Navigating Your Sympathies: An Intimate Conversation with Leslie Tai Moderated by Alison O’Daniel
How to Have an American Baby is a kaleidoscopic voyage into the shadow economy that caters to Chinese tourists who travel to the U.S. to give birth in order to obtain citizenship for their babies. Told through a series of intimately observed vignettes, the story of a hidden global economy emerges–depicting the fortunes and tragedies that befall the ordinary people caught in the web of its influence.
On September 20, 2023, Leslie Tai was invited by Alison O’Daniel to present her feature documentary debut How to Have an American Baby as part of the Voices in Moving Image Lecture Series at California College of the Arts in the Film Program. The following is a transcript of their in-depth conversation and has been edited for length and clarity.
Alison—I’ve always heard you use this word kaleidoscope, but it’s such an ecosystem. Also I think it’s incredibly brave. I don’t like the word “master,” but it’s like a master class in showing the view from far away and then constantly moving into the intimate, and this incredible balance of taking time with locations, characters. It’s really quite a portrait of an industry.
Another thing that I thought was really amazing is the moment when it’s acknowledged that you leave. Up until that point it’s such an observational documentary. And then you become a character. It becomes evident slowly. It becomes evident that the role you are suddenly forced to take over is that of an emergency interpreter. I thought that was really an amazing moment because of the way that it shows your sympathies–that are either forced onto you in a moment where you have to do something, but also when you’re observing the people who are in those community meetings. I was so curious how you navigated both your own sympathies and how you created safe spaces for all of these different people who actually are opposed to one another in a lot of different scenarios, who are all forming various elements of this ecosystem, who are trusting you to show their faces. How were you able to both stay and balance the subjective and objective?
Leslie—That’s a really great question and I think that’s the essence of why I was driven to make the film. A lot of the people in this world really challenged my sympathies. When I found out that documentary is what I wanted to do with my life, it was this one French artist—do you know Christian Boltanski? I encountered his work when I was studying abroad in Italy, and there was this one piece that was all of these black and white photos, just faces, almost like a yearbook. And then you read the little description on the side, and you find out these are images of victims and their perpetrators—but their identities as such are completely erased. They’re at a different stage in their life.
And then there was the first short documentary I ever saw, and that was in high school. Our English teacher took us to the San Francisco International Film Festival, and it was a film about people seeking asylum. It placed the viewer in the perspective of the person that was going to decide. So I’m interviewing the person who’s applying for political asylum, and I get to decide whether I think you’re telling the truth or not. At the end of the film, we find out who was lying and who was telling the truth, and I find out I was completely wrong about the people. People are not who you think they are. So I always want to recreate this experience for my audience—you think you know something about someone, but then you realize you have no idea.
Everybody in this film challenged my sympathies—from the pregnant women, to the doctor who is cutting all of them, to the nannies and drivers, to the neighbors, to the sales people in China. My biggest challenge, and my obsession, was to find out what made them all human. And to capture those moments on film—when the mask comes off.
In my experience of Chinese society, it’s a dog-eat-dog world. It’s like that in every society to differing degrees. I was very much aware that everybody was eating everybody else. There’s this idea from an American perspective that these women are coming to game the system. But ironically enough, we find out that they’re actually getting gamed by the system—both the one they come from and the one they’re arriving in, China and the U.S. And all up in the mix are just all these people who are trying to make money in order to survive.
The whole situation to me was very, very symbolic. I felt like, if I could just get into this world—the situation is so controversial and highly charged in America—what if I didn’t really address too much of that but dove into the humanity of all the people involved instead?
Student 1— I think the film was very beautiful and also chaotic. My question: is there any part of the documentary that you found the most difficult to film and get through, and perhaps go back to edit when you are viewing it?
Leslie—For all of the filming, I was by myself with a small camera. The world underestimates a young woman with a camera. I really capitalized on that and used it to get in everywhere. You’re not allowed to film in Babies R Us. You’re not allowed to film at the airport. You’re not allowed to film in any of these places, really. But just by virtue of the fact that I was by myself, I was the same age as all these women, I was their friend, I was their translator, I just kind of got wrapped up into the whole thing.
