At Hot Docs with her new film, Sonita, Iranian director Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami tells me that of all the western countries she has travelled to, the U.S. has been the most welcoming and the most efficient about paperwork. “It tells you about the spirit of a country,” she says, aware that her warm feeling might seem surprising in the light of the longtime fear and loathing between her country and the Great Satan.
Sword rattling and doom-mongering are games played by mullahs and politicians. Ghaem Maghami, who has lived in Tehran all her life, engages with the ground level struggles of people trying to move forward with their lives. Of the six movies she made since deciding to become a documentary filmmaker as a 20-year-old film student, the docs “made from my heart are about people who are in difficult situations,” especially “outsider artists” like the characters in Going Up the Stairs: Portrait of an Unlikely Iranian Artist, Cyanosis, and Sonita.
Ghaem Maghami who wants to depict “the challenge and liberating power of art,” has never experienced the kind of “hardships of being an artist” portrayed in her documentaries, but nevertheless, she says, “It’s been very difficult for me trying to be a filmmaker and live as one.”
The eponymous protagonist of Sonita is an eighteen-year-old Afghan girl whose family was targeted by the Taliban and escaped into Iran. Ghaem Maghami recalls, “I met her through my cousin who was a social worker. She told me she had a girl who wants to do rap, and she doesn’t have any money. She was thinking maybe I could help her by introducing her to my musician friends.”
As for the Afghani community, “I didn’t know a lot about it. The Afghans are very separated from Iranians and discriminated against,” says the filmmaker. “I had no idea they sell their daughters, or how horrible is their situation. I’d never met a person like Sonita, who told me she didn’t have a birth certificate or anything.”
After getting to know Sonita Alizadeh, Ghaem Maghami decided to make a movie about the young Rhianna fan with a passion to rap, in a culture that forbids women from singing, about her troubles, which included her mother’s demand that she return to Afghanistan and be sold into marriage. “I was surprised by her dreams. A person in her situation usually gives up on dreaming big. I was thinking she wouldn’t make it. She will never even exist legally. I thought about making a dark movie about her dreams not happening.”
Instead of going dark, Sonita plays like a fiction feature with a triumphant ending. The doc climaxes when we see the rapper’s inspired video, Brides for Sale, which Ghaem Maghami collaborated on making. The clip was an intervention that not only gave the movie its dramatic peak, but Brides for Sale dramatically changed Sonita’s life forever.
“I was thinking,” says the director, “that the video was the final scene of the movie. We would see it, and the credits would come. And then the video went viral.” Chief among the new opportunities quickly provided for Sonita was a scholarship offer from an American school. “In the end, we ended up in Utah, I just can’t believe it,” she laughs. The filmmaker and the Afghani refugee with no rights had met, collaborated, and the “direction of our lives became the same.”
At one point in the film, Sonita asks for money, and Ghaem Maghami says that she is recording truth, not getting involved in her subject’s life. “But then you do get involved,” Ghaem Maghami tells me. (In the film she pays off Sonita’s mother to buy the girl time.) “I think many filmmakers get involved, but they deny it or they don’t tell it in the movie.” Contrary to the distancing of doc-makers like Frederick Wiseman, Ghaem Maghami believes, “The moment somebody tells [about their private lives] you get involved…You become part of the story as a person who did not want to help, or as a person who helped.”
Ghaem Maghami becomes more animated as she continues. “How can you ask somebody to give you their lives, their time, and you don’t pay them back? I want to make a movie about you, I can’t do anything for you? Why should people appear? They are usually poor, and you shouldn’t pay them?” Ghaem Maghami’s film school taught that doc-makers shouldn’t remunerate subjects. “I should find some slaves?” she laughs.