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Konnichiwa Brazil – Interview with documentary maker Moritz Fortmann

Last year I introduced a new feature to my blog, Meet the Locals. The idea behind this is that São Paulo is home to a number of characters with some very interesting stories. By interviewing these guys for my blog, I want to hear more about the relationships they have with this sprawling, concrete jungle.

Well this time around, I’ve managed to get an interview with an outsider looking in from a very interesting perspective- Japanese immigration to Brazil.

For those of you who don’t know, before moving to São Paulo I’d already spent 4 years living over in the land of the rising sun. Back in 2014 I wrote a blog post on the less obvious similarities between both Brazilian and Japanese cultures  – and this eventually caught the eye of Moritz, a German documentary maker. After receiving an email from him in 2014, we met over a few beers to discuss the documentary he was making on Japanese immigration into Brazil.

A year later I got to see the finished version of Konnichiwa Brazil. I was genuinely blown away by it. I really felt like Moritz had managed to capture the essence of both cultures. Then when he was back in São Paulo a few weeks ago, I managed to catch up with him to ask what he had learnt from this experience.

Moritz, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Sure! I’m from Germany originally but I’ve lived abroad for about 15 years now – in the UK, South America, Central America and now in the US.  I’m a colourist, a visual artist, a documentary film maker and musician…you could say that I have a need to express myself creatively!


Drinks after the interview. From left to right, me, our friend Daniela and Moritz.

Sometime between 2010 and 2011 I visited São Paulo for work. My coworker at the time was a Japanese Brazilian who introduced me to this side of São Paulo that I had no idea about, and I was fascinated by it. I thought the subject would be so rich for a documentary, even though I knew very little about it back then.

So Konnichiwa Brazil was a journey of discovery for me and I ended up telling the story I learnt about while filming.

Would you say that what you expected to find was the same as what you got?

Yes and no. I think my initial vision of the documentary was a lot more superficial. I imagined that an exploration of the fusion between Japanese and Brazilian cultures might be…cooler and funkier. I mean, Japan and Brazil together already sound cool – so I almost expected the documentary would be like a pop piece. But actually, what started out as just a fun idea ended up opening out into an entire world that I wasn’t aware of.

I had a full time job whilst working on the documentary, so I did this all in my free time over a three year period. But I could have easily spent three more years on the subject. I could have dug so much deeper.

How would you describe the documentary to someone who hasn’t seen it?

Konnichiwa Brazil gives an insight into Japanese-Brazilian life. It explores the history of Japanese immigration, the different stages, the beauty, the struggle. It highlights different facets of Japanese-Brazilian culture today, how it’s expressed, lived and experienced. It tells a unique story of this particular incident in history whilst dealing with universal themes like immigration, integration and communication.

It obviously doesn’t cover everything, it isn’t a study. But it gives a slice of this not-widely-known side of Brazil.

Resultado de imagem para titi freak

Titi Freak

Who did you interview for the documentary?

I interviewed a graffiti artist whose work I was already familiar with, his name is Titi Freak. He was born in São Paulo and has a Japanese mother (second generation).  He expresses his background in his art, so I thought that he would have been a cool person to talk to…and he really was.

I spoke to Ricardo Ohtake, who is the son of Tomie Ohtake. Tomie Ohtake moved from Japan to Brazil in1936 to become one of Brazil’s most important artists..So Ricardo was able to give me a very unique and interesting impression of Japanese life in Brazil. Another thing I thought was very interesting was the Yuba community. They were one of the first settlements of the Japanese in Brazil, located in the state of São Paulo.

This was amazing to see. On the one hand, they still live very traditionally, but on the other they’ve also integrated a lot too. In São Paulo, you’d maybe expect that the Japanese community would have had to assimilate more; but on a farm I was surprised by how much they have integrated. Andrew, after living in Japan yourself, you will know that the Japanese tend not to be so physical when greeting people. But in the Yuba community they hug and they kiss. It was beautiful to see. Interestingly their Japanese isn’t that great anymore, and their Portuguese isn’t perfect either; it’s kind of a hybrid.

I also interviewed a taiko drummer, a Japanese dancer and the director of museum of the Japanese integration. So I got to talk to a real mix of individuals for the project.

Resultado de imagem para japanese immigration brazil

What has the response to the documentary been so far?
It has been received very positively. Retrospectively, I think it was pretty naive to think that I, as a German, could create a documentary about the Japanese living in Brazil! But I really tried to approach the project with an open mind and heart, and in doing so I found that people really opened up to me. I mean, I had very little time here to film this in Brazil and sometimes I’d call or email people out of the blue and they would say; ‘no problem, come by tomorrow!”

Across the board, all of them were this way. And they really helped me to tell the story. The feedback I’ve been given is that the people I’d made the story about feel it reflects them, which is amazing.

And how many hours of footage did you shoot for your documentary?

Probably 30 hours. I made 2 trips to Brazil and one to Japan. It was a lot of footage!

I guess when foreigners think of Brazil, they tend to think of cities like Rio and Salvador- not necessarily São Paulo. Do you think that people were welcoming to you making a documentary here because you were making it in and around this city?

Not necessarily. I think the people participating in the project liked the fact I told this particular story, about Japanese-Brazilian life and culture. São Paulo plays a big part in this story as it is home to the biggest community of Japanese-Brazilians. I think people were excited to share their stories because it just has not been told that much, especially not from this angle, focusing on culture,  art and contemporary issues as opposed to history only.

What memories have you taken away from the project?

Making the documentary was a beautiful experience. I was overwhelmed by how welcoming and helpful everyone was. It was really special, something I will never forget. It also deepened my love for Brazil and São Paulo in particular. It’s such a diverse city, diverse in people, music, art, food, architecture and lifestyles. It may not be love at first sight; the concrete jungle can be intimidating. But the more you get to know it the more fascinated you’ll end up being.

For more information, check out the Konnichiwa Brazil Facebook page.

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