Interview with a Filmmaker on the Edge


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 …


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