“You can't take our company very seriously,” says documentary filmmaker Iara Lee, starting to laugh. “Because it's named after a drink.” The libation is the caipirinha, a potent mix of fresh lime crushed with sugar and cachaca, a sugar-cane liquor, that is the national drink of Brazil, where the 32-year-old was born to Korean parents. The company is Caipirinha Productions, which Lee formed after graduating from NYU in 1993 to shoot her first feature, Synthetic Pleasures, a look at the relationships between people and technology. While Lee makes light of having a company named after a cocktail, she's discovered that it does have its advantages. “When we were at Toronto with the film, we had the most popular hotel room because we were giving out free shots,” she says. “At Sundance I spent a whole afternoon crushing limes.”
The special function of alcohol as a lubricant for the wheels of self-promotion plays only a negligible part in Lee's filmic pursuits. From Synthetic Pleasures on through her latest documentary, Modulations – a high-energy look at the development of electronic music from the theremin to DJ Spooky – the New York-based director has been preoccupied with a different sort of social and cultural terrain. “My obsession for the last few years,” she says, “has been to understand how technology can empower creativity.” The evidence that technology can do just that courses through every scene of Modulations, which traces the flow of electronic musical forms across an array of disparate communities. Whether it's French intellectuals pursuing avant-garde sound constructions or Detroit DJs concocting new dance-music hybrids to escape their urban surroundings, the unifying theme is the ingenious and subversive manipulation of machines.
It was, however, behind the camera that Lee herself got firsthand experience in technological empowerment. Synthetic Pleasures ended up being a three-year endeavor largely because Lee insisted on shooting her interviews on film (“I was a purist,” she volunteers). The trouble was, her subjects would often eat up expensive rolls of film before saying anything she could use. Having learned her lesson, Lee threw a wide embrace around a number of different formats – including video and digital cameras – to shoot Modulations, a multivalent approach that not only saved money and time, but worked on an aesthetic level as well. “There's all these different textures in the film,” says Lee. “It's like when music people mix the digital with the analog, acoustic with synthetic sounds. That's the beauty of it, to be able to intermingle different formats. I'm very glad I got over that purism.” Now she's ready for the next evolutionary leap.
“I'm looking forward to when technology will enable artists to have direct communication with audiences,” says Lee. “What really bogs you down is the fact that you're so dependent on distributors. Video downloading will be the next step.” In the meantime, though, she's taken Modulations to a number of venues that lie off the beaten theatrical track, screening it before raves and even projecting the film's montage sequences as visual candy in dance clubs. “It's survival, you know. We've had to be creative.”
And as Lee has explored alternative screening venues, the filmmaker has also become an entrepreneur. (It's something that runs in the family: Lee's husband is George Gund III, owner of the stuffed-animal company, as well as the San Jose Sharks.) Since the completion of Modulations, Caipirinha Productions has expanded to include music and publishing arms that will release the film's soundtrack and a companion collection of essays. (Other Caipirinha projects include a series of CDs featuring compositions inspired by architectural forms.) Lee likes to look at such cross-pollination as a way to “shake the cultural status of the country.” Others might call it just old-fashioned synergy. “I know,” she admits. “It's bizarre. The big companies do the same thing on a huge level to generate more revenue. We do it because we feel our creativity bursting. But the more projects we do, the more money goes down the drain. My producer makes fun of me, saying, 'What's the new subdivision of the company today?' It's amusing. We're running ads now about our activities: 'Caipirinha, reinventing culture: Film, music, cocktails.'”