Through the Lens of an Activist
Illustration by Mihaela Angelova
As a filmmaker and activist, Iara Lee has dedicated her life to proving that art can inspire positive change and that every artist can be a tool for social justice. Learn more about her challenges, experiences and travels across the globe, worthy of a film themselves.
Tell us a bit about yourself and what inspires you.
I am a filmmaker and activist from Brazil. Art has always been a huge part of my life. I have been working in the arts and culture world since the 1980s, starting with the international film festival I used to organize in Sao Paulo, Brazil. I later got very involved in the underground music scene. But I began to see filmmaking as a tool for social justice when I experienced a political epiphany in 2000, when Afghan refugees in Peshawar, Pakistan, shot Kalashnikovs and threw stones at my film crew, demanding real change and screaming they were fed up with journalists, photographers, and filmmakers. Then, living through 9/11 and its aftermath furthered my politicization. Around 2003, with the invasion of Iraq, I started becoming more proactive. I was very disturbed by what I was seeing and by humanity’s penchant for self-destruction. I wanted to spend time in the countries that were being demonized by the Western media. At the same time, I also became much more involved with issues of Palestinian rights and I was based in Lebanon when Israel cluster bombed the country in 2006. All of these things contributed to me becoming more political and starting to make films that link arts and culture to human rights issues.
Even while I became more focused on the struggle for peace with justice, my interest in the arts never diminished. Instead, I ended up documenting how creative people played vital roles in social movements that were speaking out against war and working to combat injustices. Through this new lens, I started to see art, and particularly films, in a new way.
Films can provide hope and inspiration. They can document revolutionary acts already taking place or they can inspire new acts of courage and compassion.
I have seen this first-hand many times and in many countries.
What got you into filmmaking? Do you see it as a medium that makes big topics easy to comprehend by the wider public?
I think that the accessibility and immediacy of film is one of the strengths of the medium. In these times when we all have very short attention spans, it is difficult to get people to sit down and read a book full of deep analysis. In comparison, while it is still challenging, it is easier to get an audience to sit down and watch a movie. So it presents a unique opportunity to communicate.
Even a short film can educate and possibly even communicate the equivalent of what some people might take from a thick book! Each second of screen time can become a powerful second, possibly even a life-changing one.
And film is a dynamic medium: you have visuals, sound, music, intellectual and emotional content. So yes, I think it’s a great way to get people to pay attention to topics they might consider too off-the-radar, too complicated or too overwhelming. At the same time, a lot of my films move from scene to scene in a way that tries to be more poetic than linear. I am comfortable presenting disparate perspectives that many may see as ambiguity. I am fine with presenting people who have different viewpoints and letting those in the audience make up their own minds about what they think. Sometimes my team tells me to make things more straightforward! But the filmmakers and artists that I like best are often not the ones that are “easiest” to understand. I love that James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake exists.
Sometimes you had to live among the communities you document to truly understand their problems. How do locals perceive your ideas and causes?
“Only through time, time is conquered,” as T. S. Eliot has taught me. Some communities are eager to express themselves, while other communities are reluctant to open up to outsiders. Some religions prescribe modesty and even prohibit exposure, as in the case of Pakistan, a Muslim country where women are advised not to speak on camera. But after spending a month up in the mountains with porters that we were documenting there, it was a great gift to be invited into their homes after the expedition to talk to their wives and daughters on camera. I think my greatest talent as a filmmaker is my ability to speak many languages, to feel comfortable in different cultures, and to blend in. After you spend time with people and share meals, you can sometimes speak about themes that might at first be considered thorny. But even when you just start getting to know someone, it’s amazing how often people want to talk. Most of the time, people feel compelled to open their hearts and minds. That has been a blessing and it is how I have been able to document so many different issues in so many different countries. I have made films all over the world: Burkina Faso, Palestine, Western Sahara, Solomon Islands, Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, and Pakistan, among other places. I mainly focus on off-the-beaten-path locations about which most audiences have little information — or only inaccurate and partial information.
As much as possible, I like to let people speak for themselves on film. Clearly, a director has a lot of power in how they frame an issue and how different people are represented on screen, so this is a challenge.
But it has been gratifying for me when the people in my films tell me that they think their viewpoints have been fairly expressed. It takes work for people to develop that feeling of trust and sense of comfort.
Can you think of a movie that you made and got a positive effect on a community that needed urgent change?
As an artist in any medium — whether you are writing a book, or producing a song, or painting a picture, or making a film — you rarely have the satisfaction of seeing immediate results.
You put something out into the world, you try to educate people and spread awareness, and you might get some feedback from viewers who talk about the impact they felt. But overall, you generally cannot know the full effect that your contribution might have.
On the other hand, in the case of my filmmaking, I have sometimes been involved in projects that were directly related to activist campaigns and that played at least some role in how those ongoing campaigns unfolded. In May 2010, I was a passenger on the Mavi Marmara, a ship in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla that was attacked by Israeli forces while trying to deliver humanitarian aid to the blocked Gaza Strip. Nine passengers were killed and a tenth later died from his injuries. My crew successfully hid and retained footage of the raid, and I later screened that footage at the United Nations. This became a major international incident that focused attention on the illegal blockade of Gaza.
