Iara Lee is an activist and director, and the founder of Cultures of Resistance Films. From organizing Sao Paolo Film Festival to creating over a dozen of her own documentary films, she is a powerhouse of energy and positivity. Her films have put the spotlight on a diverse mix of cultural influences including cutting-edge technologies like cryogenics and VR-gaming, Syria’s refugee crisis, and the challenges of rising sea levels and climate change in the West Pacific. At Impact Hub Stockholm, we find out what she hopes viewers will take away after watching her films.
“People say “Oh I really enjoyed it. It was inspiring!” Then goodbye. Boom. Life goes on. We live this autopilot life. It’s not realistic to say “Hey can you become a full time activist?” People have their own lives and structures but if people could open a little space in their heart and mind for some of the other issues that go on besides me, me, me, me, me; that would already be amazing. Obviously some people are interested in forests, others in oceans or child labour or women’s rights. There are so many things out there in the world that we can engage in. A lot of the time, people say “I don’t have extra money to donate,” so I say “Donate your time!” Even what you buy is a big statement so when you go to the supermarket, read the label and look for the things that are very harmful and boycott it. We have to be creative and not just expect activists or the government or decision makers to do it. We need to do it to make it happen.”
Iara describes the positive view of genetically modified crop production in Burkina Faso, West Africa while filming for the documentary released in 2018, and the lack of understanding when it comes to personal health and environmental damage related to conventional farming. She believes that education should be prioritized so people can make better choices instead of relying on information passed down by companies like Monsanto and Bayer.
“First is the education process of learning and understanding the real information and acting on that knowledge, which is what is missing in the Western world. I think we are very informed but a lot of the time we don’t act on the information that we have.”
Iara’s style of filmmaking is very participatory as she describes it. While producing Burkinabè Bounty, she spent a few months collecting footage before approaching local artists to collaborate using their videos, music and even music videos which are featured in the documentary film.
When talking about her involvement in the local culture in Burkina Faso, she says “There are some people we think we know better, but in reality it’s a very humbling experience to go there and to see that you have so much to learn – much more than you have to teach.” Her perspective seems pointedly different to the norm that projects developed nations as the saviors of the global south. And a lot of this empathy is visible in her films. So how well do others accept this point of view? “I get a lot of hate mail. I’ve been called all the animals of the zodiac. It’s just… You have to go through all these and just become stronger and actually turn negatives into positives instead of feeling defeated and frustrated. You have to become more fierce. This has been my philosophy.”
For those who are passionate about worldly issues, Iara recommends traveling. Her most memorable travels are painted by the feelings of contribution although she doesn’t necessarily recommend visiting conflict zones.
“Yemen for me… I’m heartbroken to see that Saudi Arabia is just bombing and destroying an amazing country. Syria was for me, one of those creative civilizations just like Iraq. I encourage people to travel for selfish reasons because things are getting destroyed. I just made a film in the Solomon Islands in the Pacific and when we put a drone, we see the island state shrinking so we can see that climate change is real. These island states are going to submerge and they won’t exist. So many countries you cannot go like Syria. If you haven’t visited Syria, there is no Syria. It’s just crumbles. And so many countries around the world, you should travel to see before things disappear. I think when you eat with people and you talk to people and when you interact with people, you create this empathy which is real. Sometimes I think it’s difficult to create this compassion when you’re watching on TV.”
Cathy Xiao Chen is the Head of Operations at Impact Hub Stockholm. With a passion for supporting social impact, she advises and connects changemakers with collaborators to maximize impact.