Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami on “Sonita”

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Few moviegoing experiences from last year rivaled the sheer emotion of taking two of my cousins to see Iranian filmmaker Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami’s Sundance prize-winning documentary, “Sonita,” at the Chicago Media Project’s inaugural DOC10 Film Festival. The movie centers on Sonita Alizadeh, a young woman not all that different from my cousins. She has remarkable talent, boundless passion and great plans for her future. She also happens to be an Afghan refugee in Iran, living in a culture that disapproves of her desire to write and perform rap songs. Her estranged mother wants to sell her into marriage so that her brother can afford a bride of his own. Faced with a life of oppression, Sonita channels her rage into her music, crafting a song that just might serve as the ticket to her freedom.

There’s no film from 2016 that I loved more than “Sonita.” It stood at the very top of my top ten list, and I was overjoyed when it scored a well-deserved nomination for Best Documentary at the Film Independent Spirit Awards, where it will compete against Oscar nominees such as “I Am Not Your Negro,” “13th” and “O.J.: Made in America.” Last Friday, Maghami spoke via Skype with Indie Outlook about building trust with her subject, her choice to intervene in the film’s narrative, and why Trump is her chief inspiration.

“Sonita” can be linked to your earlier work—such as your 2007 short, “Cyanosis,” and your 2011 feature, “Going Up the Stairs”—in that they all center on people who channel their emotions into their art. 

All of these people are outsider artists. A lot of them have had no education about art, and are somehow marginalized—whether it be a schizophrenic man, an undocumented immigrant girl who wants to be a rapper, or an illiterate grandma who discovers that she is a painter at the age of 52. My own struggles as a filmmaker seem much smaller when compared with the struggles that these people face, and that may be why their stories are attractive to me. Living as an artist is much more difficult for them than it is for me, and their stories convey the liberating power of art. I love to show how art can liberate you, change your life and even change your situation.

How did you first learn of Sonita?

I met a social worker who was working at the Tehran-Society for the Protection of Working and Street Children, which supports all children no matter if they happen to be Iranian or Afghan. She asked me to go there and visit Sonita, a girl who wanted to be a rapper. The girl had even recorded and edited some songs with some very basic devices, like her phone. The social worker suggested that I come out and see what I could do for her. Perhaps I could find a music teacher or somebody who could help her. I met Sonita and I found a music teacher for her, and after meeting her more and more, I thought that she could be a good protagonist for a documentary about Afghan teenagers. I found that she was very ambitious and very proud and she had a lot of dreams. Young people in Afghanistan really love her, and she is kind of a model for them. I’ve never seen a person in her situation with so many dreams, and this led me to realize I already had a story. But at that point, what I wanted to make was a dark movie about how Afghan teenagers cannot realize their dreams.

I was struck by the shot of a child blowing bubbles at the lens—solidifying the camera’s role as a character in the film. 

In general, I love to provoke the viewer by having them react to the camera. I love to remind the audience that the camera exists, because we, as filmmakers, are not a fly on the wall at all. We are there. I always try my best to make it happen, yet this approach is mainly constructed in the editing room. That’s where we decide on how to build this connection to the camera.

One of my favorite moments is when Sonita directs other children to enact a traumatic memory from her past in a series of frozen poses. It’s a profound illustration of how art can bring closure to what life cannot.

There was a group of young people who were going to different centers for street children, and they were working in Augusto Boal’s statue or image technique. Boal’s “Theatre of the Oppressed” workshops use the human body as a tool to reflect the sculptor’s impressions of a particular situation. When they came to Sonita’s center in Tehran, they had the kids sculpt experiences not only from their past, but from the present, such as problems they were currently dealing with in their families. Before they began, I spoke to the group about their exercises and chose the one that I thought would be interesting for my movie. I shot a lot of different exercises, but I only used the one that I thought was the most touching.

What was Sonita like as a collaborator?

From the moment I told her that I wanted to make a film about her, she wanted to do it. Earning her trust was a bigger challenge. It took me a long time to have her full trust. I had to help her, I had to support her in different situations, and I needed to make her feel that I was there because I loved her and I loved her story. I wasn’t there because I wanted to take advantage of her problems. When she had a problem, I would stand by her and help her. It took me a while to prove that. Even though she wanted this movie to be made, she wasn’t completely open to the camera and to me.

After I paid her mother $2,000, which temporarily freed Sonita from the threat of marriage, she was totally open to me. She didn’t show any resistance to almost anything, and she really cooperated. But from the beginning, this trust-building was a continuous process. She was very traumatized by Iranians and the way that they discriminated against Afghans. She couldn’t trust Iranians, and had only bad memories about them from her youth. It was odd for an Iranian to be communicating with an Afghan, and she was always asking herself what I wanted from her. This trust usually doesn’t exist between these two groups of people.

At what point did you realize that you could no longer remain an objective observer?

