Director Iara Lee discusses Wantoks and the Peloponnissos Documentary Festival

Below is an English version of director Iara Lee's interview about WANTOKS for the Peloponnissos Documentary Festival in January 2020. You can find the original Greek article here.

—How did the cooperation with the ”Peloponnissos Documentary Festival” come to fruition? Were you approached to participate in it?

The Peloponnissos Documentary Festival has been a great past supporter of our films. So when this opportunity to come to the festival in person arose, I was very excited! This time, besides presenting a mini-retrospective of our Cultures of Resistance films, we will also have a photo exhibit about climate change called ‘Warm Waters’ by Vlad Sokhin. This exhibit is a companion project to our climate change film called WANTOKS, which I shot in Melanesia, on the Solomon Islands. I will also be a jury member at the festival and our film editor, Dimo Petkov, will be coming to nurture Greek film students and lead some sessions on filmmaking and editing, I will participate in these sessions and will discuss the importance of using film as a medium to engage audiences about crucial issues, as well as how films can be used to entice more young people towards action. Being informed is not enough; we need to be getting involved!

—Talk to us about your own documentaries that we’re going to watch at the festival. Why do you believe they are worth watching?

I have had the ability of visiting many off-the-beaten-path countries that most people would have a hard time accessing, and I have learned a lot about resistance movements happening in these different corners of the world. It is amazing to be able to share stories of what activist artists are accomplishing worldwide and enable audiences to visit these places via our films! I make personal films about my journeys and what I learn. Through sharing these experiences, I hope to inspire more people to care and to act.

I am thrilled to share some of our latest films with Peloponnesian audiences. A list of the films and the screening schedule is here: https://www.facebook.com/events/554431685410020/

—During the festival, will we see any of your new projects?

Yes. 'WANTOKS: dance of resilience in Melanesia’ is one of our newest films. In 2018, the Solomon Islands, in the South Pacific, hosted the Melanesian Arts & Cultural Festival, celebrating the country’s 40th anniversary of the islands' independence. On neighboring island states, the struggle for freedom continues, as West Papua resists Indonesian occupation and the residents of New Caledonia still live under French rule. In all Melanesian countries, residents face the common challenge of climate change, as rising sea levels threaten to swallow both land and tradition. In this charged context, captivating performers are using their talents to celebrate local culture and draw international attention to their islands’ plight, with the hope of spurring international solidarity and prompting collective action against the perils of a warming world.

—Is there any documentary that you can identify with the most?

I feel very attached to the people of Burkina Faso. This small landlocked country in West Africa is home to a vibrant community of artists, musicians, and engaged citizens. Through the power of the people and a massive popular insurrection, they removed despotic former president Blaise Compaoré, who was in power for 27 years and wanted to stay longer! So people revolted a few years ago and now they continue this long revolutionary journey. They face lots of challenges, but they continue the struggle for change unabated. Today, this spirit of resistance is mightier than ever and it permeates every aspect of the Burkinabè life. I believe Burkina Faso is an inspiration, not only to Africa, but to the rest of the world.

—How difficult is it to separate your logic from your emotions while watching other people’s real lives as a director?

I am moved by my gut feelings. I definitely lean more toward the emotional than the cerebral. That is why, even when I make political films, there is a real emphasis on arts and culture. I almost always feel that dry political analysis won’t touch people’s hearts and minds--yet a powerful political song, poem, or photo can accomplish a lot more, both in terms of explaining a situation and getting people moving toward more compassion and solidarity.

—Do you believe that documentaries receive the acceptance they deserve?

Unfortunately, when we say ‘documentary,’ a lot of people still associate that word with long, boring, tedious films. But more and more the medium has been revitalized. A lot of young filmmakers are transforming the format into a cutting-edge form of artistic expression. I believe that how information is relayed is as important as what information is relayed. So I encourage young documentary filmmakers to think unconventionally and be innovative about how they tell their stories.

—What do the Greek Cinema fans have in common with other fans around the world?

I guess I will learn when I get to Greece! We’ve had many screenings in Greece in the past, but I have not been able to be present. So I very much look forward to meeting local audiences and learning about their take on the world affairs that are tackled in our films. In general, I feel that Greek people are very politically engaged due to hardcore political events they all had to go through. I believe that hardships make us more sensitive, caring, and concerned citizens. While many people think of Greece as a country to go to for vacation, I see Greece as a country of resistance -- a place with active young people who are questioning and demanding positive change. Like people everywhere in the world, Greeks are also fed up with corrupt politicians, mismanagement, and the high price that ordinary people pay in the end for the abuses of the powerful.

