Artists Respond to the Coronavirus Pandemic: WOMEX Interviews Iara Lee

Iara Lee
Photo: iara lee filmmaking in SAUDI ARABIA/ ٱلْعُلَا‎ ( Al-ʿUlā )

You can read an edited version of WOMEX’s interview with director iara lee here. Below, you can find a longer version of the interview.

— How has the pandemic changed the way you work? Please mention what you do, and where you are located currently).

I am a filmmaker, born and raised in Brazil, of Korean descent. Back in January, I was a jury member at the Peloponnisos Film Fest in Greece and decided after the fest, to visit Saudi Arabia, as KSA finally opened the option of online visa, ending the forever redtape to enter the kingdom. I have been locked down in Saudi Arabia ever since. I came for a short visit to witness first-hand the progress that women are making as they achieve their basic rights to drive, cycle, run, not wear abayas or hijabs, and gain more freedom. But now I have been here for three and a half months. I don’t know when I’ll leave because all the airports and borders are still closed.

The pandemic has changed everything in my work as a filmmaker. At Cultures of Resistance Films, we were about to launch our new documentary, Stalking Chernobyl: exploration after apocalypse. We had 100 cities confirmed for its premiere on International Chernobyl Disaster Remembrance Day, April 26th. But then everything got cancelled due to the pandemic. We had to scratch our heads and come up with a solution. We decided to turn negatives into positives by launching the film online. It turned out to make a lot of sense. More than 25,000 people watched the film during the premiere week, which is something that would not have been possible in physical cinemas. So this created a paradigm shift for us in terms of getting our films out to audiences. And after this great first experience, we’ve decided to continue on this path of online self-distribution with our next upcoming films.

— What have you been feeling and experiencing the past weeks? What seeds of new ways of being have you uncovered or nurtured during this pause in ‘normal life’?

The conclusion I have come to is that “normal life” was the problem to begin with. In our “normal” lives, there is too much being produced, too much being purchased, too much being consumed. I hope we will use this coronavirus experience to understand that it’s not about just going forward, doing and accumulating “more, more, more.” Instead, there’s actually meaning in going backwards, slowing down, and reversing the processes by which we are destroying nature and ultimately destroying ourselves. I think we need to take a step back and realize we have to go back to the basics, like eating food without pesticides and finding more natural ways of living. I recently saw a picture of lions lying on the highway in South Africa because humans are not there to hunt them. To me, that was very symbolic. In China, people have been able to see clear skies because pollution has abated. In Delhi, India, people were able to see the sight of the Himalayas for the first time. Sometimes I think maybe humans are the virus. So I am taking this as a call to change our actions and our ways of life, including my own voraciously high level of workaholism. Maybe the world needs less films, less books, less cars, less shops… I believe that the place for quietness has been lost in a society that values speed, productivity, action above all else. Funny enough, during corona times, we celebrate coach potatoes: the most helpful action these days is no action at all. Stay home!!

— In the past months, what have you had to give up or sacrifice, and what has this given way to, or allowed you to see with fresh eyes? What has been lost and what has been gained?

My life changed completely because ordinarily I am a nomadic person. I’m always moving. Every month, I travel to investigate examples of creative grassroots resistance. I’m always out and about with my film crew in different countries, filming new stories. I have visited 176 countries and keep on going. But now, all of a sudden, I don’t even leave my room. I’ve been living a house-arrest kind of lifestyle for the last few months. I’m usually a very outdoorsy person. Now, I’m constantly in front of a computer and trying to do everything online: zoom interviews and webinars, online screenings of our films, endless emails and virtual everything. It’s very difficult and feels claustrophobic. But on the other hand, I’m grateful that I still have the opportunity to be locked down and am not being exposed to contagions. And I’m extremely grateful to the doctors and nurses and all the essential workers that are out there to support society. Oftentimes, these essential workers are not getting paid what they deserve, and we need to change that. They’re why we are able to go to supermarkets and still buy food and essential products that we need for survival.

Lucky are the ones who can afford to feel bored. I’m still too busy, despite the pandemic and the lockdown. But I am definitely trying to figure out how to bring a systemic change toward ‘slowing down’ into my life, and to see COVID-19 as an opportunity to learn some important spiritual lessons. I think the whole thing is about adapting and surviving and moving forward in different ways. That’s the ultimate trait about being human: we have the ability to re-invent ourselves.

Another big lesson I take from this is the idea that we must stop mistreating animals. If these viruses—SARS, Avian flu, coronavirus, Ebola—all come from mishandling wildlife and encroaching on animals’ land, I think this is a very big lesson. This is not going to be the last pandemic if we still have wet markets and we still have an animal industry that is completely abusive. I urge people to stop consuming so much meat and stop encroaching on land that is for wildlife. We need to apply the lessons we learned from these epidemics and pandemics, and we must start respecting the natural world.

— Any new rituals you have created for yourself?

I do abs: I am preparing myself to resurface from this pandemic with a six-pack! And i do daily long-distance swims and yoga because breathing in and out with presence is very important. Inhale your hopes and exhale your despair. This is what I do. And I cook at home too. I haven’t had meat since COVID started and I will continue this way. I am strictly vegetarian now. I hope everybody starts doing more of this, because less animal products is the way to go. Leave the animals alive and don’t mistreat them. It’s better for the world and it’s better for us. We know, for example, that cattle raising is one of the greatest causes of climate change.

— Recall and describe recent moments where your heart has been touched by the witnessing of beauty in any form, in your personal life and in the wider human or natural world.

My life has always been a search for the beautiful amidst the ugly. Most of my films have been set in conflict areas where there are extreme manifestations of ugly human behavior, but where you can also find the highest level of courageous solidarity and compassion. What I have witnessed is that, from every negative experience, there are some very beautiful things we can observe and learn. When I made one of the first films about the Syrian conflict, before it was even a full-blown war, I was very inspired by the women who basically smuggled medication under their abayas, their clothing. In Muslim culture, men do not touch women, so these women could go through checkpoints and deliver medication to hotspots of the conflict, to communities where they didn’t even know people. Out of compassion, they risked their lives to do that. In Rwanda, where I went to film communities after the genocide, I also got to meet incredible Hutu women who defied ethnic divisions and hid their Tutsi neighbors—at great personal risk. They would have been shot if they had been found hiding “the other.” For me, these are amazing stories, showing that people take great risks in order to do what is morally right. This is what I try to depict in my films. Hopefully, once COVID is gone, I’ll be on the road again, looking for more stories of people who take personal risks for the good of humanity. That is where I find my inspiration.

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