Another way that we are trying to connect our films to a more direct outcome is by linking them to our foundation, the Cultures of Resistance Network. The foundation supports artists and activists who are working to promote social justice and ecology. As just one example, I made a film called BURKINABÈ RISING: the art of resistance in Burkina Faso, which showcases creative nonviolent resistance in Burkina Faso, a landlocked country in West Africa. Since the film’s release in 2018, the Cultures of Resistance Network has given grants to a number of community organizations and artists in Burkina Faso that are working to defend and expand human rights, from women’s rights to economic justice to food sovereignty.
More recently, I’ve set up the Creative Activism Awards, where we give awards to recognize people we have been involved with in an ongoing way, through our filmmaking and beyond. The award provides some support to help them with their projects and encourages the recipients to continue and expand their important work. So far, we have given awards to people in countries including Lesotho, Malawi, Pakistan, Mauritania and Bolivia.
Do you have a movie that has been rejected because of political reasons? When and why?
I have definitely encountered rejection, censorship, and sabotage. I have been put in jail, had visas canceled, endured deportations and bans, and run up against powerful governments that do not want my films to reach a wide audience. Especially when it comes to the Israel/Palestine conflict, the world gets divided. Likewise, the Syrian war has been a proxy war with participants and observers taking passionate, explosive positions. But the clearest example of ongoing contention around one of my films has probably been with LIFE IS WAITING: referendum and resistance in Western Sahara.
The government in Morocco is very aggressive about trying to control the narrative around their occupation of Western Sahara and numerous film festivals, organizations, and universities were blackmailed and forced to cancel planned screenings of the film. The Moroccan government threatened to withdraw funding for Middle Eastern Studies departments and to stop sponsoring organizations that showed the film. Sometimes threats came from other countries that are supportive of the Moroccan government. Some festivals and organizations were undeterred and went forward with screenings in the face of pressure to cancel. Whatever has happened, I have remained committed to spreading awareness of the Sahrawis’ nonviolent struggle for self-determination and I am gratified every time I receive feedback from an audience member who says they had never heard of Western Sahara but have learned about it from watching the film. The journey revolves around patience, resilience, and perseverance. It takes incredible determination to not give up!
Your films take place at various locations around the world. How do you cope with this life on the road, do you have a single place where you return after finishing a project?
Over the last two decades, I’ve had wings in my legs and have lived a very nomadic lifestyle, never establishing a true home. I enjoy documenting cultural diversity, so I have lived all over the world. However, owing to the pandemic, I have been quarantined in Saudi Arabia for almost a year. This is the longest I have been in one country since I was 19 years old, when I started my exploration. I am actually enjoying this experience of living a disciplined, sedentary life. For the first time, I have been able to train and become a beginner triathlete — something I could not have done while perpetually moving and filming. For the brain to keep its vibrancy, a strong and healthy body is necessary. This time in lockdown has provoked a paradigm shift and reassessment of my life.
Now I am even considering embracing sedentariness as my next lifestyle — as a way of simplifying, reducing my personal carbon footprint, and becoming more grounded. Several of my recent films have focused on agroecology, organic farming and food justice. I would like to get my own hands in the soil and I have considered going back to my home country of Brazil to start a farm project that would allow me to do this. But who knows? The future is always uncertain and perhaps I can combine sedentariness with nomadism and live a less drastic life.
Do you have some sort of a dream location or a particular problem you want to document but know that it’s either too dangerous or impossible?
I do not have any specific location that I have been pining to film from. I try to keep myself open to the possibilities rather than locking myself into a predetermined itinerary. However, I know that there are places where I can no longer travel and that I may not have future opportunities to document. Kashmir and Palestine are examples of places that are near and dear to my heart. But we all know that the Indian and Israeli states have been extremely restrictive in controlling people’s movements and limiting the access of those who are critical of their policies. Whether I will have a chance to film in the West Bank or Kashmir is contingent on ending the Israeli and Indian occupations. Will I see this happen during my lifetime? I don’t know.
The world is full of problems that need immediate action, which ones do you think are more urgent than others?
I do not really look at the world as having a hierarchy of problems. The important thing for each of us is to look at the world around us, find the issues that resonate personally and start figuring out how to get involved in making positive change.
Many times, that starts in our own communities and the issues will be different based on where we live. But, of course, there are also common challenges that we all face: ecological devastation, climate change, war profiteering, state terrorism, inequality. I believe in making connections and seeing how these things interrelate. Often we might start with one problem or local issue, but as we expand our awareness, we will see how these are usually connected with many overarching themes. I make films about other countries not to provide outsiders with glimpses of exotic lands but rather to expand our sense of solidarity and to spread awareness about how our struggles are interrelated, across borders and even continents.
Can you tell us more about “creative resistance” — described by you as the artists’ tool to build a more just and peaceful world.
