Born in April 1966, Iara Lee is a film producer of Korean-Brazilian heritage who began her cinematic career in the 1980s. From 1984-89 she was the producer of the Sao Paulo International Film Festival, held in her native Brazil. She then relocated to New York City and created Caipirinha Productions, a multi-media outlet (named after Brazil’s national cocktail) which she headed from 1989-2003. Under the Caipirinha banner, Lee directed a number of short and feature-length documentaries.
During the 1990s, Lee’s documentaries dealt chiefly with cultural themes. In 1995, for instance, she released Synthetic Pleasures, a film that focused on technology and art — and featured the counter-cultural figures Timothy Leary and R.U. Sirius. She followed this in 1998 with Modulations: Cinema for the Ear, documenting the history of electronic music. But as the prospect of a U.S. invasion of Iraq grew ever-more likely in early 2003, Lee began to turn her attention increasingly toward political matters and to embrace a variety of leftist views. This shift was reflected in her documentary work, most notably with regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East.
In 2004 Lee and her husband, billionaire sports mogul George Gund III, established the Iara Lee and George Gund III Foundation (ILGGF). Two years later, they created the Caipirinha Foundation (CF), where Lee served as CEO. Both of these entities were created to award grants to numerous leftist organizations. Cumulatively in 2007 and 2008, Lee and Gund contributed $1,133,562 to ILGGF and $762,953 to CF.
On her Facebook page, Lee recounts that while she lived in Lebanon in 2006, she “experienced firsthand the 34-day Israeli bombardment of that country.” She does not mention, however, that Israel’s military campaign was a response to a series of attacks and kidnappings by the Lebanon-based terrorist group Hezbollah.
In 2008, Lee lived in Iran and supported a number of cultural exchange projects between that country and the West, in hopes of using arts and culture as tools for advancing global solidarity.
In May 2010, Lee’s documentary pursuits and her antipathy for Israel led her to join the Free Gaza Movement (FGM), which sought to “break” what it termed the Jewish state’s “siege of Gaza” – a reference to the blockade that Israel had imposed on the region (in 2007) in an effort to quell the terrorist campaigns of Hamas. On May 30, Lee, a vocal critic of what she called Israel’s “collective punishment” of the Palestinians, was one of several hundred anti-Israel activists aboard the Mavi Marmara, the largest vessel in a six-ship FGM flotilla carrying humanitarian supplies destined for Gaza. When the flotilla members repeatedly ignored the Israeli government’s instructions calling for them to submit to cargo inspections before docking in Gaza, Israeli helicopter commandos boarded the decks of the vessels and prevented them from proceeding any further.
The passengers and crews aboard five of the FGM ships surrendered peacefully, but many of those aboard the Mavi Marmara attacked the commandos with clubs, knives, and handguns. In the melee that ensued, nine FGM activists were killed. Lee surreptitiously filmed the altercation and later published her footage at The Huffington Post, along with a blog post lamenting that “nine civilian peace activists” had been “unjustly killed” by Israel’s “indefensible” actions. In a subsequent interview, Lee charged that Israel’s “war commandos” had been dispatched explicitly “to kill,” in a “criminal action,” innocent people engaged in “a humanitarian mission.” Notably, she made no mention of the fact that many of the Mavi Marmara passengers were affiliated with the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedom and Humanitarian Relief, an Islamist organization with deep ties to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. Nor did she note that at least 40 Turkish jihadis as well as senior Muslim Brotherhood members had been among the ship’s passengers.
Later in 2010, Lee included footage of the Mavi Marmara incident in Cultures of Resistance, a documentary produced under the aegis of her online activist network of the same name (Cultures of Resistance). Also in that production was footage praising the respective efforts of: Jeff Halper, spokesman for the International Solidarity Movement and founder of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions; a Lebanese film-making group that “make[s] visible what life is like for Palestinian refugees”; “poets committed to promoting peace and social justice”; a team of socialist, anti-globalization activists; and a Lebanese hip-hop group composed of revolutionary Marxists. A notable admirer of Cultures of Resistance was Jodie Evans, co-founder of Code Pink.
In May of 2011, Lee’s personal Facebook account was suspended after she posted an anti-Semitic cartoon depicting Israel as an enormous, swastika-adorned octopus with its tentacles wrapped around a foundering ship named “Freedom.”
In early June 2011 Lee reported that she had recruited the anti-Israel critic and Holocaust denier Norman Finkelstein to join her on FGM‘s next voyage to Gaza, scheduled for later that month. Finkelstein had previously lauded “the great Iara Lee” in a headline on his website, in recognition of her writing on the “Flotilla bloodbath.”
In addition to the films cited above, other documentaries produced by Lee include: An Autumn Wind (1994, highlighting the simplicity and beauty of Japanese gardens); Architettura (1999, a series of four short films about the complexities of urban life); Beneath the Borqa in Afghanistan (2002, a film centered around interviews with Afghan refugees); Battle for the Xingu (2009, supporting indigenous and civil-society campaigns to prevent the construction of a mega-dam on the Xingu River in Brazil); The Suffering Grasses (2012, exploring the competing impulses among opponents of the Assad regime at the onset of the Syrian revolution); The Kalasha and the Crescent (2013, documenting the challenges faced by the Kalash people of northern Pakistan); A K2 and the Invisible Footmen (2015, documenting the efforts of the Pakistani porters who help adventurers climb the world’s second-highest mountain); and Life Is Waiting: Referendum and Resistance in Western Sahara (2015, a look at the lives of the Sahrawi people of northwest Africa). In 2018 Lee produced a pair of documentaries about the west African nation of Burkina Faso: Burkinabè Rising: The Art of Resistance in Burkina Faso, and Burkinabè Bounty: Agroecology in Burkina Faso.
Aside from her aforementioned projects and affiliations, Lee has also sat on the president’s council of the International Crisis Group, the advisory council of the National Geographic Society, and the trustee board of the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology.
Further Reading: “Iara Lee” (Facebook.com, HuffingtonPost.com); “Iara Lee’s World Beat” (Metroactive.com, August 10-23, 1998); “Exclusive Interview with Iara Lee” (Salem-News.com, 7-2-2010); “About the Film” (CulturesofResistanceFilms.com); “The Flotilla Jihadists’ Artsy Propagandist and Her Billionaire Husband” (by David Swindle, 6-29-