Most activists know Iara Lee as the passenger on the MV Mavi Marmara whose crew managed to smuggle footage of the May 30, 2010 attack by Israeli commandos past security personnel. When the ship was raided and nine passengers killed, Lee was completing a six-year film project that had put her in some of the world’s most dangerous places. From the slums of Sao Paolo to Nigerian rebel camps, over 5 continents and 35 cities, she interviewed people who were risking their lives to improve the lives of others.
What sent Lee on this trip was the U.S. invasion of Iraq. “In 2003 on the eve of the Iraq War,” she says, “I embarked on a journey to better understand a world increasingly embroiled in conflict and, as I saw it, heading for self-destruction.” What she found were growing numbers of people with a clear message: peace can’t be bought with guns. Her fourth documentary Cultures of Resistance premiered in Manhattan on April 27.
Lee’s cinematic sweep began with scenes of International Peace Day being celebrated in Sierra Leone, Paris, Argentina, Afghanistan, and the U.S. We follow her to Brazil, where Kayapó Indians are protesting Eletrobrás’ proposed damming of the Xingu River. “When we do something,” says a woman with a machete in one hand and a baby on her hip, “we do it openly, not behind the back like the government.”
Nigerian activist-musician Femí Kuti says he is still singing about the problems his father Felá was singing about 47 years ago, such as children being poisoned by polluted land and water, a result of oil drilling. “Can you blame us,” he asks, “for turning against our government when it hangs peaceful protestors like Ken Saro-Wiwa?” In Congo, where the demand for precious ore incites armed conflict, women organize to prevent violence against women. “Rape of our land and rape of our women,” says a Congolese activist, “are inextricably linked. They brutalize one person and everyone packs their bags. It’s the cheapest way to force people to move and open the land to mining.”
In the Middle East, Lee talked to Iranian rap musicians and graffiti artists, a Syrian calligrapher, performers of the martial art Capoeira, and Palestinian kids learning photography at the Al-Jana refugee camp. In Rio de Janeiro, political cartoonist Carlos Latuff admits, “I don’t presume to change peoples’ lives, but I do my share as an artist.” He describes creating a billboard protesting police brutality that was painted over during the night.
Lee takes us next to Colombia, where César Lopez has crafted a guitar in the shape of an AK-47 assault rifle. He explains that if a gun can become a popular guitar maybe soldiers can become music-makers. Medellín is a city once famous for drug violence, but its annual poetry festival draws more than 150,000 people. Festival director Fernando Rendón says, “In a country so drained of war, poetry shows that the whole world’s problems are one, that suffering is everywhere, but that hope also lives.”
That’s the conclusion Lee reached at the project’s end. “We don’t have drone planes, missiles, or white phosphorous,” she says, “but we have our freedom to resist oppression. To sing, dance, and express how we feel about world politics. Global solidarity is the only thing that can promote real change.”
Of Korean descent, Lee studied filmmaking in Brazil and moved to New York City in 1989, where she founded the mixed-media company Caipirinha Productions. Her first documentary, Synthetic Pleasures (1995), treated the social impact of technology; her second, Modulations (1998), traced the evolution of electronic music. “While both were praised,” says Lee, “I wanted to transcend art for art’s sake and use my medium to raise awareness of injustice. My next film, Beneath the Borqa (2002), was the result of interviewing Afghan women refugees, who had suffered under the Taliban’s gender apartheid.”
Lee was living in Lebanon in 2006 when Israel invaded that country. “Feeling and seeing this indiscriminant violence from a state that is heavily backed by my adopted country, the U.S., cemented my decision to find examples of creative resistance, to use my camera to show how regular people are standing up to the world’s most powerful interests.” In many ways, a film about using art to resist oppression couldn’t be more timely. “We see with the events in Egypt and Tunisia,” says Lee, “the so-called Arab Spring, that when people decide they’ve had enough—enough state terrorism, enough despotic governments—things will change. It’s a chain reaction.”
Her film also shows that women are often the boldest change-makers because they have so much at stake. In Liberia, Rwanda, and Congo, they’ve seen their daughters raped, their sons recruited as soldiers, their husbands killed. But rather than surrender, they get organized, even, as in the case of Liberia, get elected president.
Shooting Cultures of Resistance in police states, where journalists are fair game, took courage and ingenuity. Lee and her crew crossed into Syria in the middle of the night, got a friendlier reception from militants in Nigeria than from the government, and talked their way into (and out of) Brazil’s notorious favelas (slums). Which brings us back to the deadly Israeli raid on the MV Mavi Marmara in May 2010.
The Gaza Freedom Flotilla remains for Lee an inspiring example of civil disobedience. “No matter how frustrated we get, violence is never going to get us where we want to be,” she says. “We need to stick to the tradition of nonviolence and, as activists, be very disciplined and organized. Even Hamas said that we accomplished more with the flotilla than they had with rockets.” Though Lee’s crew succeeded in smuggling raw footage of the attack past security guards, she found no U.S. media willing to broadcast it. “We were surprised. I offered it, but the mainstream media ignored my offer. When we presented the footage at the UN, Israel lodged an official complaint. Ironically, that gave us the media spotlight we couldn’t get otherwise.”
When she presents her documentary worldwide, Lee challenges audiences to take action: “We want to snap people out of their comfort zones…. If they are consumers, they are complicit. They use the ‘blood gadgetry’ in their cell phones, iPads, and laptops. We are all directly linked to the extraction of minerals, especially coltan, in Congo. But the Congolese don’t expect us to stop using our cell phones. They just want something back, given that their country holds 80% of the world’s coltan reserves.”
There are many ways people can support grassroots organizations, such as cultures of resistance and others profiled in the film. They can contribute by teaching “history from below” through the Zinn Education Project or joining Clowns Without Borders to entertain in areas of conflict. They can help enforce international law by interning with the Center for Constitutional Rights or organize a poetry reading with help from Poets Against War.
Says Lee, “We want to give activist-artists and peacemakers specific ways they can plug into a global network. At this point, for me filmmaking is a tool rather than a career. Through the Caipirinha Foundation, I can help support artists as well as create art. It’s satisfying to be able to give back, not just to use people’s stories.”
Lisa Mullenneaux is a journalist and publisher based in Manhattan and Woodstock, New York. She is the author of Ni Una Bomba Mas: Vieques vs. US Navy, Sleep Cheap in New York, and Vermont Antiquing. Photo 1 is footage from inside MV Mavi Marmara as it was being attacked by Israeli commandos; Photo 2 is of the film crew with Iara in the center.