I discovered the work of film director Iara Lee, founder of Cultures of Resistance foundation, whilst researching the role of women in the Western Sahara conflict, which she explores in her documentary, Life is Waiting: Referendum and Resistance in Western Sahara. After speaking about her experiences in the refugee camps in Algeria, I was excited to have the opportunity to interview her about her current documentary on the art of resistance in Burkina Faso, as well as her use of filmmaking as a form of activism in general.
Your filmmaking has led you to so many different places all over the world. What drew you to Burkina Faso for your latest documentary?
I had been working with the group Slow Food International to look at countries where there are active movements to defend food sovereignty and protect traditional forms of agriculture. That led me to West Africa. Once I was there, I was inspired by Burkina Faso’s incredible recent political history. Lots of people may not even know that Burkina Faso is a country. That can cause us to dismiss it, or it can spark curiosity. I wanted to emphasize the latter and explore this intriguing country. I think Burkina Faso has some amazing lessons to teach us. In a small, landlocked country in Africa, the people made a revolution by coming together. They removed a dictator who had been in power for 27 years and was trying everything to stay longer — even modifying the constitution!
The more I learned, the more I wanted to share information about the history of resistance in this country. I also wanted to spread awareness about Thomas Sankara, the former president who was killed in a coup d’état led by his best friend and advisor, Blaise Compoare, who then glued himself to power for 27 years. Although Sankara is an African hero, most international people don’t know much about him, like they know about leaders such as Nelson Mandela. Today, Sankara’s spirit is everywhere in Burkina Faso. I always say that this shows that you can kill a person, but you cannot kill his spirit.
In an interview for Raindance, you said your focus is always the “unsung heroes”. Could you tell me about the people of Burkina Faso who you met, as well as their means of resistance?
People think of resistance as big political action and marches. But it really entails the accumulation of many small actions from different areas and fields. Change happens through music, poetry, art, agriculture, architecture. I tried to show many different types of people in the film, who do different types of work to provoke change. We meet people like Malike la Slameuse, a slam poet, who uses her poems to offer a feminist perspective on a male-dominated art form. We see Marto, the country’s most well-known graffiti artist, who turns barren city walls into colorful murals decrying injustice. And we watch Serge Aimé Coulibaly, a dancer, who sees his art as a form of political resistance, with movement borne from a need to speak out and take action. And there are so many more. I was really inspired by all of these people!
What positive impact do you hope to have by making this film on the lives of those you featured?
I hope people don’t just watch the film and say they enjoyed it and then go back to their lives. My hope is that people will watch and be inspired to become more proactive. Clicking “like” on social media is not enough. We have to get out of our bubbles, get out there, and work on the ground. Hopefully, my film can be a call to action and move people to be more hands-on.
We know through struggles all over the world that this type of international solidarity can be very important to people on the ground. I hope that by bringing some international attention to the people featured in this film, they can form links with others across borders, have their work noticed, and that they’ll be on the radar in terms of international monitoring of human rights issues. Solidarity can be a very powerful thing, even if we don’t know in advance what its final effects will be.
So much of your work appears to centralise non-violent protest. Have you found different nations find very different ways of expressing their dissent? Are there any significant differences you have noticed?
There are certainly some common themes across many different countries. People on different continents are all resisting oppression, corruption, and economic exploitation, and so there are probably more similarities than differences. One of the things that I want to show is that lessons learned from a country like Burkina Faso can be applicable in many different places. That said, what is exciting to me is that every place I go, you have people drawing on their own unique cultural traditions. They’re making resistance art and creating new forms of protest that reflect who they are and the unique influences of their region.
As one example, during the revolution in Burkina Faso, they coalesced around the symbol of the broom, which created a unique image for the movement. Everyone carried brooms at protests, calling for a “clean sweep,” and this was very striking initiative by Le Balai Citoyen group (The citizens’ broom). It’s just one small thing, but it’s an example of how every protest looks a little different and how everyone is able to find symbols that are resonant in their time and place. What’s exciting to me is when we look at globalization not as homogeneity — everyone doing the same thing – but as localized creativity responding to common challenges.
What have been the responses so far to Burkinabè Rising?
The film is super new but it has already started screening around the world and is currently scheduled to show in more than thirty countries and our goal is to screen it in 100 countries by the end of this year! So far, we’ve received some incredible feedback from audiences, which is very encouraging. A lot of people have been saying the film has inspired them to learn more about resistance art internationally. In Italy, an audience member said that the film prompted a great post-screening discussion, while one Burkinabè viewer called it “a mirror of Burkina Faso’s revolution.” Many other audience members have said that they hadn’t even know the country existed and now felt really inspired to learn more about West Africa.
In the documentary, there seems to be an emphasis on young people and their different ways of expressing themselves; do you believe that progress and change depends largely on the work of young people?
I think empowering youth is absolutely critical. Young people in Burkina Faso had only heard about Sankara through books, stickers, t-shirts, but his spirit and philosophy permeate every aspect of the Burkinabè life. He believed in building Africa for Africans—by coming together and organizing their communities, not waiting for others to do it for them. The youth took that example and ran with it—with incredible results.
I was very excited to see there is an upcoming retrospective of your work this month at Deptford Cinema in London! How have you come to view the films you have made in the past, considering how entrenched they are within their various historical/political moments?
For me, there is a lot of continuity between the films because they document the struggle of humans’ philosophical ambitions through arts & culture and technology and later, arts & culture for activism, human rights, ecology. In this case, they’re showing one of my very early films, Synthetic Pleasures, which is from 1995. That was filmed at a moment when I was interested in the human creation of artificial environments and the human desire to control spaces, bodies, minds through creative technology. Cultures of Resistance was the first in a series of films that I’ve been doing to chronicle creative political resistance around the world. The politics of K2 and the Invisible Footmen are a little more subtle but come through when we talk about the lives of the Pakistani porters, the unsung heroes who for decades have facilitated the ascent of the Earth’s second-highest mountain, who live and work under very difficult conditions, and whose contributions are rarely recognized.
What advice would you give to young filmmakers, as well as other creatives, hoping to use their talent to incite activism and change?
We need to unite and each contribute in our own way. Use whatever talents you have — music, design, poetry, cooking, filmmaking — and use them to help build movements for change. We can all participate and use creativity instead of weapons. That’s what they are doing in Burkina Faso! It goes back to the idea of diversifying what political activism looks like.