27 July, 2017
Iara Lee

Iara Lee in Chernobyl

The interview is conducted by UDI Associate Maryna Rabinovych.

In June 2017, Brazilian Korean activist and filmmaker Iara Lee held a series of screenings in Ukraine as part of her push for driving cultures of resistance across the Globe. Lee is the director of the Cultures of Resistance Network. The organization promotes global solidarity, supports efforts to secure peace and social justice, and brings together change-makers from around the world. In early May 2017, Iara let reached out to our very own Kateryna Ianishevska to seek support with engaging the activist artist scene. Kateryna took up the challenge to establish Iara’s foray into Ukraine, igniting a robust local network of an emerging and vibrant collection of activists, artists, and social justice bound actors to provide Iara with a platform for presenting her works to a new and welcoming audience. We wish to thank and praise the efforts of our Kateryna, as well as Marina Rabinovych for sitting down with Iara to distil this exciting and innovative stream of activism.

M: Dear Iara, I am glad to greet you here today on behalf of the UDI. You have lived in many places in the world and traveled a great deal. You have seen places of peace and war, and became acquainted with various societies. Have identified a favorite place?

I: I think all the countries are very different and very unique, but, at the same time, they share a lot of similarities. We, humans, are united by our struggle and solidarity. The concept of one world makes a lot of sense, you know. While we speak different languages, eat differently, have different habits, we are still interconnected, we are one world. I think we need to work together to eliminate concepts that disintegrate us, like passports and borders.  Despite the fact that I am always moving across different places, I find it crucial to promote solidarity in a global way to go beyond one person, one city or one country.

M: So, you basically do not see borders. Is this why you did not choose a favorite country?

I: Yes. I am trying to be less nomadic, not having a home, but it is hard for me to find one place that I feel is my favorite and my perfect spot. The reason for that is that I think there are no perfect places. Actually, there are no perfect placed. Because there are no perfect places. At some places there are amazing people, but the weather is horrible; some places are very beautiful, but there is war; others are very peaceful, but the people are not nice. So, by moving around I get the experience of different things and understood that there is no such a thing where you can get it all. Everything has pros and cons. But I must say it is very painful for me to witness how the most stunning and amazing cultures are now being destroyed. I spent a lot of time in Syria before the war. And it is very heartbreaking for me to see how Syria is devastated. I spent a lot of time in Yemen – and it’s the most beautiful ancient architecture and it is so heartbreaking to see that Saudi Arabia with support of the U.S. government has been bombing Yemen and just destroyed this incredible civilization. The same is true for Iraq and some countries in Africa, as well. For instance, my next idea is to visit some countries that would be submerged – more like Kiribati and Tuvalu with climate change – these island countries will be the first victims. So, I need to keep moving – because some of these amazing countries and cultures will be devastated – by natural disasters, wars. So it is like always running against time.

M: So, you feel there is a need to resist natural disaster, war, and borders? Is that the reason why you decided to call your organization “The culture of resistance”?

I: Yes. Because I think we have to resist at many different levels. But most of the times the biggest problem are humans. Sometimes I think – there is no hope to help humans, maybe I need to devote my time to protecting oceans or animals. But then I think, even to protect animals or to protect the oceans – you still always need to resist and work with humans. At this level, a lot of natural disasters take place, because we are not taking care of the planet. So, it is unavoidable. We, humans, need to work together to improve everything else. Like even here, in Ukraine, you see Chernobyl. It was a terrible disaster and we had to abandon and the wildlife came back. So, it sounds like a contradiction. If humans are not there, even animals bounce back. So, there are always such contradictions. Even the North Korea, the South Korea, the DMZ area – the demilitarized zone – is where we have beautiful wildlife and birds flying around, because the humans are not going through. I also witnessed that in South Sudan, where there are landmines. So, I do not know, the life is what it is, always this yin-yang kind of things, the good and the negative. And it is all about working out the dynamics.

