By Rod Bastanmehr

For Renee Tajima-Peña, lecture halls are anything but foreboding. At least, not after winning a Sundance award and getting an Oscar nomination.

Tajima-Peña, an associate professor of community studies at UC Santa Cruz, is a filmmaker who first gained attention in 1987 for her documentary “Who Killed Vincent Chin,” an investigation of the beating death of a Chinese-American in Detroit that nabbed her a Best Documentary Oscar nomination. Ten years later, in 1997, Tajima-Peña won a Sundance award for her film, “My America … or Honk if You Love Buddha.”

Now Tajima-Peña is receiving praise once again for her latest effort, “Calavera Highway.” The film chronicles the journey of two brothers as they try to understand the questions plaguing their family’s past: Why was their mother Rosa cast out of their family, and what happened to their father, who disappeared during 1954’s Operation Wetback?

“The stories of the Peñas, taken individually and as a whole, is a meaningful examination of the diversity within a Mexican family, their complex relationships with one another and with their history, ” said Rod Armstrong, one of the programming associates of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF), the latest event to award Tajima-Peña’s brave filmmaking.

Having celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, the San Francisco International Film Festival is one of the oldest continuously running film festivals in America. This year, the SFIFF is honoring Tajima-Peña’s “Calavera Highway” with the Best Television Documentary-Long Form Award, out of nearly 200 other films being screened.

“Over the years, the quality in screening has yet to be rivaled,” said Steven Lederer, a San Francisco-based art dealer who has attended the festival multiple times. “I highly doubt the caliber of work [this year] will differ — it’s always remarkable strong.”

Armstrong, who has worked for the festival for four years, agreed.

“This year’s showcase at the SFIFF ranges through numerous films, showcasing work by numerous filmmakers,” Armstrong said. “There are documentaries about brain surgery, dust and compulsive liars, as well as profiles of Philip Glass and Peter Sellers, and much more.”

While the diverse array of films is the focal point of the festival, Armstrong is able to see a connecting thread among the numerous works being screened.

“Childhood, resource scarcity, countries coming to terms with ethnic diversity … there are a number of recurring themes,” Armstrong said.

Films screened at SFIFF can go on to become widely successful. “Into Great Silence” (2005) went on to win the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, while “Double Dare” (2003) went on to win Best Documentary during the 2003 American Film Institute Audience Awards, as well as many other honors.

But these filmmakers aren’t just in it for the awards and praise.

“I think what makes [the San Francisco International Film Festival] so great is how it’s under the radar, but vastly important to various film successes,” said Christian Phelps, a second-year film major from Porter. “Many of the films have gone on to have major success stories, but at the end of the day, that’s not the goal of the festival.”

Armstrong agreed, stating “the goal of the festival is to bring the best in international cinema to Bay Area audiences.”

Handing out a few of those awards, a key in a film’s success, can’t hurt either.

_Catch the San Francisco International Film Festival April 24 through May 8. For more information, visit