Rick Tejada-Flores’ grandfather, José Luis Tejada Sorzano, was the president of Bolivia in the turbulent mid-1930s. And that’s pretty much all Tejada-Flores was told as a child growing up in Los Angeles about his family’s legacy in South America.
He was curious, of course, and he remained so after he went off to college, became an activist, directed a film called Si Se Puede! for the United Farm Workers and forged a career in television as a respected documentary producer and director. Tejada-Flores demonstrated a penchant for research in portraits of Diego Rivera and Jasper Johns and a talent for interviews in The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers Struggle (made with Ray Telles) and The Good War and Those Who Refused to Fight It (with Judith Ehrlich).
Both skills are on display in Tejada-Flores’ new one-hour film, My Bolivia, Remembering What I Never Knew. Needless to say, it’s a personal film, which marked a disconcerting departure for a filmmaker whose lifelong priority was telling other people’s stories.
“I had spent many years talking about going to Bolivia,” the East Bay filmmaker said. “It wasn’t that I wanted to do a film about my family. My real impetus was getting to know the country that my family came from.”
As Tejada-Flores discovers through his on-camera exploration and perambulation, the story of the wealthy, land-owning Tejada family intersects with the history of Bolivia in the 20th century in revealing and deeply uncomfortable ways. Let’s just say that by the time the Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie makes a cameo appearance in the Tejada narrative, it is shocking without being surprising.
“Even though it was an interesting story, I wasn’t convinced people would be interested in seeing a film about Bolivia that wasn’t about cocaine or whatever,” Tejada-Flores said. “I was a very reluctant character. I was going to tell the story, but I was never going to be part of the story. I wrestled with this see of what my role in the film was. A lot of first-person films are more about the narrator than about the story, and I didn’t want to do that.”
Tejada-Flores’ innate humility and decency are apparent in the way he interacts with the Bolivians he meets. In a similar vein, My Bolivia’s pacing and tone eschew sensationalism in favor of quiet (albeit profound) revelation and low-key connection. Last but not least, Tejada-Flores spearheads a clean-water project—with a substantial financial contribution from his Southern California cousins, whose parents also told them nothing about Bolivia—out of a sense of both justice and caring.
“It wasn’t residual guilt,” Tejada-Flores said quietly. “I worked with the farmworkers. I had worked with poor people who fought back. It felt good to help people. I don’t feel like I’m responsible but it’s incumbent for someone in the family to help.”
As for his first foray in front of the camera, Tejada-Flores simply said, “It was a very strange experience. I don’t think I want to make any more personal films.”
Unfortunately, the difficult fundraising climate has dampened his enthusiasm for embarking on one of his typically ambitious documentaries.
“I’m taking a break, at least from big PBS projects. I’m 72. Do I want to spend the next six years raising money?”
My Bolivia screens Dec. 5 at the New Parkway as part of the Berkeley Film Foundation’s ongoing monthly series. The film is also available to stream for free until Jan. 8 at WorldChannel.org.