M: Do you have any special definition of resistance for your work?

I: Yes, a lot of times, when you say the word “resistance”, people are thinking about political things, but it is not political, it is about everything. And the new film I am making now – in Burkina Faso, in West Africa – you see that the resistance comes from speaking your local language, wearing your national outfit, eating the food, fruit and vegetables that have been grown in your land. It is about how you build your houses, your architecture. So you see that the resistance comes in many different forms. And is especially with the globalization –when all is becoming the same, whether you go to Paris, London, New York – the more it is important to value this kind of cultural heritage, because if the world becomes all the same – it will become more boring. And I think, it’s beautiful, you know to have different carrots, different colours, different languages, but unfortunately the world is moving to more globalization. And unfortunately even languages – I was reading that in fifty years a lot of these languages would disappear. So, I am always rushing against this natural self-destruction we human are creating. So, my organization is called Cultures of Resistance, because we are always trying to celebrate the uniqueness of all these different cultures around the world.

M: Do you see a link between resistance and politics?

I: Of course, because at the end of the day everything is political – the music, cinema, photography – everything is a political act. So, even if you buy this kind of toothpaste or this kind of carrot or this kind of broccoli – this is a political act and all these things have implications, you know.

M: How do you link resistance to democracy?

L: Yes, because at the end of the day we all want peace, we all want freedom, we all want democracy. So, I think all these elements call for a rising democracy.

M: During the screening of your film about Sub-Saharan Africa in Kyiv you drew comparisons with the situation in Ukraine. What are they?

I: Yes, because, when you talk about occupation, annexation, imperialism –there is a threat – about all these people suffering in Kashmir, in Palestine, in Donbas, in Crimea – of constricting this people, not allowing them to be able to exercise their original, cultural freedom, so I feel it is important for us to support them. But, unfortunately, wealthy countries, powerful countries will always try to annex and control. The world has been this way through the whole history. And the whole history is about these mutations. Today you are under Austrian-Hungarian Empire, Ottoman Empire, tomorrow – under Roman Empire. So, this concept of imperialism is just the one we do not manage to get rid of. I am here now to learn, to educate myself. I cannot give an opinion, because I am still trying to educate myself, to learn and, you know, there are always a lot of details that you can only understand when you are here on the ground. I came for one week and I am here for one month, and still very far from understanding the complexities that are going on here. There are many perspectives. If you ask someone in Moscow – it will be one opinion. If you ask someone in Eastern Ukraine or Western Ukraine, perspectives will be different. How can you say, you know the truth? It is very difficult, because the world is about different opinions, coming from different perspectives. But ultimately it is all about how people can have minimum freedom to grow and to flourish, and how freedoms are composed, because maybe my freedom will mean the lack of freedom for you.

M: Do you have any thoughts for creating a film about Crimea or Donbas?

I: I think it is a little bit early to talk about that. And also, what I try to do, because I travel so much – and people are always saying – Can you make a film about Somalia, or the African countries or Middle Eastern issues, like in Iraq? And what I always say is that we also have to encourage local filmmaking. Because you know about your history, your conflict – so I often try to collaborate – as we just did in Bangladesh. Instead of me, trying to make a film about Bangladeshi activists, we supported the same work, done by the Bangladeshi people. So, here I also try to meet some photographers, journalists with whom we could collaborate.

M: Did you already find someone suitable?

I: I mean, I am just in a process. When I go back to Kyiv, I will have a series of meetings with people, working with UNICEF, going to Donbas, talking with people there. So, it takes time. I think for one month it is hard to accomplish. I came just to show one my film. Instead, we retrospectively, had 3 different film screenings in Kyiv, and were invited to show films in Lviv and now in Odessa. So, it is like a snowball effect. You cannot predict. But I just have to say – I fell in love with your country. And I expressed that to my family. And my sister came from New York and she fell in love with Ukraine. So, I do not know where these love stories are going to take us.

