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Cultures of Resistance Founder Iara Lee on fighting back through film

The Cultures of Resistance Network connects and supports agitators, educators, farmers and artists to build “a more just and peaceful world through creative resistance and nonviolent action!” Founder Iara Lee spoke to Indy Film Library on speaking truth to power, avoiding burnout, and inspiring solidarity for the residents of West Papua in their struggles against climate change and imperialism via her new film WANTOKS: dance of resilience in Melanesia.

In your time as a filmmaker, you have seen some truly harrowing things. It was your footage of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla raid executed by Israeli naval forces that showed the world the brutality that took place there. It must have been extremely traumatic – and nine other people sadly did not survive the experience. How do you resolve to continue putting yourself in the middle of these conflicts, as both an activist and filmmaker, after something like that?

I am not someone who goes out looking for danger. In the case of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, I was involved in a nonviolent, humanitarian direct action designed to break the illegal siege of Gaza. Clearly, we knew there were risks. We fully expected to be arrested or detained, and possibly subjected to mistreatment. But those were calculated risks, and they were small inconveniences compared to what the people in Gaza were facing on a daily basis. We never expected that the Israeli government would respond with such brutality. So definitely, that was an infuriating experience.

I am inspired by people who stand up to injustice, especially people who are using art and creativity as tools of resistance. So when I go to a new country, I often end up seeking out those types of grassroots artists and activists who are working on the ground to address issues in their communities. It is very satisfying for me to be able to help them tell their stories and to bring awareness of their struggles to a wider audience.

WANTOKS – Dance of Resilience in Melanesia (Official Trailer) from Cultures of Resistance Films on Vimeo.

Of course, by speaking truth to power, these people are sometimes putting themselves in dangerous situations. That is the reality of confronting the status quo: the minority of people who benefit from the current state of affairs don’t tend to like it when you speak up. So I am not seeking out danger for its own sake, but I understand that people on the front lines are taking big risks and making sacrifices to stand up for what they think is right. Usually, the risks I take as a filmmaker are very small compared with what they are doing, and I take precautions to make sure my crew and collaborators stay as safe as possible. But I recognize that there are some risks that go with the territory of activist filmmaking.

Your new film WANTOKS centres on the potential power of art to challenge the status-quo by drawing attention to certain issues. How did you first become aware of the Melanesian Arts & Cultural Festival, and the political struggle the islanders are engaged in?

I have been aware of the situation in West Papua for a number of years. But I was only inspired to make WANTOKS after traveling to the Solomon Islands in 2018. What I saw there was an amazing combination of culture and politics. In the Melanesian Arts & Cultural Festival’s presentations, there was a combination of traditional dance, dress, and cuisine – alongside artists presenting new music and images that were responding to present-day challenges. From there, I learned about the kinds of political and environmental issues facing the island communities.

Could you please explain briefly what problems the people of the South Pacific islands face?

WANTOKS highlights the on-going battle for survival on some of the islands of Melanesia – survival on a cultural level, on the level of political self-determination, and on the level of physical survival amidst a changing ecosystem. For one, West Papua has been fighting for its independence from Indonesia for decades, and New Caledonians keep debating whether to remain under French rule.

And then you have the challenge of climate change. Many of the islands in Melanesia are just a few meters above sea level, so as the oceans rise along with global temperatures, their homes are literally being destroyed. So you have this combination of political struggles over the legacy of colonialism, alongside the existential threat presented by the changing climate.

Unfortunately many people in the West tend to think of their nation’s colonial exploits as ancient history, with little to no present-day impact. How does WANTOKS challenge that view-point?

For those who think colonialism is a thing of the past, this film will be eye-opening. Certainly in West Papua, you have a situation where self-determination has not been respected and a sizable percentage of the population is struggling against Indonesia. So that is a very much a present-day issue for those people.

In the case of New Caledonia, another island, people have been able to vote on issues of governance, but currently they are still under French rule. That is very contentious today and will continue to be in coming years.

