Prior to an epiphany in 2003, Korean/Brazilian film director Iara Lee had been immersed in the study of adapting the human limits of experience through technology. ‘Synthetic Pleasures’ (1995) panned across the subjects of virtual reality, biotechnology, plastic surgery, and designer drugs, previewing the facets of a transhuman future. “We amuse ourselves to death,” Lee quipped in a 1996 interview with Ruse Magazine.
An adoptive US-citizen and spouse of pro sports entrepreneur George Gund III, Lee was less amused by 2003. Observing the US invasion of Iraq with horror and concern over a future of self-destruction, she embarked on a documentary journey spanning five continents and answering those critics who questioned her political engagement as a filmmaker.
‘Cultures of Resistance’ (2010) – the product of Lee’s journey – is above all a testament to the power of cultural expression as a form of political activism. From the Amazon Basin to Nigeria, the Congo, Burma, Iran, and Palestine, among other locales, citizens and featured artists discuss the complexities of peace, violence, art, and resistance in pursuit of social justice.
Central to Lee’s depiction of global conflicts is the tension between waging violent and peaceful campaigns of resistance. After a barrage of themes imposed over a roving aerial map – “Imperialism”, “Oppressed Becomes Oppressor”, “Nonviolence”, “Art” – the film begins with footage from around the world on International Peace Day.
Following a disparate timeline of events that span roughly from the end of the 1980s to the present day, ‘Cultures of Resistance’ explores, side by side, the despairing mentality of resistance and hope. From the execution of Nigerian pacifist Ken Saro Wiwa in 1995, to the terror of repeated rape victims in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the fatal logic of violent mobilisation receives necessary if disheartening scrutiny, crucial to Lee’s candid portrayal of social struggle.
In the Amazon basin, chaos ensues over the Xingu dam project as an audience of sword-wielding indigenous residents ambush a representative of the project. Former child soldiers in Liberia provide chilling testimony of their abandoned life of drugs and violence. In the favelas of Rio, wanton attacks by both police and gangs prompt one artist to call the situation an “epidemic of minor conflicts everywhere”.
“Your mind must look at the darkness, but your will and action must be driven toward change,” says an Iranian activist.
The true alternative to violence, the film suggests, is resistance through art forms committed to activism. Musicians, editorial cartoonists, graffiti artists, poets, and dancers exhibit the ways in which cultural resistance facilitates education, unity, renewed identity, and the possibility of nonviolent reconciliation.
Some of the most alarming images in the film revolve around displaced children and their exposure to habitual violence. Many of the individuals interviewed lament and warn that the poverty and instability in these children’s lives will perpetuate cycles of violence in the absence of just reforms.
As in many documentaries that examine child poverty, the footage of wide-eyed kids staring into the camera lens highlights not only the gross inequality of electronics constructed from expropriated minerals, but the inadequacies of portraying daily life as these communities understand and live it. The range of locations and struggles considered in ‘Cultures of Resistance’ is so manifold that each and every instance, in its own right, could warrant several documentaries apiece.
To analyse this film strictly on the basis of the material presented would be inexcusably naïve, however, and too often ‘Cultures of Resistance’ contradicts its own criticism of the Western media’s suppression of facts.
It is beyond necessary for these underrepresented viewpoints to be heard and dignified with meaningful, committed dialogue, but the film seeks blamelessly to present a panoramic vision of a world in dire need, meanwhile condemning the left’s usual suspects of oppression to the status of monoliths.
The effect, unfortunate and short-sighted, is that deeply complicated and crucially different struggles, while informative in relative isolation, are minimised by an unspoken conviction: the superpowers of the world (“The United States and global public opinion” the film wryly jokes) will be locked in eternal antagonism.
It is no secret that Iara Lee was a proud participant in the 2010 Gaza Freedom Flotilla, a humanitarian mission protesting the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza. Lee was a passenger on board the Turkish MV Mavi Marmara, the only one of six vessels to clash violently with the blockading Israeli Defence Forces. In international waters, nine activists were killed and seven Israeli soldiers injured in a clear mismatch of defence capabilities.
The United Nations Human Rights Council later produced a report detailing the circumstances of the confrontation, calling Israel’s conduct a violation of human rights but also casting doubt on organisations involved in the Flotilla. More significantly for global public opinion, Lee managed to withhold some footage of the incident despite Israeli forces confiscating nearly all traces of what happened.
While Israel got a lead on international media coverage of the event, Lee’s below deck footage went severely underreported in mainstream sources until long after, giving credence to accusations of a Western stranglehold in the global public relations war.
The incident in Gaza bears significance to ‘Cultures of Resistance’ because it underscores the critical role and responsibility of the media in bringing conflicts around the world to the attention of populations everywhere.
While Lee’s film courageously empowers voices buried beneath the prevailing slant, it does too little in the way of engaging precisely those audiences it deems sources of the problem. The segment on Palestine – at times a damning and disturbing indictment of Israeli practice (deemed an apartheid regime) – lacks the kind of full contextualisation that would better serve the peace process than inflaming an intransigent neoconservative reaction. ‘Cultures of Resistance’ risks such audiences watching without seeing.
Perhaps this is part of the calculus of making a film that will encourage social and political activism. “Your anger is a gift,” Rage Against the Machine’s Zach de la Rocha often said. Rooted in the left’s countercultural tradition, it is little surprise that Lee skilfully bridges art and politics – just like the protagonists of her film and members of the Cultures of Resistance Network who do, undoubtedly, effect positive change in communities around the world.
There is a certain kind of synthetic pleasure in depicting a political aesthetic of resistance, one that assimilates righteousness, technology, and the human heart in the service of awakening cultural identity.
The question is whether ‘Cultures of Resistance’, with its global aspirations for justice and peace, stirs up viewers’ unflinching conviction at the expense of critical examination. To bring true understanding of one’s adversaries, as well as the divides separating us’s from them’s to begin with, would seem a more arduous and insecure road. But it would make us all rely less on cynicism for inspiration. Art will survive.