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Creative resistance can bring justice: Activist filmmaker Iara Lee

Brazilian of Korean descent wants to unite people for action through art

Though she started off as a hippie movie junkie ― who wanted to “do art for art’s sake” ― and has made more than five highly-regarded documentary films, this tough and fierce Brazilian of Korean descent no longer wants to call herself a filmmaker.

“At this point I think I am more of an activist than a filmmaker,” said Iara Lee, who arrived in Seoul on Thursday to attend the EBS International Documentary Festival with her 2010 documentary film, “Cultures of Resistance,” during an interview with The Korea Herald ahead of the festival’s official opening ceremony on Friday.

“I think I use films as a tool to express, encourage and inspire people to get engaged and do something against injustice. I definitely think I am much more committed (to human rights activism).”
Iara Lee, Brazilian activist filmmaker, speaks to The Korea Herald ahead of the EBS International Documentary Festival, at Samsung Electronics building in southern Seoul, Friday. (Claire Lee/The Korea Herald.)
Iara Lee, Brazilian activist filmmaker, speaks to The Korea Herald ahead of the EBS International Documentary Festival, at Samsung Electronics building in southern Seoul, Friday. (Claire Lee/The Korea Herald.)

Lee, who was born in southern Brazil to Korean immigrant parents who moved to the South American country in the 1960s, spent most of her childhood and youth in San Paulo. Her parents worked in Brazil’s garment industry and their creative spirit certainly passed down to their three daughters. Her two younger sisters ― who both currently reside in New York City ― work as a designer and a Brazilian restaurant owner.

“I think I’ve formed a great combination ― Korean discipline, Brazilian flexibility and American efficiency,” Lee said, laughing. “I get things done, but I’m always very flexible, I go with the flow.”

Having worked as the producer of the Sao Paulo International Festival from 1984 to 1989, Lee moved to New York City to study cinema studies and philosophy at New York University.

“I think there was a time when I thought art for art’s sake was still important,” Lee said. “To snap out of that, it did take some time ― to realize art could be used for something more meaningful, such as global solidarity for peace and justice.”

Lee decided to travel and live in the MENA region (Middle East & North Africa) the day before the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003. Deeply moved by the sufferings of war victims and human rights abuses she encountered during the trip, Lee in 2006 founded Caipirinha Foundation, a mixed-media organization that works for global peace and justice projects. Since then, she’s been a supporter of peace in the region, while criticizing Israeli occupation of Palestine.

“The more you travel the more you become humble, accepting and tolerant,” she said.

“My heart is Palestinian. I really feel for these occupied and repressed people.”

Her 2010 film, “Cultures of Resistance,” which has been invited as one of the 12 films for EIDF’s competitive section this year, is an intense cinematic expose of international human rights conditions around the globe ― including Palestine, Syria, and Iran ― featuring artists of all kinds who fight against war and violence with creative acts, including painting, singling, dancing and writing.

“I know (creative resistance) is very humble and small, and just really pitching in and trying to do something rather than nothing, but it’s really what I want to promote with this movie,” Lee said.

“A lot of the times people say, ‘oh I can’t fight against this huge corporation and governments so I’m not going to do anything.’ But, no. Small things still bring changes. And that’s why I end the movie with the famous quote of Gandhi. Be the change that you want to see.”

Korea’s world-renowned poet Ko Un wrote and voice-recorded the movie’s introduction in Korean, which reads, “Resistance should not be something that reacts against, but something that creates.”

“I was going to try to have a section on South Korea and North Korea (in the movie),” she said. “But it did not work out because of license and fees and all sorts of bureaucratic issues. So at least I felt okay, let’s sprinkle it with a Korean touch (with Ko’s philosophy). Ko has been through a lot, is a resister, and a very charming man.”

Having been to some of the most dangerous places in the world, Lee admitted she sometimes thinks she herself “must have been crazy” to have done what she has accomplished so far.

One of those “crazy” moments include the Gaza Freedom Flotilla raid incident in May 2010, a military operation by Israeli naval forces against six pro-Palestine, humanitarian aid ships which killed nine activists right before Lee’s eyes. The Israeli Defense Forces said they had been attacked first by activists wielding iron rods and other weapons.

Lee and her cameraman were the only people who managed to get the footage of the incident out of the border.

“I was interviewing people who were on the boat ― why they were so committed to the justice movement to the point doing something dangerous,” she said.

“Then the Israeli commanders started shooting people. I told my cameraman to switch his big HD memory card to a smaller one― because I knew they would confiscate everything. He hid the card behind the elastic of his underwear. It went through.”

So why risk such danger?

“I think life is not worth living if you are not going to confront the basic issue, which is the lack of justice,” Lee said. “We are all beneficiaries or victims of injustice.”

For screenings and tickets for “Cultures of Resistance” at EIDF, call (02) 526-2125.

By Claire Lee (