If people want to get involved with the issues raise in WANTOKS, what’s the best way they can help?

I hope that people who watch the film will not only learn about the challenges facing Melanesia, but that they will also express their solidarity. On the film website at culturesofresistancefilms.com, we have links to resources for people who want to take action.

You can get involved with the Free West Papua Campaign; support island residents who are lobbying international bodies for recognition; offer translation skills; or donate money. Or you can join with climate groups like 350.org that are making the plight of Pacific islands part of their wider efforts to combat climate change. Just educating yourself, talking with others about these issues, and raising awareness is an important first step, so we hope that everyone will start there.

Since the film premiered in Helsinki this spring, what have the reception been like?

It is extremely gratifying to hear from audiences when we screen our films. Since we premiered WANTOKS in Helsinki, we have been screening it at film festivals around the world, as well as at local community events and activist gatherings. Often, the organizers of these events are very passionate about spreading the word. Their enthusiasm is one thing that keeps us going.

The response has been incredible so far, with people from Europe to Australia telling us how the film inspired them to learn more or drawing connections between the political issues in Melanesia and those in their own home countries. We love it when people who are working on climate change or other issues discussed in the film can come and participate in Q&As and talk about what they are doing. We see a lot of that, and it always contributes to a very positive discussion.

If you make a film which makes a political point on behalf of an oppressed group, you are bound to receive ‘pushback’ from some of the world’s most toxic and reactionary people. To a new filmmaker that must look particularly daunting, to the point it may give them second thoughts on even making a film. What advice do you have for beginners when it comes to facing that?

I try to make my films in collaboration with groups working on the ground and to follow their lead in terms of the messages we are conveying. To me, that is a good way to stay true and to be resilient in the face of pushback. With several of my films, you have very powerful state actors who are trying to censor information and to stop news about these situations from getting out. The government of Indonesia does not want people hearing from local residents promoting self-determination in West Papua. Likewise, the government of Morocco does not want people talking about the movement for a free Western Sahara. So in those cases, we are sometimes fighting just to get our films screened in the face of active lobbying and censorship. My advice would be to not try to do it yourself.

Whenever possible, join a movement and recruit allies. It is only when we have had great local activists who really believe in these causes pushing for the films that we have been able to overcome attempts to shut them down. I also recommend filmmakers to always use obstacles as fuel for more commitment; if you are disturbing state terrorist governments, which means you are accomplishing your goals! Resilience is the main factor for activist filmmakers to survive so one needs to keep on going unabated.

In contrast to brushing off a trolling, taking legitimate criticism on-board is an important part of any filmmaker’s growth – but it can still be difficult. How have you handled the reviews for your work over the years?

One thing about filmmaking is that it is a collaborative art form. I wouldn’t be able to make these films without an amazing team working with me that also includes local people in the countries where we are shooting. So I benefit a lot from their guidance and it shapes what ends up being in my documentaries. But when one makes confrontational films against the powerful and for and with the oppressed people, one needs be ready for a lot of hate-mail, heat, attacks. This is definitely not for the faint-hearted.

Everywhere we look at present, there is some kind of crisis – and so something many activists have to contend with now is burnout. As well as founding Cultures of Resistance, and its foundation, you also travel around the world, develop relationships with new groups and make films about their struggles. It sounds both physically and emotionally exhausting. How do you avoid overloading yourself?

I am a devoted workaholic and feel incredibly lucky to be doing what I’m doing. I meet so many people that inspire me and this keeps me going even when the hours are long or we have to deal with crazy production difficulties. Meeting with grassroots activists and learning from them, finding new artists and musicians who inspire the world, talking with audiences who take something positive from the films, all these things are very gratifying and make our efforts worthwhile.

I also work with a lot of young people who truly believe our combined efforts can provoke positive change, so there is not even time to think about exhaustion, we just keep on fighting. I will rest when I die, and until then full commitment is my raison d’être. 🙂✊✊✊

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