Posts Tagged ‘lebanon’
In East Africa, it’s the Indians. In West Africa, it’s the Lebanese. Communities of long-time immigrants who have made Africa their home, but who have tenuous, strained relationships with their fellow residents. They often prosper, owning several businesses, homes, hotels, even corporations — and they employ Nigerians, Liberians, Ugandans, Kenyans and other native Africans to work for them while helping to fuel along fragile economies.
An OK agreement for all, it would seem, but things are never that easy. Black Africans complain of mistreatment and disrespect from these immigrants: in fact, when you ask a Liberian or Kenyan about a Lebanese or Indian, the reaction is usually mocking and full of distaste, and sometimes vitriolic. Many Lebanese and Indians, however, say that they genuinely harbor no ill will towards black Africans and even consider themselves Africans.
When the resentment towards these immigrants builds, it can turn deadly very quickly, as it did the day I witnessed a bloody protest in Uganda. The day echoed former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin’s expelling of Indian-Ugandans a few decades ago. I wonder what’s next for these tension-filled relationships.
Part Two of the interview with Soraya Umewaka is here.
I am Happy premieres next Wednesday at the NY Latino Film Festival in New York City.
How important is it to you that you are a woman filmmaker? Do you feel that you have a unique experience as a woman working in this business?
I feel that my presence is not an intimidating one. I go about often feeling inconspicuous and unnoticed when I film. Perhaps it has more to do with my personality than my gender but I like to keep a low profile when I film and make people feel comfortable with me when they are sharing their personal stories or insights.
How do you connect to your human subjects and persuade them to let you in so intimately into their lives?
I always establish a friendship with the individuals I film, gain their trust, spend time with them getting to know them and only afterward do I film. I have been incredibly fortunate to come across incredible individuals who have opened up to me and let me into their lives. I think being genuinely curious about their lives and wanting to understand and share their life stories and insights with others has helped build the foundation of that friendship.
Do you work by yourself? What kind of equipment do you use? When you are in dangerous places like some favelas, how do you protect yourself, your equipment and your subjects?
At times I filmed with a photographer, but I generally film alone (without a sound recordist, light technician etc). Having said that, I always film with someone from the community. By filming with someone from the community, I gain a better understanding of what I need to pay attention to and that person often helps me stay safe and alert to certain dangers and risks. In Brazil and Ecuador I used a small digital video camera Sony VX2100, which I could easily fit into my rugged backpack so that people would not notice that I am carrying around a video camera. When I filmed in the favelas of Rio, I always filmed with someone who is respected in that community. As long as I was filming with someone from the community, I felt safer filming in the favelas than in the city of Rio, as no one steals from one another in the slums of Rio, as the judicial law that resides there are different than that of the law in the city. (No one steals from one another in the slums of Rio, as one would get executed by the drug traffickers if one did).
How do you feel about injecting yourself into your films? Do you prefer that your voice not be heard, or do you like to tell your stories from a first-person viewpoint?
At first I disliked hearing my own voice when I was editing the documentary, however, I realized that since I was filming my friends, often having a conversation with them, it sometimes became inevitable to have these individuals talk to me, as opposed to talk into the camera. I also noticed that with my Brazilian film ‘I am Happy’, although I wanted to remain behind the camera, this documentary revolves around the close friendships that I share with these individuals.
How hard is it to get your films shown? Is it a constant process of entering film festivals and promoting your work? Is it equally difficult to find backers or financiers?
It is hard to get my documentaries shown, as it is becoming increasingly competitive to get into film festivals (especially without a sales agent, a production and distribution company), and as you said, it’s a constant process of entering my film to film festivals, and promoting my work. I am delighted that my documentary will be premiered in New York (NY Int. Latino Film Festival), Rio (Rio Int. Film Festival) and Tokyo (Brazil Film Festival). I especially look forward to the Rio Int. Film Festival where the individuals in my film will be able to see themselves on a large screen.
With regards to financing my films, as a student, I used to receive funding/grants from Princeton, however, now that I have graduated, I often cover the expenses of my documentaries from directing or producing other documentaries and programs with different production companies and television agencies. Recently I started to contact the corporate social responsibility sectors of companies for sponsorship and received some positive response from Japanese companies (such as Mitsui and Suntory Wellness). In partnership with an NPO (World Children’s Fund), I have the profits from the documentary go to the community such as educational scholarships for youths and women in the slums of Rio. It is very important for me to not only share my films with others but to also make sure that the profit goes back to the community so that it makes a positive difference to individuals in the documentary.
What’s next? Any plans to do a film in your native Japan or are you still exploring other parts of the world?
I have filmed a documentary on identity through the portraits of individuals in Kathmandu, and Bhutanese refugees in the South East of Nepal. I will start editing that film shortly. I am also filming a documentary in Tokyo about what it means to take a break from the perspective of different individuals in the city (such as an artist, a fireman, a Noh actor, a young child who goes to cram school). I would also like to film the daily lives of civilians in Beirut, Lebanon to explore the resilience of different individuals who live in a post-war nation and the creative culture that thrives there.
Contact Soraya at email@example.com.
