The influx of refugees traveling to Europe has gained a lot of attention among the Finnish public, and the acceptance of asylum seekers as residents in the country has become a controversial topic. However, it is easy to forget that most of the refugees do not even make it to Europe, let alone to the northern countries.
Moreover, very few people realize that countless refugees are even seeking asylum in countries that others have tried to leave, including Iran.
Sonita, a documentary by Iranian film director Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami, tells the story of one refugee, but deals with issues that are much larger than an individual’s life. At the documentary film festival IDFA, in Amsterdam, the film won the Audience Award as well as the IDFA DOC U Award for the youth jury’s favourite film.
Iran is not known for being the most progressive country in terms of gender equality. Yet, teenager Sonita Alizadeh has left her home in Afghanistan to live there, because she didn’t want to end up as a child bride.
“Some parts of the film were hard to watch, especially the part where my mother wanted to sell me into an organized marriage just two years ago. Watching that scene made me cry,” Alizadeh said in Amsterdam right after the world premiere of Sonita.
The screening in Amsterdam was the first time that Alizadeh herself saw the film. “I wanted to see it in a big cinema with other people. That’s why I didn’t watch it beforehand.”
Director Maghami heard about the 16-year-old Alizadeh from her cousin who is a social worker. The cousin told her about an Afghan girl who wanted to become a rapper and was trying to create her own songs.
“I wanted to film a documentary about the situation of immigrants with no legal status, the discrimination they face, and a girl whose dreams were going to be crushed,” Maghami explains.
Alizadeh faced many challenges in Iran: she was without legal status in a foreign country. She was an underage girl in a patriarchal society, and enthusiastic about music in a place where women are not allowed to perform publicly or even sing.
Alizadeh came to Tehran when she was a child. When Maghami met her, she had been under the protection of a non-profit, non-governmental organization for a few years. Once, Alizadeh’s sister’s husband tried to burn her, because she was standing up against her fated destiny. Alizadeh proved to be more resilient than that.
“I wanted to help Sonita, but she said I can’t, because I don’t know what she wants. Instead, Sonita wanted me to teach her how to use the camera so that she could make her own rap video,” Maghami remembers.
Maghami (b. 1973) studied cinema and animation in Tehran. Previously, she has filmed documentaries about Iranian alternative artists. In one of her earlier documentaries, titled Cyanosis (2007), Maghami utilized animation.
Sonita is Maghami’s first full length feature. She is not one of those film makers who observer the subject from aside in the tradition of cinéma vérité. Instead, she participates in the events, and ended up helping her subject.
Even if Alizadeh received help from the director and other people, her survival story remains a wild one. If this was a fiction film, it would seem too incredible to be true.
“I’m happy that I’ve had a difficult life, because it has made me stronger,” Alizadeh said in Amsterdam, talking on the impressive Tuschinski main stage at the IDFA main theatre immediately after the world premier of the documentary. She entered the stage through the centre isle in the middle of the audience, walking and rapping while the lights in the theatre were still out.
18-year-old Alizadeh traveled to Amsterdam from the U.S., where she is currently studying music at the Wasatch Academy in Utah. “For the first time in my life, I feel truly safe,” she says.
Alizadeh has accomplished one of the most common dreams in the world – she escaped a poor and oppressed life and entered the show business in the mythical West. The cynical attitude one might have towards the whole story will dissolve while watching the film. Maghami follows the unbelievable story of Alizadeh as it unfolds against all odds. The director herself comments laughing: “My intention was to make a film about someone whose luck has run out. This went terribly wrong.”
The twists of the storyline and Alizadeh’s personality are convincing. No wonder the film won the Audience Award and the award from the young jury.
So far, it seems that America hasn’t really changed Alizadeh. She still seems like a precocious and persistent young adult, though now with a dash of show business pizzazz.
“This is the beginning for me. My song has been played on the television and radio in Afghanistan. I have received supportive feedback that encourages me to continue. But there are other rappers out there and they can change things, as long as they receive some support. The next generation in Afghanistan will be different.”
Alizadeh believes that the era of child marriages will come to an end. But what about her own family that she ran away from to the other side of the world?
“My family did not listen to my wishes, because I’m just a girl. My mother, too, was a child bride. She didn’t know of anything else. But even my family are changing their attitudes. My sister told me that my mother cried when she saw my music video. That, in and of itself, reflects a big change.”
Harri Römpötti, journalist
English translation: Sanna Parikka
Photos from Sonita (dir. Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami).
Read the description of the film and buy tickets to screenings here.