M: Did you know about Ukraine before Euromaidan and our current conflict?

I: Yes, because it is a hidden jam, something like a little secret that nobody knows. So, I am very happy to come here and learn everything at first hand. Even at the level of Europe I think, not many people know how amazing this country is. My sister said – do not tell everybody – let’s keep a secret. But we only know cliché things – a country in war. Chernobyl. But here is a lot more beyond that that one has to discover when coming here.

M: So, before the conflict, did you primarily associate Ukraine with Chernobyl?

I: Yes, and with the Soviet industrial world. Because I think Ukraine was a very important industrial part during the Soviet time – this is how far we learnt about Ukraine. So, I think it is shocking for people to come here and see these cosmopolitan cities, vibrant youth and excitement in the air. It is like Iran, everyone says – oooh – Iran.  But when you come to Teheran – very sophisticated, very educated, and very creative. So, to my mind, the only way for people to overcome these cliché ideas that we have in our brains is by traveling. It is clear that not everyone has an opportunity. So, I make films to show stories of people at the different corners of the world. It is like Pakistan, another country that we have only cliché ideas about. And it is very beautiful for me and the people in Ukraine also said wow. People only hear about Taliban and terrorism, but Pakistan with these beautiful mountains and landscapes is not what people know, so my job is to show interconnectedness and beauty of countries that sometimes people only hear bad things about. I would say Ukraine does this negative headline image like Pakistan – but it is still an unknown and misunderstood country –there is a lot more to be explored.

M: On Iran. When I studied in Germany there was a guy from Iran who was passionate about learning German just because he wanted to read Kant in original – what is the nature of such cross-cultural explorations in Iran?

I: Very, very intellectually sophisticated. They produce amazing films and have very vibrant youth, just amazing country. Indeed.

M: When you travel so much, do you develop some fears? What is your hidden fear about the world?

I: Yes, it is a bit crazy, just because I sometimes go to countries, where I do not know any single person and do not speak the language. So, I just throw myself in situations. But nowadays people with social media and friends of friends…You just need to have some kind of spontaneity. Talking to guy, who served you coffee, a reception man or somebody – there is never a situation that the way cannot be started. I just go into this spirit of adventure. Like my sister came and was obsessed with going to Carpathian mountains. But we did not have enough time to organize it. So, we just asked a waiter in a café and he called his sister. And a sister called someone. In two hours we had a friendly couple that took us to the Carpathian mountains, and she was a tour guide, just made herself available, when we visited. But when you think about it normally people take a long time to prepare, but sometimes spontaneity results in something beautiful. And Ukraine – the same thing – I only knew the organizer of my first film screening, but now I have three Facebook profiles, full of Ukrainian friends. So, I feel like a have a very nice network of connections through artist, musicians, photographers, journalists. If I will start spending more time here, I will not feel alone, I will feel very connected.

M: That sounds very interesting. Many would not leap into a situation spontaneously, but will prepare for a trip, especially if they go to some countries, where there are wars or other types of conflicts. So, if you go a known unsafe country, do you take safety measures to prepare yourself?

I: Yes, of course. Another thing that I discovered through my first-hand experiences is that there is war in these countries but countries also have life. People still go to school, they buy bread, get married, celebrate birthdays – life goes on everywhere in the world. And also media in general, they tend to generalize too much – if there is a conflict n Donbas, it does not mean that the people are not enjoying their lives in Kyiv or Lviv. So sometimes people say – do not go to Ukraine – as the whole Ukraine was on fire, but a lot of things are localized. And honestly, I go to countries with war. I was in Lebanon and we had cluster bombs coming from Israel, because they had conflict with Hezzbolah. So, sometimes, it is scary when you hear cluster bombs coming from nowhere all of a sudden. But I do not usually have fear – I get actually very outraged, because I feel that all these wars, there bombings – they are not justifiable. That just makes my activism stronger – I feel, we should not accept the countries, where powers can just start bombing each other – or use clusters, drones, all these chemical weapons. This is something that is not acceptable o me. And I try through my films to get people to work against these. If all of us, citizens of the world do not fight against this – which I call state terrorism, states will just continue buying new bombs, new weapons and destroy people. And this is really not justifiable.