Most of the stuff that I filmed was completely just like, oh my God, I can’t believe this is happening and I’m filming it. A lot of it was really concentrated in one period. During that time, I was living inside of one maternity hotel, their central headquarters. These drivers, cooks and nannies were all living there. So I was totally part of their drama. And then also, available to film everything.
One time the maternity hotel boss lady whose “hotel” I was staying at, she put me in this one condo with a bedridden pregnant lady, who also happened to be a mistress, because she was lonely. Actually, this is the opening scene of the film. We’re following a recently arrived Chinese woman who gets introduced to working as the domestic help of this bedridden pregnant lady. She had just fired her previous help, and this was the new lady, getting whisked away into the dark stretches of LA’s largest suburban strip mall chinatown—the San Gabriel Valley. She has no idea what kind of a world she’s going into, and we’re following her on her way in.
Back to this mistress, with a double uterus, who had to stay in bed for the remainder of her pregnancy, which was like four months. What was really hard was that all she did all day was lie in bed, and get all the food, like grapes, laid in platters on her bed. She had a mirror that she was just staring at herself in. It was just a crazy sight. And the filmmaker side of me was like, I have to film this. This is crazy. I would talk with her and I’d be like, “Hey, how about we do this thing? I won’t show your face. I’d love to hear your story.” I didn’t really like her; I thought she was very empty. But in my mind, I’m thinking “She’s human.” Every time I came home late because I was filming with other characters, I would check in and think to myself “Yeah, I really got to film her.”
And you know what? I never did.
After it was all said and done, I really regretted it. I was like, that would have been so good if I had gotten this mistress, this faceless, pregnant Chinese mistress lying on the bed, in suburban Los Angeles, eating her food, and looking at herself in the mirror. It would have been documentary gold. But then I discovered that it was perhaps my own ethical boundaries, you know? I didn’t feel like I could click into her humanity. I didn’t really feel like I could really show it. And so I naturally didn’t film her. But navigating this—following your gut about who you should be following and when–was the most difficult thing because I feel like filming someone is an act of love, you know? I am there and you’re vulnerable and I am showing you in your best light. I mean, I am truly trying to show you in your best light.
Alison— That is such an honest and amazing answer, because I think it is hard to balance the ethical quandaries that happen as a filmmaker. You are weighing all this stuff because, of course, you want to get the best shot. You are seeing people as potential characters, but then you’re having extremely, in this case, human interactions. But then also this interesting flip of people coming from all these different social situations in China, coming over and working. When you go into a place that is not your home, there’s a weird democratization that happens where everybody gets equalled because you’re navigating something you don’t know. And then you become a worker. It’s really wild. Any other questions or comments?
Student 2—I am so touched by this film because everything is very true. I have a question about how to make characters in film tell the truth in front of the camera. They have a lot of secrets in their business/industry, but they directly say it on camera. So I want to know how to do it.
Leslie—Back when I was in China, we had this visiting filmmaker from Switzerland, and the question posed to him was about permission, getting releases, because for a documentary film, you want everyone to sign a release that says you can use them in your film.
He said something that at the time was very radical, but it really influenced my entire approach to filmmaking, which was, I don’t film people that I need to have a legal contract with. On the one hand, America is this litigious society and we have to sign away our rights to everything. And it’s so hurtful, you know, damaging to relations. Chinese culture and society is all about relationships–about the invisible bond that connects us all.
So how do you get people? You have to get them to trust you and you have to not be after something. You have to have the time to really invest in them, but more importantly, have them invest in you.
I was like, I need access to a maternity hotel company. I have to find a boss lady who sees something in me and wants to be my friend. It turned out to be a lot easier than I thought. Almost all of the maternity hotels were run by single women who had originally come to America to have their own American baby. They were trying to stay in America. And their way to do it was to open a maternity hotel. I was raised by a single mom, also an immigrant. So it’s like, all these single mothers running a maternity hotel, taking care of all these pregnant women, and trying to raise their own children at the same time, in a country that’s not their own, and all for what? It was really about friendship.
So in a nutshell, it’s just this idea, not that I’m coming and I’m going to film something and I’m going to take. It is more like what is the give and take? So that’s how.\
How to Have an American Baby makes its national broadcast premiere on the award-winning PBS television series POV on Monday, December 11, 2023, at 10:00 p.m. (check local listings) on PBS, pbs.org, and the PBS App.