A lot of times, we think about politics in a very limited way: as elections, decisions made by heads of state, or formal protest marches. But what I have learned in my travels is that people are engaging in politics in their own communities in many different ways — through music and art, fashion and dance, in community gardens and cross-border festivals. There are countless ways to get involved. When I talk about “creative resistance,” I am hoping to expand our sense of the political and the possibilities for public engagement. There is no one way to be involved. We can all contribute in different ways based on our skills and interests.
Everyone can become a tool for social justice. What we eat, how we dress, where we spend money — everything has a political impact that we should be aware of and consider when we act.
In your opinion, when does inaction turn into activism?
For me, the key moment is when someone joins together with other people. Posting our outrage on social media is fine, but things really start to change when we get together with others, explore common projects and gain a sense of what is possible when we act collectively. It is very important to go beyond clicking ‘like’, ‘sad’, or ‘upset’ buttons on social media. We need to get out and about in proactive ways!
To be informed is not enough — to merely criticize and condemn won’t change situations on the ground. We need to take action that provokes the change we want to see.
We understand that you self-fund all of your projects. Do you think that this helps you to show your unique point of view — without the limits that other filmmakers face when working with brands and sponsors?
My film existence revolves around my independence, as the subjects I choose are confrontational, politically risky and fringe. My films are not on the radar of the mainstream media, so there is very little commercial appeal for them. I don’t see how I could survive if I had to fundraise for my grassroots films. I engage in commercial activities to make money and keep my filmmaking free of commercialism and political concessions.
But even if you can produce a film by yourself — which more and more independent filmmakers have been able to do, thanks to inexpensive digital cameras and sophisticated editing tools that can be downloaded onto regular laptop — you still have to deal with distribution and with all of the questions of how you are going to get your film in front of viewers. One needs to produce, distribute and do outreach independently. To make a film is just 10% of the work. The real work starts when the film is ready and many filmmakers don’t realize that or take it into consideration. But there is no point in making a film if you are not prepared to put triple the effort into distributing and exhibiting it!
Platforms like Netflix share all kinds of docu-fiction movies for the masses who often depict controversial topics and can be misleading. What do you think about this trend?
There are films that use dramatization techniques that are very sensitive and well done. There are others, as you say, that can be misleading. But I don’t see this as an issue that is limited to “docu-fiction.” All films have a point of view and any film, whether it is a documentary or a purely fictional story, can be framed in a way that sheds light on difficult truths or that avoids and obscures them. All artists must struggle with this and
all audiences must be active and reflective, so that they are critically engaging with the information they are receiving and not merely passively accepting it.
In 2020 traveling became harder than ever, do you have a direct answer to the question of how to promote solidarity in those times if we are unable to go somewhere and help personally?
There are many ways that people can show compassion without traveling far from home. You don’t always have to go someplace else. You can start in your own community.
I would say that the pandemic is presenting difficulties but also giving us opportunities to turn negatives into positives. With my filmmaking, for example, I’ve had to deal with film festivals shutting down and premieres being cancelled, but I’ve tried to turn it into a positive by doing film releases and Q&As online. Sometimes, these virtual events reach a far larger audience than in-person festivals can, so I have managed to find a silver lining during this challenging time. My film K2 AND THE INVISIBLE FOOTMEN has been watched online by more than 200,000 people! It is hard to duplicate that in an offline scenario. So I’ve realized we need a combination of online and offline events to reach the widest possible audience and have the biggest impact. I just keep on going, adapting to the circumstances at hand and making the most I can, within limitations and restrictions.
In your opinion, what is the future of activism?
People should be involved in the critical issues that face us. I’m looking to find a multiplicity of inspiring examples and hoping that people will see things that resonate with them and motivate them to act. Certainly, we want to sharpen our understanding and analysis of global problems. But it is important to remember that we do not need to have all of the answers in order to start acting to create positive change. It is about doing something, rather than freezing and doing nothing. A long journey always starts with the first steps.
What do you currently work on and what are your future plans?
We have many films in post-production, including EXISTENCE IS RESISTANCE: The Sami in Russia and THE SAMI SONG OF SURVIVAL: indigenous activism on the northern frontier. We have another upcoming film on eco-feminism in Guinea Bissau, as well as an ongoing series of film dispatches from Malawi. I also recently shot some footage about environmental challenges here in Saudi Arabia. Beyond my filmmaking projects, I remain very active with the Cultures of Resistance Network, which is constantly giving grants to grassroots organizations. So there is never a dull second and it has been a nonstop flurry of activity. But hopefully I will be able to transition to hands-on farming and inspire young people to take an interest in the basics of life: earth, sustenance, health and wellness.
I feel we need to go back to the basics. We have allowed our lives to become too saturated with science and technology.
Instead of becoming smarter, we became more destructive — and self-destructive — to the point where we eat poisonous food and live synthetic and robotic existences. Coronavirus was a wake up call: we don’t need so much. We can simplify and reduce redundancies. That is what Mother Nature needs: people with smaller ambitions who focus on a light-weight carbon footprint existence in order for this world to survive. Many of us have lived very carbon-heavy, onerous lives. We need to RRRR: rethink, reduce, recycle, and reinvent more than ever if we hope to backtrack the madness of capitalism that is devouring us alive!