Interview with Iara Lee
On Cultures of Resistance
We finally found a moment to have a chat with filmmaker Iara Lee. Enjoy—

How is life at Cultures of Resistance HQ? Do you care to let us in on what you have been up to recently?

           IARA LEE
There is no formal headquarters for Cultures of Resistance. Our team members are spread through different parts of the world, in different time zones. This model makes a lot more sense sense to me than being limited to an office in New York City with American staff, as we used to. Now we operate in a truly global fashion and with a very international crew, so we have the ability to communicate in many different languages and we can circumvent some of the cultural imperialism of English language.
           The only problem with this model is that it forces me to work 24/7. As soon as one team member goes to bed, another wakes up and they all have urgent questions that I need to answer! We are very small organization and very interdependent. It takes a very well-orchestrated action plan with lots of protocols in order for all our tasks to run smoothly. I am very proud of how much we get done considering our size and structure.
           In terms of my activities, my life is intertwined with filmmaking, grant-making, travel to places we are filming or screening, and field work to research ways to collaborate with artists and activists in the global South. We work to support local individuals and organizations around the world (mainly in neglected conflict areas) that are engaged in creative resistance. One exciting effort that we have undertaken recently is the 'Cultures of Resistance Awards'. These are awards with a small cash prize of $1,000USD, designed to support engaged work or creative organizing that is connected to positive social change. We have given out hundreds of these awards so far, including to amazing photographers in Iraq and Kenya, fisherwomen in Gaza, people rescuing endangered animals in Brazil, muralists in Sudan, Indigenous rights advocates in India, and so on. My hope is to spread seeds of encouragement. The awardees are a really inspiring collection of people.

Have the situations of Covid-19, the Ukraine-Russian war, and this most recent set of dangerous heat waves affected any change on your current creative projects?

              IARA LEE
Our organization had moved online before Covid forced many to do so, and we had already moved away from the model of having a physical office when Covid saga came. But our film distribution was affected by changes happening in the world. For example, our film 'Stalking Chernobyl: exploration after apocalypse' was originally scheduled to premiere in dozens of cities in the spring of 2020, and we had also lined up a ton of festivals and community events that year. However, because of Covid-19, we had to radically rework the whole plan. Our film had a virtual premiere and we started hosting on-line events.
           Even though it was not what we expected, we managed to turn the negative into positive—which is something we try to make our modus operandi. Going virtual allowed us to reach thousands of people who may not have been able to see the film otherwise. It allowed us to connect with audience members all over the world via social media and YouTube and Zoom Q&As. And it allowed many more people from different geographies to watch the film, as offline physical screenings are normally at a specific time and place, reducing the number of people that can attend.
           Then, earlier this year, Russia's invasion and occupation of Ukraine thrust the Chernobyl nuclear plant into the headlines in a new way. We have colleagues and crew members in the area, so of course we have been very concerned about them and their families. And these events have changed how audiences perceive the documentary as well. When I shot this film just a few years ago, the nuclear catastrophe was rarely in the news anymore. But when the Chernobyl nuclear plant fell under Russian control for several weeks at the beginning of the year, experts raised alarms about the risk of a nuclear meltdown or hazardous waste escaping. Electricity to the plant was intermittently cut off and there was shelling in the surrounding area, creating a maelstrom of potential risks. Russia has since retreated from the Exclusion Zone, but its occupation was a reminder about why Chernobyl remains relevant. We like to think of the Chernobyl area as frozen in the past, but the situation and the place experience constant change, just like the natural environment. In a way, we are like that at Cultures of Resistance too, always responding to change.
           In the prototypal issue of Becoming magazine we discussed one of your earliest works entitled "Modulations", a stunning recollection of rave culture, a really beautiful testimony to the vibe and essence of that form of counterculture. Alongside this work was Synthetic Pleasures, another beautiful and impactful exploration that we were deeply moved by. Following this, your approach to filmmaking seems to shift away from more romantic or abstract explorations of culture, to more direct, foot-on-the-ground political, investigative or activistic journalism. Could you begin by recalling for us, here, how you felt at that time, and what inspired this move?

