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Interview: Iara Lee on global justice, activism and Palestine

Feb. 17, 2014 4:29 P.M. (Updated: Aug. 17, 2015 4:31 P.M.)
By: Charlie Hoyle

Iara Lee, a Brazilian of Korean descent, is an activist, filmmaker, and founder of the Cultures of Resistance Network, an organization that promotes global solidarity, supports peace with justice projects and brings together artists and change-makers from around the world.

In May 2010, Iara was a passenger on the MV Mavi Marmara, a 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.

Her video footage of the raid, which was hidden from Israeli authorities, was later released to the world after a screening at the United Nations.

Below is an edited transcript of a conversation between Ma'an and Iara Lee.

What did you hope to achieve when founding Cultures of Resistance?

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. This really hit me in 2003 when, out of outrage at the planned US invasion of Iraq, I decided to travel to the Middle East and 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.

At the time, I was feeling depressed about future, but motivated to do something about this unjust war. What gave me hope was traveling around and meeting artists and activists who were using their creativity to promote peace and justice. Despite all the problems I saw around me, this type of activity was a tremendous beacon of hope. I founded the Cultures of Resistance Network as a way of trying to support these different groups and individuals, highlight their work, and bring them to the attention of a wider audience. It’s been very gratifying to see so many people from so many countries around world respond to this mission.

What values do you think connect activists working across the world in the CoR Network?

Broadly speaking, we want to support people who have a vision of a world that has peace with justice. What we mean by that phrase is that peace alone—merely as the absence of conflict—is not enough. Peace amid poverty, exploitation, racial discrimination is not true peace. That's why we say we're promoting peace with justice. More specifically, we have project areas—Make Films Not War, Make Music Not War, Make Food Not War, and Education Not War—that connect people who are working within a specific medium or around a specific issue. But broadly speaking we seek to connect activists that share a vision of peace with justice.

Is there an aspect of the creative arts that allows people to best express their respective political struggles?

I think that there is a deep, innate human need to try to communicate and connect with their fellow human beings. That desire is not necessarily political. However, people's desires to express the reality of their world and to connect with others often leads to a politicized message simply because the realities that people face on a daily basis are infused with politics. When we live in a world filled with war, poverty, exploitation, and injustice, it’s no surprise that these become themes in art.

There's also another way to look at this. When it comes to confronting injustice and promoting peace, I think people from all walks of life have something to offer. If you're a teacher, teach for peace. If you’re an author, write for peace. If you're a dancer, dance for peace. If you're a chef, cook for peace. I want to promote a vision of politics where people can use their diverse talents, interests, and passions to advance the cause of peace and justice. Not everyone has to march in a demonstration carrying the same sign. There are lots of ways to contribute, and what I want to highlight with the Cultures of Resistance Network is how a lot of people are doing this in creative ways.

Do you see civil society as having a greater influence now than in the past in promoting global justice?

I think so, yes. But the arc of the moral universe is long, as Dr. Martin Luther King said, so we need to take a step back to answer this question. If you look at the past hundred years, the influence of civil society has become more and more central in international affairs. I think that technology has connected us, and fostered global awareness of our common problems. Meanwhile, as the weapons of war have grown ever more terrible and ever more powerful, it has had a paradoxical effect: there is now a limit on what great powers can accomplish through war, because full-out confrontation would mean nuclear annihilation. I think this has created a sense that we humans have to find other ways to settle our disputes—namely in civil society. I think that the ideals of democracy and self-determination have gained more traction, globally speaking, since the end of the colonial era and the Cold War. And I think that the rise of international law has been a hugely important development. While war persists, international public opinion has more and more bearing on addressing our global problems and creating a just society.

How did you first become interested in the Middle East and why did you join the Gaza Freedom Flotilla in 2010?

As I mentioned earlier, I started traveling in the region around the time that the Iraq war started in 2003. Then, when I was living in Beirut in 2006, the Israeli military shelled the city with cluster bombs. It seemed as if no one in the US even noticed, even though I knew they were watching the attacks on cable news. I was infuriated by the reality of my adopted nation (the United States)'s cover for the Israeli government, which effectively granted the nation's leaders impunity. Ever since then, I have actively supported the struggle for a free Palestine. When people started organizing the flotilla, I thought this was an effective way to use nonviolent direct action to draw attention to the injustice and brutality of this blockade. And that's what it did.

What was your reaction to the Arab revolutions?

Overall, I've been really inspired by them. They've shown how much power people have to change things when they rise up together. This being said, the outcomes have for the most part been very troubling.

The place I've examined this most closely is Syria. In my film The Suffering Grasses, I looked at the uprising from the perspective of the conflict's refugees and examined how a nonviolent revolt descended into a brutal civil war. 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. Though I can sympathize with those who turn to armed uprising out of despair and frustration, I come down strongly on the side of supporting nonviolent resistance. In my opinion, armed conflict plays to the strengths of the oppressive regime and allows them to justify violence against civilians, refugees, and peaceful protesters.

Even as the conflict has escalated, I've worked in solidarity with nonviolent activists in Syria and done my best to support peace efforts there. I have been very concerned about Egypt as well. But even in the darkest times, I think we need to keep alive the spirit of creative nonviolence that sparked the Arab revolts and that remains the only path to lasting peace and justice in the region.

Has the Palestinian struggle inspired your work in any way?

Over the years, the struggle for justice in Palestine has been a real focus for me, and it's informed a lot of my other activism. I've met incredible people every time I’m there, from musicians to filmmakers to fishermen, and have used the Cultures of Resistance Network to support their work. The courage, creativity, and resilience of these activists is truly inspiring.

How do you see the role of the arts in promoting peace and justice in Palestine?

The arts play a key role in giving a voice to people who are oppressed, raising awareness of the injustices they suffer, and creating a vision of a world beyond these injustices. In Palestine specifically, I've worked with amazing hip hop artists like Shadia Mansour and Katibe 5 who are calling out the abuses of occupation. I've worked with activists who are creating a mobile cinema and organizing series of films for children. I've worked with capoeira groups who are using a Brazilian art-form to nonviolently channel the spirit of resistance and build community centers. I think all of these efforts help to foster a culture of solidarity and creative nonviolent action that will ultimately help to bring about peace and justice.

What do you have planned for the future with CoR? Any plans to come back to Palestine?

I'm currently working on a film about the Western Sahara, which is known as Africa's last colony. Actually, I see this project as closely connected to my interest in Palestine and my solidarity with all communities living under occupation, from Kashmir to West Papua. I don't know when I’ll make it to Palestine next, but it's a struggle that's close to my heart. Even when I'm away, I stay close to my allies in Palestine, and their resistance helps guide my own work.

Cultures of Resistance: The Official Trailer from Cultures of Resistance

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