IARA LEE: THE SUFFERING GRASSES
Iara Lee, a Brazilian of Korean descent, is an activist, filmmaker, and founder of the Caipirinha Foundation, an organization that promotes global solidarity and supports peace with justice projects. Iara is currently working on a variety of initiatives, grouped under the umbrella of CulturesOfResistance.org, an activist network that brings together artists and changemakers from around the world. At the center of these initiatives is a feature-length documentary film entitled CULTURES OF RESISTANCE, which explores how creative action contributes to conflict prevention and resolution.
As an activist, Iara has collaborated with numerous grassroots efforts, including the International Campaign to Ban Cluster Munitions, the Conflict Zone Film Fund, the New York Philharmonic's groundbreaking 2008 music for diplomacy concert in North Korea.
More recently in May 2010, Iara was a passenger on the MV Mavi Marmara, a passenger vessel in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla which was attacked in international waters by the Israeli navy, leading to the murder of nine humanitarian aid workers.
Among the many people who recorded the events on that ship, her crew was one of the only to successfully hide and retain most of the raid footage, which she later released to the world after a screening at the UN. Iara is very dedicated to the support of Gazan civilians who have been victims of war crimes committed by the Israeli military during "Operation Cast Lead" and who suffer from the Israeli government's ongoing acts of collective punishment.
At the onset of the Iraq war in 2003, Iara, eager to understand the conflict better, decided to travel and live in the MENA region (Middle East & North Africa). While residing in Lebanon in 2006, Iara experienced firsthand the 34-day Israeli bombardment of that country. Since then, moved by that experience, she has dedicated herself to the pursuit of a just peace in the region, and is an enthusiastic supporter of those initiatives which strengthen adherence to international law in enforcing human rights. In 2008 Iara lived in Iran and supported a number of cultural exchange projects between that country and the West with the goal of promoting arts & culture for global solidarity.
From 1984 to 1989 Iara was the producer of the Sao Paulo International Film Festival. From1989-2003 she was based in New York City, where she ran the mixed-media company Caipirinha Productions to explore the synergy of different art forms (such as film, music, architecture, and poetry). Under that banner, Iara has directed short and feature-length documentaries including Synthetic Pleasures, Modulations, Architettura, and Beneath the Borqa.
Iara Lee is a member of the President's Council of The International Crisis Group (ICG) and the Council of Advisors of the National Geographic Society, as well as a trustee to the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), North Korea's first and only university whose faculty will be entirely composed of international professors.
Reporter interview Iara Lee regarding her film "The Suffering Grasses"
Q: Have you always been interested in these issues? And why?
I come from an arts and culture background, but over the last decade, I came to realize that we need to use arts and culture to promote peace with justice. It is hard to justify art for art's sake when the world is totally falling apart, so I have increasingly made creative activism the focus of my filmmaking. In 2003, out of outrage at the planned U.S. invasion of Iraq, I decided to travel to the Middle East to assess the perspective of people there. I wanted to live there, meet people, learn their histories and cultures, and join those who were actively standing up for their human rights. This was my first step towards making the film Cultures of Resistance, and it has shaped my projects ever since. The Suffering Grasses emerged out of relationships I had formed in the Middle East over the previous decade and out of my concern with political developments in Syria following the initial Arab Spring uprising.
Q: What is The Suffering Grasses? Why do you make this film?
With over 100,000 dead and millions displaced, the conflict in Syria is one of the most alarming humanitarian crises in the world today. The aim of The Suffering Grasses is to understand the Syrian conflict through the perspective of the civilians who have been killed, abused, and displaced into squalid refugee camps amidst increasing violence and the international power struggle playing out the region.
Q: Did you always want to be in the film industry?
Filmmaking has been part of my life for many decades, going back to when I was the producer of the Sao Paulo International Film Festival in Brazil, from 1984 to 1989.
Q: Did you have any unusual difficulties during filming?
Because of the active conflict going on in Syria, our filming was limited to refugee camps across the borders and to activists who were working outside the country. Thatís a very challenging situation. Even in refugee camps on the border with Turkey, we had to smuggle cameras and hide from Turkish security in order to get interviews and enter the camps.
Q: How long did it take to make this film?
We tried to move as quickly as possible. The filming and editing were done within six months.
Q: How much money did the original movie cost?
Like most activist filmmakers, we operate on a shoestring budget. This film was made with the financial support of a colleague humanitarian aid worker as well as friends and family.
Q: For what audience is The Suffering Grasses suited?
I hope that people of all backgrounds will watch the film, but most importantly, I hope the film reaches non-activist circles as well as current activists. We need young people to get more active and engaged wherever it is shown. I always hope my films cause people to take action, rather than to simply discuss social problems. Documentaries are so important in getting people interested in issues they previously knew nothing about.
Q: What has the feedback been?
Iím pleased to say that the film has been used as tool for awareness and fundraising, has been well received by the press, and has sparked a lively debate around the effectiveness of armed versus nonviolent resistance against the Assad regime. If youíre interested, you can read a selection of audience comments at http://films.
