She was 3 when she first stood in the spotlight — on the stage of Tokyo’s National Noh Theater — as the apple of her father’s eye.
More recently (all of 21 years later), she received acclaim at the International Film Festival in Miami for her documentary “Street Witness.” Soraya Umewaka: gentle but strong, passionate yet focused, definitely someone to watch.
She has been back in Japan just a year, after a yearlong fellowship from Princeton University to document on camera the lives of youths in the favelas (slums) of Rio, Brazil.
Umewaka acknowledges the experience as an enormous privilege, because “it allowed the perfect transition from university to the real world.”
She chose to study comparative politics at Princeton because with a Japanese father and a Lebanese mother, she has always been interested in the impact politics has on people’s lives.
“As a child, I spent every summer in Lebanon. Seeing street children in Beirut, I always tried to imagine myself in their situation. The disparity struck hard: I’d be heading to the beach with my family while they’d be selling beach balls to survive.”
Most people of privilege, she observed, appeared not to want to notice the problem and did so largely by employing a complex process of denial. Such deliberate indifference, she believes now, is “more dangerous than blind hatred.”
It is this indifference that Umewaka is now trying to combat as a social artist through the medium of film documentary.
“If you receive unconditional love as a child, as I did, it is so much easier to develop as a human being. If you absorb only negativity and hatred, it’s far harder to integrate and grow.”
Her mother, Madeleine, works with refugees. She’s also a networker, “the kind of person who likes to bring people together, which in large part explains why I’m here with you.”
Of Noh actor Naohiko Umewaka, who has done much to open the theatrical form to the West, she says: “As a 14th generation Noh actress, I am extremely privileged to have been part of this heritage. Still, my father has always said it is important for my brother and I to do what my brother and I want to do.”
Umewaka got interested in cinematic documentary in her first year at Princeton, as a result of visiting Kabul in Afghanistan, where she was an intern at an NGO.
“My interpreter — a remarkable doctor — proved my link to what was going on in his country. He talked freely into the tiny camera my father had given me as a gift. Editing what I had filmed back at university, I quickly became immersed in that world.”
Later, she filmed Bhutanese refugees in Nepal, people who had been expelled from Bhutan (of which they spoke with great nostalgia) because they were of Nepalese origin.
“I like to give people a voice, allowing them to speak for themselves.”
In Miami, the premiere of “Street Witness” (made during Umewaka’s third year at Princeton) created quite a stir and enabled her to make vital contacts in the industry.
“My mother came with me, thrilled to stand on the red carpet. I was really happy she could be there because she helped me come this far.”
Umewaka spent two months in Quito, Ecuador, on a scholarship awarded by Princeton, gathering material for the documentary: “testimony from street youths, police officers, and a former vice president.”
She worked as an intern at a center for street kids, first establishing trust and then turning on her camera. With no agenda, she chose to watch and listen to their stories and opinions. The only anxiety they displayed concerned how long she was going to stay and how much they should become attached.
Umewaka considers it important to access and record such stories. It’s so easy for people in developed countries to forget the value of things. “In Japan, young people are encouraged to be consumers, which fails to give meaning to our lives and is also unsustainable.”
“Street Witness,” which reflects the growing crisis of displaced children by focusing on the problem in Cambodia, Laos and Ecuador, is narrated by a young man who formerly lived on the streets.
The situation in Ecuador, she says, proved relatively straightforward compared to South Asia where it is not poverty alone that drives children onto the streets. In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge systematically destroyed the family structure. Taught to hate their parents, children became so detached that their families were afraid of them. Now these children are themselves parents.
“Laos — where kids are trucked into the countryside and dumped only to return on foot — was different again,” she recalls. “I was looking at how government affects the efficiency of humanitarian aid.” U mewaka says there are 100 million street children on the streets worldwide. Living rough, they are exposed to drugs, violence, sexual predators, labor abuse and human trafficking. Yet still, in her experience, their spirits shine through.
“I really admire their strength and resilience. They’re incredibly street smart.”
Her second film since graduation is “Eu Sou Feliz (I Am Happy).” Granted another fellowship, she spent a year learning Portuguese and then headed for Brazil. The project began in the north, but since the area was unstable she moved to the slums of Rio de Janeiro.
“A good place to learn the samba,” she comments, grinning.
It was at a samba class in a Rio slum, she explains more seriously, that she forged relationships with Brazilians who became her closest friends — samba dancers, maids, policewomen, a graffiti artist, a hip-hopper.
“Living near a very wealthy area, we looked at what equality of wealth and the concept of happiness really means. My friends related their life stories and talked about how they see themselves in relation to the rich. Maids, for example, worked in homes where children assumed the correctness of being served by the poor.”
Right now, Umewaka is editing footage. “It’s like working on a painting, applying color and texture.” (And indeed she does add her own brush strokes to film!) The next stage is to add sound.
Umewaka plans that all proceeds of “I Am Happy” go toward funding educational scholarships.
So what is next? Submitting “Street Witness” to film festivals around the world. And finding postproduction funding for “I Am Happy.”
“I want it ready for celebrations of the 100-year-anniversary between Japan and Brazil.”
Now the filming of her next project is nearing completion, inspired by a maid (in “I Am Happy”) declaring herself to be truly happy, and then asking, “Do you think my happiness is false?”
“It made me question the nature of happiness, especially here in Japan. So that is my latest film, documenting the concept of happiness in this country and the importance of slowing down.
“Some Japanese friends say they feel a pit of emptiness, perhaps because consumerism emphasizes that we never have enough, and discourages us from giving. It’s in giving that I feel most alive.”
It has proved hard to find a middle-aged Japanese salaried worker willing to be filmed. But now she has a 24-year-old man willing to be completely open, lined up in her sights.
Umewaka insists that she is not imposing her own moral judgments when she shoots and cuts her films. Nor is she seeking to give answers, but rather raise important questions.