Dr. Adam Kassab, Professor of GLOBIS University in Tokyo, invites a variety of guests from around the world to discuss people, culture and business from an “Inside Japan” perspective. The forth guest is Ms. Soraya Umewaka, Filmmaker, Street Witness Productions.
Inside Japan No.4 – Soraya Umewaka
Guest: Soraya Umewaka, Filmmaker, Street Witness productions
Host: Adam Kassab, GLOBIS
Date: May 18, 2012
Venue:GLOBIS Tokyo campus, Japan
———— Interview starts ————
ADAM: Soraya, thank you very much for coming in today to GLOBIS.
ADAM: You are an award-winning independent documentary filmmaker. So it’s really nice to have you come visit.
SORAYA: Thank you.
ADAM: So can I just ask? I mean, your name is Umewaka, but you kind of look a bit different than typical Japanese. So can you just say what’s your sort of connection to Japan?
SORAYA: My father is Japanese and my mother is Lebanese, and I was born in Japan, in Tokyo.
ADAM: You’ve lived here most of your life?
SORAYA: I’ve lived here most of my life. I was in the U.K. from the age of 7 to 11, and then I went to the U.S., Princeton, upon graduation from high school. And then from the U.S., I went to Brazil, and then I came back to Japan to work here for a bit. And I’ve also filmed extensively in Lebanon.
ADAM: Wow. Amazing. So you’re more like a global kind of citizen.
SORAYA: I try.
ADAM: Would you say Japan is your home?
SORAYA: I like to be based here, but I’m interested in living in many cities around the world. As long as I have my computer and my video camera, I can be anywhere.
ADAM: There’s that song about, “Wherever I lay my hat, that’s my home.” You grew up here and you’ve traveled around quite a lot. When you come back, how are those experiences, of kind of visiting different countries around the world? Have they changed the way you see Japan?
SORAYA: Whenever I come back to Japan I always feel like I’m re-seeing the country. When I came back from Brazil, it felt refreshing that I didn’t have to always watch my back.
Also, in Lebanon, things don’t necessarily work all the time. In Japan it’s nice that you don’t have to worry about your plans not being implemented. I appreciate that things work here and that infrastructure is solid.
ADAM: I know you’re very interested in sort of creative arts and so on. Could you compare differences, what you see in Japan, sort of the creative culture?
SORAYA: Each artist would be trying to incorporate into his or her artwork what concerns him or her. So for example, in Lebanon, I noticed the political situation did affect, quite a bit, artworks of artists. And that’s the main topic of my Lebanese documentary: how the political instability affects the artworks of these artists. In Japan, I’m not sure how politics affects their artworks.
ADAM: Can you tell for our kind of global audience: just give us a bit of an idea of your sort of job, or what you do, your aim, your kind of passion?
SORAYA: Sure. I make documentaries. I’ve been making documentaries ever since I was in university. My first documentary I made, I was in Afghanistan in the first year of my university. It was a very short documentary I made. I made the first mid-length documentary during the third year of university. And when that was selected at film festivals around the globe, then that’s when I thought, maybe I can make a living from making films. What I enjoy doing is making documentaries. I enjoy the whole process, from the research to the filming and the editing, and then having people view the documentary and having discussions about the documentary; and then using them as tools to raise funds so that the funds can go back to the people in the film, or the community.
ADAM: I think one of the . . . that was in . . . the dancer in I Am Happy actually got funding to go . . .
SORAYA: Yes the dancer is now studying to become a nurse, which is something he always wanted to become. So a group of friends in Brazil raised funds for his scholarship. Through screenings funds were raised to teach youths in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, art and music classes, a community initiative led by the graffiti artist in the documentary.
ADAM: Soraya, what would you say; what do you think makes your documentaries kind of special, or what kind of is their appeal?
SORAYA: I enjoy exploring intimate portraits of people and finding a connecting thread. What I usually like to do is show stories that are not usually covered in the news. So, for example, the Lebanese documentary: a lot of news coverage focus is on terrorism and religious fanaticism. That’s why I wanted to explore Lebanon through the eyes of artists.
With the documentary in Brazil, there’s a lot of negative media about those who live in the favelas. So that’s why I wanted to focus on a more balanced picture of what actually happens there, and . . . just ordinary people’s lives.
ADAM: Obviously you don’t want to kind of sound bigheaded or blow your own trumpet. And obviously you’ve kind of received scholarships and awards and so on. So people must see something very special in you. I’m wondering just what do you think that is?