NY Int. Latino Film Festival World Premiere
July 29th Wednesday 3:30pm at Clearview Cinemas
July 31st Friday 4:00 pm at Clearview Cinemas
(260 West 23rd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues)
Last photo by Tomas Reyes
Soraya Umewaka is one of those filmmakers. The kind you read about who has been to countless countries, plunging into their seediest, most eccentric parts and producing film magic. She is of Japanese and Lebanese origin and was raised in London and Tokyo. From Ecuador to Afghanistan, Cambodia to Brazil, Soraya has made documentaries that take intimate looks at foreign cultures and unravel them effortlessly. Her latest, I am Happy, is set in the favelas of Rio de Janiero, Brazil and focuses on how different residents are using the feeling of happiness to cope with their difficult lives.
I interviewed Soraya, a dear friend, for this blog. Part One will be posted today and Part Two on Wednesday.
Tell us about your new project, I am Happy. The synopsis says it is about different people in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil who have used happiness to cope with their difficult lives, you call it a type of “self-salvation.” How did you decide to do a film about these people then go about doing it?
Upon graduation from Princeton University I was awarded with a Labouisse Fellowship from Princeton to make a documentary in Brazil. I remember seeing a lot of Brazilian films and documentaries about the violence in the slums of Rio but I wanted to know more about the creative culture that resides there. I was curious about the people who lived there. I wanted to explore the relationship between those who live in the slums and their neighbors who live in the center in Rio de Janeiro. I spent the first 4 months getting to know diffrent individuals in Rio (samba dancers, police officers, maids, graffiti artist, hip hop dancer) by for example attending samba dance classes in a slum called Cantagalo, which is a slum situated in between Ipanema and Copacabana beach (one of the wealthies regions of Rio). I became close friends with maids while I was staying with Brazilian families. When I was living with these Brazilian families I wanted to know more about how the culture of maids affects the family nest. How does the inequality of wealth within the family nest affect the child who lives with a maid? It is easy to ignore the inequality of wealth on the streets but more difficult to ignore the inequality of wealth within the family home.
I never asked any questions about happiness but these individuals who live in very humble conditions often expressed that they are happy. For this reason, I decided to call the film ‘I am Happy’ only in the editing room when I saw repeated statements on happiness.
I call it a type of ‘self-salvation’ because it is a mind state that nobody can take away from these individuals. Being happy helps them stay strong and overcome difficulties. I found that they did not attain happiness because they overcame difficulties or because they achieved their life goals or dreams but they used happiness to cope with the difficulties that overcast their lives. Terms such as ‘joy’ (‘alegria’) and ‘happiness’ (‘felicidade’) are strongly embedded in the Portuguese language and the Brazilian culture. Although I am still trying to understand what happiness is, I feel that happiness is not so far from sadness and by embracing both emotions we become stronger individuals.
The I am Happy trailer:
What was it like working in Brazil and for how long were you there? Did you run into difficulties filming?
I was in Brazil for six months. The first four months of my stay, I made friends, got to know my friends very well and only the last two months of my stay did I start filming. I wanted to make sure that the people I was filming were very comfortable with me and the presence of my camera before I started filming so that their behavior and what they told me was as natural as possible.
I noticed that you have some proficiency of Portuguese when you laughed at a statement a female cook made about desserts in the movie’s trailer. Did you become fluent in Portuguese? How do you bridge language barriers when film making in different countries?
I always prefer to film by myself without the presence of an interpretor so that I will be listening to a friend as opposed to filming an individual while the interrpretor translates for me what the person is saying. This gives the documentary a more personal nuance. I studied two semesters of Portuguese at Princeton before leaving to Brazil but mainly learned how to speak Portuguese with my Brazilian friends. It always changes the dynamics of the friendship when you are able to speak the other person’s language.
You had made a number of documentaries over the past several years, though you are only in your mid-twenties. Can you tell us about how you got started in film making and the types of films you have done? What places and subjects have interested you most?
I have made a few short documentaries in the past in Kabul, Afghanistan, Beirut, Lebanon and Phnom Phen, Cambodia. I became interested in making documentaries when I was in Kabul, Afghanistan in 2003. I carried a small video camera with me and filmed landscapes of Kabul and children from street children centers without the intention of making a documentary. When I returned to Princeton, I wanted to learn how to piece together the footage I filmed. When I started editing, I quickly became immersed in the infinite possibilities of creating a message by deciding what to keep in the documentary, what to delete, and what scenes I juxtapose. I enjoyed every part of the process of making a documentary from getting to know people, listening to their stories, filming, editing their stories, making available these stories to people who live a completely different reality, and the discussions and involvement that the documentary encourages.
I am interested in all cultures. Being bi-cultural (Japanese Lebanese) and living in more than one culture, I like to see what is unique about different individuals and transcend the framework of nations and cultures. I enjoy making documentaries on portraits of individuals with a unifying theme (for example: happiness, identity, or what it means to take a break). I often make documentaries that highlight the strengths, the humor of individuals who often blend into the background and are unnoticed.
You’ve done a few films related to Latin America, notably Street Witness in Ecuador. What about this region draws you in?
I am drawn to all regions of the world, however I was always curious about Latin American culture and music. I took one semester of Spanish before going to Quito, Ecuador to do an internship at a street children center. With the patience of the street children and my mini English Spanish dictionary, I managed to communicate to these children. The challenge of going to a foreign country alone and creating a documentary from scratch was exciting.
Check back for more on Wednesday …