After emails back-and-forth for a couple of weeks, we finally manage to catch some time with activist and acclaimed documentary filmmaker Iara Lee in New York following a packed-out screening of her two latest documentaries, as she prepares to head out to Brazil, followed by India and East Timor on the rest of the films’ tour. Not content with sticking them online and seeing what happens, Lee is touring her new films all over the world for more than 100 dates, speaking about her experiences, filmmaking and activism, and sparking discussion amongst audiences.

“Making films is 10% of the work,” Lee laughs “it’s after they’re finished that the hard work begins.” It’s difficult to believe this from a filmmaker who has trekked to the basecamp of the K2 Mountain and spent time in Syrian refugee camps in the name of her work as a documentarian, but it’s clear what she means. As an independent filmmaker, Lee doesn’t have a big force behind her pushing her films out; once she’s finished making a film it’s down to her to get them in front of audiences, meaning no time for relaxation.

The films in question are K2 and the Invisible Footmen, chronicling the lives of the indigenous porters who support climbers on the majestic K2 Mountain – the second-highest in the world; and Life is Waiting: Referendum and Resistance in Western Sahara about the plight of the Sahrawi people to free themselves from Moroccan occupation.

“I want to give a voice to the voiceless and give space in the media to those who need it” Lee says of her filmmaking.

Looking at K2 and the Invisible Footmen and Life is Waiting side-by-side at a glance, the two films are very different. K2 is a personal, very human story of the repetitive daily toil of its subject, whereas Life Is Waiting looks at the larger political and cultural implications of life under constant occupation for the people of Western Sahara. But on closer inspection it’s clear that the subjects that interest Lee the most are those under the thumb of others and other cultures – whether it’s the K2 porters who dedicate their lives to supporting the western climbers, or the Sahrawi people forced to live under the occupation of Spain and Morocco.

“My approach to the causes I explore in my films differs. Sometimes I’ll opt for a softer touch, and sometime I’m more confrontational, but I always honour unsung heroes,” explains Lee when we ask her how she chooses her projects.

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Photo by Shah Zaman Baloch (Courtesy of Cultures of Resistance Network)

Many of the locations and situations Lee puts herself in through her work would be considered testing at the best of times. In May 2010 she was on board a civilian ship in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla carrying international aid workers that was attacked by the Israeli forces, resulting in the deaths of nine of her fellow passengers.

“I’m very aware when I go into these situations of the very real possibility that I could die.” Lee says very matter-of-factly. “Going into these shoots, I often find the crew think they’re going off on this big adventure, but I have to remind them that we’re going in to the middle of a war zone and there’s a chance that we could die or get kidnapped.”

Lee says that she’s protective over her crew when on these potentially dangerous shoots, having been the one to bring them there, but concedes that there’s nothing she can do to make them safer – if they get killed or kidnapped, what can she do to prevent it?

“I’ve been very lucky,” grants Lee, recalling an incident she’d witnessed in Gaza when white phosphorous was used against the Palestinians by the Israeli military.

While at a refugee camp in 2000, Lee remembers Afghan refugees throwing rocks at her and her team and wondering, “why are they doing this? We’re trying to help.” But upon hearing their point-of-view, the cause of their hostility became clear. “Everyday we have journalists and cameras here and nothing changes, nothing improves,” they said.

“Documentation is not enough,” asserts Iara. “I work with the subjects of my documentaries and engage with them personally to help bring about change, tiny step by tiny step.”

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Photo by Shah Zaman Baloch (Courtesy of Cultures of Resistance Network)

Acting on her belief that “the best way to help humans is to empower them,” Lee runs a foundation called Cultures of Resistance (also the name of her third feature documentary from 2010), which aims to “create and distribute films that advance public awareness about issues of social and economic justice, and that showcase creative efforts to promote peace and protect human rights.” Through Cultures of Resistance, Iara and the team of activists, agitators, educators, and artists she works alongside strive create opportunities for those without access to them. Iara personally invests in SRI stocks and bonds, with funds from successful investments going towards her films and the Cultures of Resistance Network Foundation, which supports many organisations and activists around the world, including educational scholarships for people affected by war and extreme poverty – like one currently running at SOAS university in London.

“People have asked me ‘why don’t you tackle something more manageable instead of going after these tsunamis and massive global issues?’ We’re never going to be able to bring about big change at once, but we can take baby steps,” acknowledges Lee. “People use it as an excuse to not do anything, but I’ll stubbornly be taking baby steps, even when there’s a tsunami up against me.”

Even screening her films has been somewhat of an uphill battle, with presentations of Life is Waiting having to take place in secretive, underground events within certain countries. The Moroccan government, who come under severe criticism in the film for their occupation of Western Sahara, actively blocked screenings in UAE, Beirut, where they threatened to pull or cut funding for institutions that screen the film.

When we ask Iara what’s next on her slate, she surprises us with the declaration that she’s taking the unlikely leap from documentary filmmaking to organic farming. “I want to be in close proximity to nature in a very visceral way,” she says. To start, she’ll be learning the ropes from the people around the world who have been doing it for years, beginning with Indonesia and Sikkim – India’s first fully organic state.

What will surely be organic farming’s gain will be filmmaking’s loss. Aside from being of global importance, Iara Lee’s documentaries are compelling studies in what it means to be a human being in an increasingly divided world. Selfishly, we can only hope it’s not a permanent departure from film.

Joe Supple-Turnham
Joe is Marketing Manager at Raindance - taking care of Raindance's social media, newsletters, and contributing to the website. He's a sucker for a good coming-of-age movie.