               IARA LEE
In 2000, I made a short film about the Afghan women living under the Taliban. The level of oppression was shocking to me. Later, the United States occupied Afghanistan, using liberation as an excuse. But ironically, even after they spent hundreds of billions of dollars of US taxpayers' money, Afghanistan ended up back under Taliban control recently. The film I made back then could have been shot this year, as the situation went back to how it was in 2000.
           In 2003, with the US invasion of Iraq, I became increasingly disturbed by the lies of the US government to justify the occupation of Iraq. I became more and more interested in the countries that were often maligned by Western media. I wanted to better understand their perspectives. As I traveled more in the Middle East and North Africa, I became deeply involved in issues such as the Palestinian fight for freedom.
           Then in 2006, I was in Lebanon when it was struck by Israeli cluster bombs. That event, in combination with the culmination of the prior experiences, really contributed to my increasing politicization. My filmmaking began to focus more and more on highlighting people who are finding innovative and courageous ways to stand up to injustice. So you see this trajectory reflected in my films.
           But at the same time that my work has gotten more political, I actually don't like to make a big distinction between artistic and activist work. For me, what's interesting is how they're connected. That's why I'm always focused on creative resistance, how people are using art and creativity to make a difference. This is something I see all over the world. The individuals and groups that we work with at Cultures of Resistance really embody this principle. For so many of them, their art grows out of a desire to enact change within their communities. Their art brings them closer to the challenges faced by the people around them. And I believe that films that document how people face social challenges are not just political in nature. They can also be important works of culture—because hope is a form of culture.
           This kind of filmmaking is indeed a difficult pursuit, and it brings you into constant proximity with intense struggles and hardship. Almost 2 decades into this transition, you continue to work non-stop, so is it safe to say that you continue to find motivation to go on even though times are hard? (Could you talk a little about what motivates you?)
           When I spend time in the communities that are most impacted by issues of occupation, war, corruption, oppression, I'm always inspired to find people who are not content to be dispirited or pessimistic. Even in the most difficult conditions, there are people who are using their creativity to fight back against the tsunami of negative forces. These are people who are making music, art, dance, poetry, and film that takes on critical social issues. These are farmers, who are pushing back against corporate agribusiness by reviving models of agroecology. These are designers and agitators and people from all walks of life who are using whatever talents they have to promote a better future. This is tremendously inspiring to me, and it is what I try to document in my films. So I would say that putting myself into proximity with intense struggles actually ends up being a source of hope. It is when you stay removed and disengaged and only reading bad news that you open the door for despair and the cynical idea that one cannot do anything meaningful—at which point life just revolves around me me me.

As a team starting our own creative political journey, we admire your continued determination, as it helps console us on one matter in particular. In the age of Capitalist Realism, it can often feel as though creative efforts are so easily undermined. Do you believe that our efforts as independent, political creatives can still affect change in the world?

              IARA LEE
I believe that people should take action because they are motivated by their ethics and moral beliefs--and because they have a passion to protect values that are dear to them and to combat the injustice that they see everywhere. Sometimes, we might also be motivated by outrage, but I feel that this too ultimately comes from a place of passion and compassion. When I see art and other creative efforts that come from those places, I feel that it can be very uplifting. In terms of the impact we might have, it is there, but the tangible results may not happen within our lifetime. And yet, we must persevere as we think of next generations that will inherit the trees we plant seeds for. We must continue to be strategic and purposeful in promoting paradigm shifts. Many times a creative effort can send forth ripples that are only felt years later or continents away. People can take inspiration from artwork without the creator ever knowing it. I do believe we can affect change in the world, but the process is often indirect and intangible. We must focus on acting with integrity and empathy and creativity, with the faith that we can contribute to something positive, even if we never live to see the final results.