What I would like to ask young people to do is to become more proactive. What you hear in the media – it is not always the truth, you cannot generalize. Go to the countries, where your government says you not to go. All otherwise you will have to always go to Paris, London, New York to see obvious things. But to know more and enjoy life, you sometimes need to go beyond these capitals of the world.  And see the world – be an active member of society; because it is our world – and if we do not care – things will just collapse. I do not know if our philosophical self-destruction mentality is something that we can push back – but, if young people become more involved, there is a higher chance that our destruction can be delayed. It cannot be eliminated, but at least delayed. So, I am very concerned about young generation, because they are inheriting all this madness. And their duty is to try to make things better because they are the ones who is going to suffer or benefit from the better world. And democracy is very important. Because everybody wants freedom, wants to respect each other. So, it is important for us to understand that it is not just me, me, me, but there are others there. And we all have to live in co-existence despite our differences. And a lot of times instead of pushing people to be like us—we need to respect differences and cherish difference. If you are Muslim, I am Catholic, you like potatoes, I like broccoli – all of us need to co-exist somehow. So, democracy also means respecting and tolerating the differences.

M: How did you first decide to move out of the usual travel menu?

I: Because I realize – sometimes the uniqueness is hidden. For you to really be able to enjoy life and see the beauty of the difference you need to go to the remote areas of the world, sometimes difficult parts of the world, sometimes suffering parts of the world. When you see war – you see ugliness, but you also see a lot of courageous people – like in Syria, for example. We Cultures of Resistance Network were donating ambulances to volunteers – and their courage is just amazing. They are young beautiful, healthy people and they volunteer to go to wars and rescue injured people. And sometimes another bomb comes and kills them. They are like offering their own lives in a way to help others. For me it is just wow, the situation of extreme, when you see ugliness and beauty. To me, this is very humbling experience and it teaches me a lot. We have to take chances sometimes not to go to places where everything is beautiful and organized. You need to go to places, where you can get experiences – and especially young people have to be there; curious and should think about the experiences they can get.

M: Do you have a motto or statements that drive you?

I: Be curious. Be humble. It is a mixture of things you learn during your journey. It does not happen overnight. You cannot get up and say – I am a courageous person and I am going to Iraq. Take steps. Today you go to the interior of your country. Tomorrow you go beyond and more beyond. It is a journey. Do not be in a rush, but try to make steps to adventure, because life is very limited you know. We may come back as spirits, but the physical life is short. If you do not go beyond your comfort area, you will not experience life in its fullness. So, it is about taking chances.

M: Do you still believe in governments, in foreign aid, development cooperation and so on?

I: Yes, but is an industry that has a lot of flaws. Sometimes I call it a “peace industry”. While there are a lot of good things coming from these institutions, but also a lot of problems. And most of the time I try to work at the grassroots level and are doing small localized work, instead of working with huge institutions. But there is place for everybody, for the UN to play their role, despite the fact that I feel they do not play the role they should be playing and there is place for grassroots organizations and activists. For me, on a personal level I try to work with more hands-on and local. Because as a foreigner you do not have solutions, you can just support. I cannot come to African countries and say – hey you, do this and that for you to have development. But maybe, if I see some groups, doing good work – I will support them – that is what I can do. And it is always about young people too. Education comes from youth, and supporting education of youth and empowerment of youth is the way we should go.

M: It was actually an unpredictable question. Do you feel this presents a sharp contrast between official aid and grassroots?

I: Yes, life is always unpredictable. We keep things going Thank you.

M: I would also like to thank you, for your time and wish you continued inspiration, and a pleasant time in Ukraine.

For more on Iara’s trans-global endeavors and work