—Have you considered making a documentary about the refugees issue in the Mediterranean Sea?- What are your personal thoughts on the matter?

I encourage local filmmakers who can spend extensive time with refugees and their stories to document the crisis. Refugees are forced into exile not because they want to leave their homes, but because circumstances beyond their control have pushed them to flee their home countries. If people have humanity, we should extend support to refugees and not just deport them back to their war-torn countries! This is a colossal crisis and I hope the Greek people, despite having their own difficulties making ends meet, will continue to have space in their hearts for people who are less fortunate.

—From your last visit in Greece, what impressions has our country left you with?

I am not an expert on all the social, political, and economic issues that you are facing in your country, but clearly you have lived through a very intense decade--with financial crisis, extreme economic hardship, conflict with the EU, and waves of popular resistance. It has been very moving for me to learn about some of these experiences and to witness how ordinary people have stood up to demand justice in very trying times. When I make films about far-away places--especially about countries in the global South--I do not see them as exotic locations with unfamiliar problems. Instead, I see people facing difficulties that are very relatable throughout the world. As the saying goes, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. So in this sense, my impression visiting Greece was one of interconnection, seeing people confront issues that appear in many places in the world.

—Have you faced any dangerous situations at your working environment?

By speaking truth to power, we automatically put ourselves 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 like it when you speak up. So I do not seek 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. I recognize that there are risks that go with the territory of activist filmmaking, so i have been jailed, deported, had visas canceled, i am blacklisted and cannot enter many despotic countries etc, but we keep on going!

In 2010 for example, I was involved in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, which was 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--resulting in the deaths of nine passengers on the boat I was in: the Mavi Marmara. That was a very harrowing experience.

—How would you describe the experience of working and travelling at the same time? – Is it something you wanted to do from a young age?

For me, life and filmmaking are the same thing. I have been traveling nonstop since I am 19 years old. I travel to learn, and I make films to share what I have learned. I never go into situations as an expert, but rather as a curious person eager to understand and extend my support and solidarity. Through this process, the Cultures of Resistance network has made alliances with artists and activists around the world, and in many cases we continue to collaborate with them for years.

—What is your biggest dream or ambition in relation with direction and script writing?

With the way I make films, there is very little script-writing. I let life unfold in front of my eyes and I try to document it as it occurs--no staging, no preconceived ideas. My intent is to capture fluid moments of daily life and struggles.

I do not have any big dreams. I am more interested in proceeding slowly but surely, and in the cumulative efforts that become my life’s raison d’être: a lifetime of commitment to peace with justice and against war profiteers, state terrorism, corporate abuse, environmental degradation, and other injustices.

I am interested in small moments of sincerity and proactivity. Most of the time, I like to document people who are not in the limelight but are instead going about their resistance work with perseverance and resilience. I am interested in collective movements, rather than in character-driven documentaries where one person is made into a hero. I believe accomplishments require many, so we need to get more and more people to join the movement!

—Which are your most important worries regarding art in general?

I am actually open to all sorts of art, whether it is art for art’s sake, or art that provokes change -- political art. But personally, I find art to be such an effective means of making people care that it feels like a wasted opportunity if it is used only in a banal way. Our Cultures of Resistance operation--which includes both filmmaking and also a sister foundation--is a way of working at the intersection of art, creativity, and resistance.

—Is there a director or writer that you look up to?

Over the last 25 years I have been so busy making films that most of my film knowledge comes from the classics of cinema. I love Tarkovsky, and the film we are finishing now--called “STALKING CHERNOBYL: exploration after apocalypse”--is dedicated to him. I also like Kurosawa, early Godard, and Truffault’s films. And then there’s Vittorio De Sica, and so many others… too many to name!

—In the end, do you believe someone is born an artist or can become one growing up?

I believe that a life as an artist can develop in many ways, and I think it is important to encourage all people to bring their artistic side forward. Art can manifest in many shapes and forms: everything that is done with presence is art. I believe in the art of dishwashing and the art of entering information into a spreadsheet, just like i believe in the art of writing a good book or making a good film. If you put your heart, mind, and soul into it, everything you do and touch is art. And life itself becomes art. I believe that how you live your life and fight for the values you embrace is your greatest art :).