Berkeley High alum embarks on abortion bill documentary

Berkeley director Maya Cueva (courtesy)
Berkeley director Maya Cueva (courtesy)

“As a filmmaker, you have this unspoken responsibility to inform your audience,” says director and Berkeley High alum Maya Cueva. “You have to let people know what is happening in the world around them. Sometimes that’s good news, and sometimes it’s bad.”

Only two documentaries into her directing career, Cueva is on a mission to inform the masses. Her latest project, Undue Burden, is a six-part series highlighting the potential effects of the Texas abortion bill known as HB2. The bill is currently being assessed by the U.S. Supreme Court, but with only eight justices on the bench, the possibility of a tie doesn’t seem too far out of reach. As Texas and the rest of nation await a verdict, people for and against abortion are using this time to make cases for their positions.

Cueva, who is 22, was born and raised in Berkeley. She credits her high school teacher, Dharini Rasiah, for awakening her interest in film during media classes in Berkeley High’s small school, CAS [Communications Arts and Sciences]. Cueva said she discovered her passion for film while working with Rasiah, who encouraged her to apply to Ithaca College in New York. After receiving a scholarship to Ithaca, Cueva enrolled in its documentary studies program. She graduated with a bachelor’s in documentary studies in 2015 and, since then, has been living in Berkeley and working on her newest film.

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After winning a College Emmy for her first short documentary The Providerthe idea for Undue Burden followed. Cueva and her team started production in February, and they hope to return to Texas to finish the series once the Supreme Court makes its decision.

Our interview with Cueva took place at Mudrakers Cafe in the Elmwood district shortly after Cueva announced the Indiegogo campaign for Undue Burden, which has 20 more days and hopes to raise $30,000. As Congress fights to figure out what is “right” for the people, Cueva has made it a point to put faces behind both sides of the debate. With Undue Burden, she plans to speak with members of Congress, doctors and others who are both for and against abortion. Cueva says her biggest goal is to give a voice to the people this bill will affect most: Women.

Berkeleyside: Tell us a bit about your first short documentary, The Provider, and how it came about.

Cueva: My senior year I took a documentary course at Ithaca, and the goal was to create a 15-minute doc by the end of the semester. The professor put us in groups of six. I came across this article that talked about this abortion provider who traveled to the last abortion clinic in Mississippi. We took it to the professor and he approved of it and from there we just put everything in motion.

We started looking for traveling abortion providers and that is when we found Dr. Shannon Carr, an abortion provider that travels from  New Mexico to Dallas for work. She was an essential piece to our doc, because she was able to provide a much needed perspective. What was essentially a school project ended up being much more. We got some recognition and it really opened doors for our latest doc, Undue Burden.

The film crew behind The Provider
The film crew behind The Provider (courtesy)

Were you surprised when The Provider won a College Emmy

I was definitely surprised. I think we all were. Who knew that a project that started as a student film would have such an impact? We would go to film festivals and it was amazing to see the reaction of the audience and all the positive feedback we received from viewers. We got a lot of appreciation from all different types of people. We got thanks from women who had experienced abortions themselves, and then applause from people who at certain points were against abortions, but our doc was able to provide perspective. (Learn more about The Provider.)

What led to Undue Burden?

After we finished the short doc, we felt that we left so many questions unanswered. We had only scratched the surface of an issue that has many layers. I think it’s important when telling a story that you tell all sides. Especially with stories that pertain to issues like abortion. Each side has a reason and firm beliefs as to why they feel the way they do. I wanted to give viewers a chance to see the issue in its entirety. There’s only so much you can say in 20 minutes. After seeing the response to The Provider, we knew people wanted to know more. Our crew wanted to know more too. We felt like, as we educated ourselves, we could also be informing the rest of the world.

What was it about abortion that struck you as an important topic for a documentary?

Abortion can be a touchy subject and I think documentaries do a really good job of giving the audience a 100% real and uncut in-depth look into topics. These aren’t characters that we made up. These are real stories told by real people. I think if they’re done the right way you can really strike an emotional chord with the audience.

Why’d you chose the HB2 bill as the subject for the new documentary?

If you look at HB2, and the case of Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, you can see that this bill will not only have an effect on the state of Texas, but the nation as a whole. What HB2 aims to do is make the process of getting an abortion “safer” for patients, when really, it just makes it a lot more strenuous. I wanted to give our audience a chance to hear from people who have already experienced some of the results of HB2.

Undue Burden is aiming to give an in-depth look at the potential domino effect that will take place. You’ll hear from women who have gone through the process, you’ll hear from politicians on both sides. It’ll be extremely informative, and we hope viewers can feel like they’ve learned something they didn’t know after watching

As a woman in film, do you feel obligated to address these kind of topics?
I do feel some personal responsibility to shed light on issues that plague women. I want to give all women a voice. Especially with a topic like this, it has received a very limited amount of coverage. When issues don’t address all aspects of a problem, people make uninformed decisions.

The project team. (courtesy)
The project team. (courtesy)

Tell me about the rest of the crew involved with the doc. How did you guys meet?

There’s the other co-director, Leah Galant. We have our producer, Rachel Weinberg, and then there’s our director of photography, Pete Quandt. We also have Erik Jaworski who’s been helping with graphic design. They’re a really good group of people and I had the pleasure of meeting them all at Ithaca. We met in our Documentary Workshop class, and we were randomly placed in a group for a project that ended up being The Provider, and now we’re back together for Undue Burden.

What has it been like working with this group of people?

It’s been extremely exciting. I don’t think any of us thought we would be getting these kind of opportunities when we first started the project. We were all pretty much beginners, so it has been a good feeling to grow with each of my team members. I can see all the strides we made, not just as a unit, but individuals as well.

What kind of impact do you hope to have through your documentaries?

Media is a very powerful tool and, for too long, I have seen an industry dominated by white men misrepresent communities of color and others that have been marginalized. Through documentary production, I can create content surrounding issues of social justice and injustices that comes directly from the lens and voices of the communities most impacted.

Find out more about Undue Burden, including how to support the project. Read more from Berkeleyside’s “One to watch” series.

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