DREAMING THE IMPOSSIBLE
5 Questions with Rokhsareh Maghami, director of SONITA
by Anthony Kaufman, DOC10 Programmer
Winner of both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize in this year’s Sundance World Cinema Documentary Competition, Sonita follows young Afghan refugee and aspiring rapper Sonita Alizadeh, a strong-willed 18-year-old who idolizes Rihanna and Michael Jackson. But there’s a big problem with her ambitions: Women aren’t allowed to sing publically in Iran, and her conservative Afghan family bristles at the thought of their daughter’s blasphemy. Can Sonita escape her traumatic past, avoid a forced wedding, and realize her dreams? Not just a stirring chronicle of struggle and liberation, Sonita becomes an intimate, provocative and deeply affecting look at the close relationship between subject and filmmaker, as the Iranian director finds herself increasingly drawn into Sonita’s fate. Below, Rokhsarek Maghami speaks about crossing the line from filmmaker to caregiver and the power of dreaming big.
How did you first meet Sonita and why did you want to make a documentary about her?
I met her through my cousin, who is a social worker employed at the organization where we first see Sonita. I see this girl who is very talented and who wants be a singer, and I began to get interested in her. I didn’t see her as a protagonist. But what was interesting to me was that she had a lot of dreams, but I couldn’t see any future for her. She didn’t have any documents; she couldn’t travel; she couldn’t do anything. So it was interesting to follow her life to see what she does with her dreams.
Can you discuss how you became a "character" in your own documentary? I get the feeling that you did not want to be a part of it, but you felt that had no choice. Is that correct?
Yes, I didn’t want to see myself in the movie. That’s why you became a documentary filmmaker: you want to film other people. But when the NGO wasn’t going to help her, and I was thinking it’s important that I have to help her, I had to reflect the production process and my decision. So it was important to be a character, or it would look like her problems were solved in a magic way if we didn’t introduce myself. There was no other way. I was really thinking. We couldn’t just record; we had to interfere.
More generally, do you think documentary filmmakers should always remain objective, and only follow their "character's" lives? Do you think it's important not to interfere? If so, why?
Whether they are interfering or not, they should show it. So what’s important is to be authentic. There is also a point where if you can help someone and it’s easy to change things, then you should. In Sonita’s case, we could have gone back with her to Afghanistan and shot her forced marriage, but it wasn’t fair to leave her like that. But some disasters can’t be helped. Once I was working with someone who was a junkie and a schizophrenic, but I couldn’t help him.
Can you talk about the making of the "music video" in the documentary? Was Sonita involved in the creative process?
We worked on it together. After her Mom left, she stayed with me and we worked on it together. The ideas were not all her ideas. We really worked hard on it together, we talked about the story, and the images, and she had some ideas and I had some ideas. Then I put it on Youtube and it went viral.
In some ways, your documentary completely changed Sonita's life. Are there any ways that you think the making of the film has changed your own life?
Yes, the film also changed me. I had the experience for the first time to change somebody’s life, which also changes your life. I’ve never supported someone for a long time; so it was like the experience of having a child. I also saw the power of dreams, and how dreams can be powerful. Because, for me, most of her dreams, at the beginning, seemed kind of funny and impossible. But she had the right to dream: and that changed my attitude about life.