The moment that her mom came to sell her. It was a turning point in my connection to this movie, because that’s when I realized that I could not let this happen to Sonita. I could afford the $2,000, but I had no idea what would happen in the future. I started thinking about what kind of movie this would be. So far, it was about a family that has a problem. They wanted to sell their daughter, so I paid them the money they needed and their problems appeared to be solved, but only for the moment. When Sonita’s mom actually came to Iran and said that she wanted to sell her daughter, I was happy because after a year and a half of shooting, I finally had a story. On the other hand, it was very emotional, so it was a fight between the human and the ambitious artist that live within me. In the end, of course, the human succeeded, and we had to find a solution for Sonita. I decided to appear in the movie more actively, because since I had paid the money, I couldn’t be dishonest and say that somebody else paid it. It was better to be transparent about the process by appearing in the movie myself and saying that I did it.

What was the process like of shooting the “Brides for Sale” music video?

After Sonita’s mom left, we found ourselves with a lot of time. Sonita and I had grown closer, and she was spending a lot of time with me at my place. She had always been working on a song about girls being sold, but this time, the song was more personal for her. Because I am a storyteller, I tried to figure out how to structure the story of the song. Since Sonita is the poet and she wrote the lyrics, I just tried to find a good structure for it. We exchanged some visual ideas, decided on the structure and eventually shot the music video in my bedroom. It was one day of shooting in my bedroom and that was it.

After uploading the video to YouTube, I tried to share it on as many feminist websites and Facebook pages as I could. A woman contacted me from Indonesia, and asked me what she could do for us. I told her Sonita’s story and she introduced us to the women who knew of the high school in America where Sonita is currently enrolled. When the women Googled me, they found the music video as well as the trailer of the unfinished movie—because you know, you always have to make trailers. [laughs]  From the trailer, they realized that this was a real person’s story, and that this girl had really been subjected to the threat of this kind of marriage. So everything got connected very fast.

I was very scared when Sonita and I had to travel to Afghanistan in order to retrieve her visa. I tried not to stay with her family that long. We told them that we were going to Kabul to get Sonita’s papers, so that she would be able to live in Iran in the future. Then we left the country and went to America. Sonita wanted her family to realize that she had made her decision, and that they couldn’t do much about it.

I admired how you portrayed her mother not as a monster but as someone stuck in a misguided tradition.

I’m happy to hear you say that because I’m not sure if I did it in a nice way or not. Sonita never hated her mom and never really blamed her mom for what she did. What Sonita believed was that her mother had been forced into the same sort of marriage, and if she hadn’t felt required to go through with it, she probably wouldn’t have done it. She’s not the guiltiest mother in the world.

What has been your favorite experience of screening the film with an audience?

Of course, Sundance was the most glamorous festival we attended, and we won two great awards there, the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award. Yet the film’s premiere at IDFA [International Documentary Festival Amsterdam] may be my favorite. It was a really huge premiere, and we arranged it in a way where after the movie got finished, the lights went up and the audience could see Sonita on the stage singing. People were so shocked and they all stood up and applauded. It was a memorable premiere for all of us. Sonita is now a senior in high school and I think that her goal in life is to go to law school and become a human rights lawyer. Rapping is only a device for her, an instrument that she uses to talk about how she feels. For now, education and activism are more important to her than art.

Another director from Iran, Asghar Farhadi (who I interviewed at TIFF last year), is choosing to skip the Oscars in light of President Donald Trump’s proposed travel ban. How has the ban impacted your decision to attend the Independent Spirit Awards?

Some people told me that they could help me obtain a waiver, and I said, “No, I don’t want to be an exception. If they do this to all the people of these seven countries, I want to be one of them.” But now that the courts and the judiciary system have blocked Trump’s ban, I decided that it would be okay for me to get the visa and attend the ceremony out of respect for what they did. It feels like a victory now, especially since every Iranian that gets inside the United States will break Trump’s heart. Going to the ceremony feels better to me than not going to the ceremony.

When you look at what America represents to Sonita in your film—a sanctuary where freedom is tangible, it’s all the more ironic amidst the intolerance of the Trump administration.

I have shown this movie at many U.S. festivals, and people have received it very well. One of the functions of this movie is to show audiences who are afraid of immigrants that these people who they fear are just like anyone else they have ever met in their lives. I want them to look at immigrants and refugees as individuals, as people with dreams and talent. I screened this movie at a lot of refugee camps in Europe, and many of the girls there were applying to be a refugee only because they wanted to escape from their country and their parents’ home, where they would be forced into marriage.

Any future filmmaking plans?

Right now, I’m just open to the world to inspire me, and in general, the biggest inspiration is Trump. We should look at him as a gift to the world because there will be a lot of positive things happening. There will be a lot of artistic creation, and there will be a growing progressive movement in America that will be much more organized. He is the real face of capitalism, and it’s good to see the real face instead of seeing some beautiful face on a horrible book. He’s a horrible picture on a horrible book, which is more honest. I think that we are all in a creative mood this year.

The Film Independent Spirit Awards will air live at 4pm CST on Saturday, February 25th, on IFC. For more information, visit its official site. “Sonita” is now available to stream on Netflix.

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