane day-to-day existence in a safe, yet isolated, enclave. Tai filmed them while they shopped for post-natal supplies at big-box stores, ate their meals and when they were leisurely strolling the Rowland Heights neighborhood. Some trusted her so much that they let her film their deliveries, no matter how long or painful labor was.
Tai, 39, who grew up in the Inner Sunset District, also gained alliances with the operators of the maternity hotels.
“It was really understanding the principle of reciprocity, which is a huge element of Chinese culture,” she said. “It was about mutual benefit.”
Speaking fluent Mandarin – which Tai learned in Taiwan during the period she spent in China (2006-2011) on a Fulbright scholarship, after earning a B.A. in design/media Arts at UCLA – gave her access most documentary filmmakers would not have had.
“They wanted to be friends so I could help them (translate documents and communicate with medical professionals),” she said. “In return, they offered their collaboration.”
Birth tourism in the United States became a huge industry in the early 2000s as mainland China’s new middle class emerged. The main goal is to get the child an American passport so they would have more opportunities in the future. It is legal, but there are gray areas in the way the businesses are run.
“There’s some unscrupulous business activity,” Tai said. “It was important for me to show how relentlessly marketed and commodified this idea of how to have an American baby was. There’s usually a discrepancy between the dream that you are sold and what you get.”
When Tai filmed a marketing pitch in China, it took place at a hotel conference room and the meeting resembled a slick timeshare presentation. Typically, the cost of a package was between $40,000 and $80,000, not including airfare, medical expenses and miscellaneous fees.
Tai got the idea for the documentary from a friend, film/video producer Chocho Tang, whom she met at the Beijing-based studio Caochangdi Workstation, where independent filmmakers were thriving.
It was the fall of 2014, a week after Tai got married, when Tang called her from one of the smaller maternity hotel operations in Rowland Heights, urging Tai to get down there. Tang was, in fact, having an American baby of her own, renting one of the six bedrooms occupied by pregnant Chinese women. On the outside, it looked like just another single-family home.
When filming, Tai stayed inside the maternity hotel.
“They wanted me there,” she said. “My access was entirely due to being a one-woman band. Being a young woman holding a smallish camera is entirely unthreatening. I was able to be nimble. It was a huge advantage. I don’t think I would have been able to get any of the footage had I not been by myself.”
She shot more than 200 hours of footage. The storytelling is edited into interwoven vignettes. “How to Have an American Baby” is less about providing information and statistics of the industry and more about the human struggle of the proprietors, the caregivers and the soon-to-be-mothers.
“If you watch the film, it’s painful,” said Tai. “Not everybody is getting what they wanted. Everyone’s just trying to survive.”
The world premiere (with three sold-out screenings) was held at the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri, in early March, just four weeks after Tai had given birth to her first child, a daughter. The Bodega Bay resident is excited about the West Coast premiere, which will be shown during the San Francisco Documentary Film Festival, June 1-11. It will also air on PBS toward the end of the year.
“This is a huge homecoming,” said Tai. “Everybody I know has known I’ve been working on this for the last nine years. I am thrilled that all my friends, my family and San Francisco lovers of documentaries can finally see it.”
“How to Have an American Baby,” the Centerpiece Film at the San Francisco Documentary Film Festival, will screen on June 3, 4:30 p.m., at the Roxie Theatre. For more information, go to sfindie.com.
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