Cultures of Resistance

Iara Lee’s amazing documentary Cultures of Resistance takes us into some of the most troubled, violent and politically charged places in the word and shines a light on the individuals and groups that are using art and grassroots organizations to push against the horrors and injustice that they see on a daily basis. An almost decade-long work, Lee’s journey that resulted in the film began in 2003; CoR travels from Brazil to Burma, Liberia to Palestine, in search of love and art in the most turbulent of environments. The film opens with shots of International Peace Day, September 21; around the world, citizens of Sierra Leone, France, Afghanistan, Greece, Argentina and the US are shown staging peaceful demonstrations against war. From there, each subsequent chapter documents specific societal low-points that are being met with, for the most part, peaceful and artistic expressions of resistance.

Unfortunately, but understandably, the areas of the film’s focus are where civil rights abuses are most prevalent. Stories from Africa, the Middle East and South America make up the bulk of the footage. The opening salvo starts with an organized debate by a (boo, hiss) mining company in Brazil attempting to explain how damming a river, obviously a main source of livelihood for the indigenous people, will be good for all. It soon descends into bedlam as machete-wielding locals storm the podium attacking a dam representative; it’s the one violent protest in the film.

The documentary unfolds in chapters that outline respective atrocities and attempts at solutions in Liberia, Rwanda, Brazil (again), Palestine, Iran, Columbia, Syria and others. Unfortunately ,in most instances the noble efforts of the well-meaning, those offering artistic interpretations and hoping for a dialogue against the violence, fail to make a dent in the often politically motivated carnage. Against the corporate goliaths, David doesn’t look like he stands much of a chance.

Nigerian musician/dissident Fela Kuti (via archival footage) and his son rile against the discrepancy between the profits being taken out of the ground and the disease-laden water the local inhabitants have to drink. Savage gun-wielding militants represent the perhaps more practical violent segment of the resistance, arguing that the oil companies only respond when they feel threatened. In the Congo resistance to the brutality of continuous rape that women of that country have been suffering through for years has yet to materialize, welcomed, selfless medical help is the only balm offered.

Each region has its own distinct issues, which can be divided into the violent and the political, sometimes simultaneously. The violent incidents are of course the most galvanizing—scenes of actual murders in Brazil are horrific. We see a group of police stomp a suspect to the ground, a heavy boot holding the man’s head against the pavement, and then drag him behind a van where he is summarily executed. In another scene, a revolver-toting policeman confronts two men on a motorcycle and after a short scuffle shoots both of them multiple times. In Liberia, former child soldiers recount episodes of cutting open pregnant women to see what sex the fetus is. In one voice over, a boy describes “killing all the people.” Attempts to deal with these apocalisms come in the form of healing rather than direct confrontation. Education and therapy, both mental and physical, offer band-aids and come across as passive solutions rather than resistance. A cartoonist documenting mass murder may open people’s eyes to tragedy but can hardly hope to lessen it.


The political end of the spectrum includes the seemingly neverending struggle for claims to the dusty lands of the Middle East and government oppression in closed societies. Irani soldiers get together on a surprisingly strong hip-hop track in a rap video straight out of Compton, while a more highbrow acoustic performance laments the insidious gassing of 15,000 citizens in Halabja. In Syria, a calligrapher produces beautiful texts of freedom-forward slogans.

Frustration and exasperation are continuous topics throughout the film, and the many forms of resistance shown are born from those emotions. Rock-throwing Palestinians bemoan the systemized destruction of their villages as Israel has taken over. The rappers, animators and photographers who document the frustrations do so with passion and talent, but actual resistance this is not; perhaps the rock throwers had the right idea. Likewise, a poetry festival in Colombia, while inspiring, will have little effect on the atrocious murder rate there, where approximately one person is killed every 10 minutes. The film ends on a positive note with a review of the protests of February 2003.

The tens of millions of people in up to 60 countries who admirably took to the streets to denounce the impending war on Iraq comprised the largest anti-war rally in history. Unfortunately, as with the examples of passive resistance shown throughout, the war proceeded as scheduled, and one can only wonder if forms of resistance to gross societal injustices might need to be a little less cultured.

– Adam Pollock