Q: Are you working on any new projects?
My most recent project is a short film entitled The Kalasha and the Crescent, which documents the struggle of the indigenous Kalash people in the mountains of northern Pakistan. Indigenous rights have long been a focus of mine, and one of my major goals at the moment is to help increase the visibility of indigenous struggles through The Kalasha and the Crescent and my other short films on indigenous issues.
Q: Tell us about The Making of this film?
In May 2012, I participated in a press delegation to the Turkish refugee camps housing Syrian exiles. While I was there, I interviewed some of the people who have been most affected by the bloody conflict. Itís from the voices of these refugees that The Suffering Grasses emerged.
Q: Tell us more about how This film evolved.
When I went to the refugee camps in Turkey, I expected to make a short film to bring some attention to the situation. However, it soon became clear that the issues were too complex and the diversity of opinions too great to capture in a brief piece. The resulting film is 52 minutes long.
Q: What was your overall role?
I am very hands-on with my films, so I was involved in many aspects of directing, production, editing, and promotion.
Q: What was the best part?
The most rewarding part of my work is meeting amazing local activists and artists who persevere in the face of tremendous challenges. I cannot describe how inspiring it is to meet so many of these people. In the face of so much hatred, destruction, and injustice in the world, this is probably the main thing that gives me hope. I hope that comes across in the films.
Q: How did you get started?
As I mentioned, I had initially hoped to make a short film about the Syrian refugee crisis, but it turned into a much bigger project when I got to the refugee camps and began to understand how complex the situation was. And this complexity has only become exponentially greater with time.
Q: Any trouble with the locations?
Everywhere we went we had to deal with security, surveillance cameras, red tape. Some days we would go and come back with footage; other days, we would come back with nothing and were just glad our cameras were not confiscated. Often, I would stick my little camera in holes in order to get a glimpse of what life was behind the plastic sheets covering fences of camps, and many times I had to go up our production van and take the footage from a high angle as it wasnít permitted to enter camps with cameras...
Q: What message do you try to deliver through this film? Do you think film can effectively deliver it?
Central to The Suffering Grasses is the question of what is to be done. Many of those I interviewed were nonviolent activists who stood resolutely by their decision not to bear arms. Others felt that the Free Syrian Army was their only hope of defeating the brutal Assad regime. Because I myself believe that nonviolent resistance is the only effective, long-term approach for undermining a corrupt regimeís viability, it was at times difficult to give opposing voices a fair say in the film. While in the end I still disagree with their opinion, I think the final product is much stronger due to the respect shown to those with differing opinions.
Q: What is your background? Where were you born? Did you study filmmaking? When did you start filmmaking? When did you start your organization?
My family is Korean but I was born and raised in Brazil. Iíve been making films for over twenty years now, and theyíve evolved a lot in that time. The Cultures of Resistance Network Foundation is a more recent creation, and it was set up to support the causes we embrace. Through that, Iíve been able to promote and help a wide variety of organizations, activists, and artists seeking a more peaceful, just, and sustainable world. You can learn more about them at www.culturesofresistance.
Q: how do you see yourself in 10 years from now?
I don't see my activism slowing down any time soon. As I get older, I get more idealistic, more committed to peace with justice and environmental sustainability. And I try to inspire younger people to commit too, as they are the ones inheriting the big mess.
Q: How did your earlier films influence this one? Or is this your first film?
Ever since I made Cultures of Resistance -- which was filmed over the course of two years and released in 2010 -- my projects have centered around documenting and supporting nonviolent, creative resistance to oppression. The Suffering Grasses looks at the possibility of nonviolent resistance within the context of an ongoing civil war, which presented a number of new and challenging questions for me.
Q: Getting money for a film is really tough these days. How difficult was financing to obtain?
Yes, it can be very difficult to finance independent documentaries, but when you have an important story to tell, thereís always a way to make it happen. Still, it is charity work; money doesn't come from investors but from donors -- in this case, donors who are very concerned about the Syrian situation and stepped forward to make the film possible.
Q: When you secured financing, did you use the script or did it hinge on your previous work?
Since this was a documentary, we did not have a script. This film was consistent with my previous documentary work of discovering the storyline as we film and speak with Syrian people directly affected by the war -- affected to the point that they had to leave everything behind and run just to stay alive.
Q: Where will This film be shown?
This film has already been screened in dozens of countries around the world and we have many more screenings planned for the rest of the year, from the United States to Zimbabwe to the West Pacific and everywhere in between.
Q: How do you promote your films? Does the type of material affect how you promote a film?
Besides screening the film at festivals, we put a lot of effort into organizing small screenings with grassroots groups. These kinds of screenings facilitate real discussion and debate about the issues being presented, and ultimately cause people to get more involved with these struggles.(tfr)
- CULTURES OF RESISTANCE NETWORK: http://films.culturesofresistance.org/suffering-grasses
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