SORAYA: I do like to focus on creative cultures and the dignity of people. I also want to challenge people’s misconceptions using my documentaries. So a lot of people ask me about Lebanon. You know, “Are the women veiled?” You know, it’s hard to know what happens in a certain country if you don’t go there. So not everyone has a chance to travel to all these different countries. And I don’t know when was the last time you went to Lebanon, but it’s probably changed quite a bit.
ADAM: Actually it was 2004, I think. So I’m dying to go back.
SORAYA: Oh, okay.
ADAM: Amazing. So you like to kind of raise people’s awareness, basically.
SORAYA: Yeah, and also I want the documentaries to create a space for discussion.
ADAM: If you were given a huge sort of budget, would you want to make like a film, like a full movie, or something? Something completely different?
SORAYA: I do enjoy making documentaries. If someone asked me to make a fiction film I would. It would take some time, but . . . I think I really find reality fascinating. A lot of people have very unique stories. I enjoy seeking out those stories.
ADAM: Where would you see yourself in sort of five, ten years down the road?
SORAYA: I want to continue doing what I’m doing, which is documentary filmmaking, and also use documentaries as educational tools. So sometimes I have screenings at universities, schools. And sometimes I lead documentary workshops where I would have students make their own documentaries, Maybe I could teach courses on documentary filmmaking.
ADAM: Now, if you imagine — they’re not our viewers, but people who are going to be kind of reading this on the Web site; they could be people who are thinking of moving to Japan, or they’re going to be transferring here for their job, or they’re working here and they’re sort of struggling a bit.
So, in terms of Japanese people, Japanese culture, can you think of some kind of tips about how to get on with them? And what’s different about kind of how Japan works?
SORAYA: That’s a huge question. Do you mean in business culture?
ADAM: Business, or it could mean just like making friends with Japanese people. Getting things done.
SORAYA: Well, I think you have to really listen carefully when you’re in Japan. Because a lot of people would not say no to you in your face. So I guess you would have to be aware of the difference signs of the word “no.” I guess in certain cultures it’s really important to have an opinion but I think in Japanese corporate culture, people really make an effort to maintain harmony.
ADAM: So it’s not so much about in, like, a meeting, coming out and saying . . . being really clever and really different from other people; it’s more just about keeping everyone happy?
SORAYA: Well, no. Actually, good ideas are always welcome. But I guess there’s always a time and place for strong opinions, I guess.
ADAM: Let me put it this way, then. Do you feel yourself changing when you go to Lebanon, or go to Brazil, or go somewhere?
SORAYA: Yeah. You have to adapt. You have to adapt to the setting. I mean, in the U.S., if you don’t state your opinions, they would think that you don’t have any. In Japan, if you always come up with opinions, they might think you’re boasting. It’s very different.
ADAM: I see. How about something maybe easier for people to kind of relate to? Like, in terms of building friendships, would you say that’s kind of different in Japan?
SORAYA: No, not so much friendships. I think people are slightly more private about their space here. So they wouldn’t necessarily invite you to their homes even if you’ve known them for years. It’s good to inform people not to misunderstand. It’s not because you’re not a good friend; it just means they are not used to having people in their homes.
ADAM: That’s right. OK, here’s an easy question, a very much more focused question. Something you love and something you hate about Japan?
SORAYA: The gap between the rich and the poor is not so large in Japan. Almost everyone receives a decent education. And it’s safe. That’s what I love the most. Everything works. And something I hate? I guess it might be changing now, but I know that the voice of young people who enter businesses are not necessarily esteemed, their opinions don’t count so much. You really have to work yourself up. And it’s not really about your qualifications or your opinions, but really, it’s about how long you’ve been in the company. I don’t know if someone like the founder of Facebook would thrive in Japan.
ADAM: Maybe that couldn’t have happened here.
SORAYA: Maybe not. I mean, I don’t want to be too pessimistic but I think it’s time to really look at a person’s talents and qualifications versus someone’s age.
ADAM: I see. What’s your passion? What would you say is your passion?
SORAYA: Yeah. Documentary filmmaking; traveling; deepening my understanding of different peoples; forming friendships. Capoeira. I’m doing capoeira.
ADAM: OK. And very last question. Do you have any kind of message to our audience?
SORAYA: That’s a hard one. I would say do your best to be an entrepreneur who thinks of sustainable environment. So, you know, there is a lot of focus on creating goods, products and all of that, to get ahead of the game. But at the end of the day, it would be great if GLOBIS can create entrepreneurs who can really think of the sustainability of our planet, and the resources of our planet, and understand the limits of consumerism.
ADAM: What a fantastic message. I hope people take heart and follow that message.
SORAYA: Well, it’s important, because it’s too easy to consume and not think about the consequences. Everything is becoming faster and more convenient, but at what cost?
ADAM: Umewaka Soraya-san, thank you so much.