Sydney Film Festival Interview: director Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami talks Sonita

Following its Australian premiere at this year’s Sydney Film Festival, Fergus Halliday sat down with director Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami  to talk about her award-winning documentary, Sonita.

Winner of the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Ghaemmaghami’s documentary explores Sonita’s journey as a young undocumented exile living in Tehran, with big dreams of breaking into the rap industry.

What drew you to the story of Sonita, how did you discover it?

I met Sonita through my cousin who is a social worker working in a non-profit to support child labourers and children who cannot have access to education. She asked me to go there to meet Sonita and see how I can help her, probably with some music training or something. So, one of my friends started teaching her some basics of music and some guitar, so she was coming to my home for lessons. After some sessions I started thinking that I was really interested in her because I was seeing how ambitious she was and how much she had learnt, and I decided to make a movie about this girl who wants to be a rapper but everything, every other reality of society is against her and she may never make it.

With the documentary you, yourself, kind of get involved in the story. What was that like?

When her mum came to take her back to Afghanistan, somehow, I was happy as a filmmaker because now I had, really, a good story. Now I had a big story, a big challenge. My filmmaker side of my brain was happy but, on the other hand, my human, the person, was sad because I was thinking if I let this happen it would be the end of her life. So, on the other hand, I should not invest feelings because of life and obvious documentary conventions, and also then if I help her how should I reflect it? Should I just say that I did it, in the movie, or should I keep it hidden and say that somebody else did it, make another story? And I didn’t feel that comfortable to appear in front of the camera saying that I did that and I am the saviour. So, it was all a dilemma with so many questions but I didn’t have that much time, I had to make up my mind very fast.

Do you feel like you would ever do that again as a documentarian?

I don’t think so [laughs]. If something happened like that, if something that bad happened, yeah then probably. I mean, I don’t want to make this a habit in my filmmaking but then if that situation would happen again I would do the same.

My understanding of the film is that Sonita, sort of, evolves from a young dreamer to eventually being involved in activism. How do you feel about the link between activism and music in culture?

I think that Sonita is more an activist than a musician. She also thinks the same. Activism is more important for her; it’s a bigger part of her life. So, the way that Sonita uses music is for activism so, there is a lot of connections. For her, music is an instrument for activism.

I’ve talked to a lot of documentary filmmakers for the festival and one of the reoccurring questions that I always arrive at is: was there anything that you had to cut from the film that you were upset about leaving out?

Yeah, there are things. For example, I wish I could give the movie back some parts about America in Afghanistan, because now, in the movie, everything is just like ‘America is the best country in the world!’ which it’s not. So, I wish I could put more about how America is responsible for a lot of what happens in Afghanistan. There’s not a lot but I would like to do that if I had to edit this movie again. I mean, there are things that are not in the movie anymore and I don’t regret that I took them out but it was difficult to make those decisions.

 There have been a lot of documentaries in recent years looking at countries like Afghanistan and, sort of, exploring what it’s like to be a minority and transport those voices through documentary. Why do you think that’s such an appealing concept as a filmmaker?

There is a lot of major media that wants to reflect an image of us, especially of the Middle East, that is not very real. So, I always have to fight with the media and with the people. So, that is something that people, maybe, are not even conscious of but I’m conscious of a need to tell stories to disturb the image they have. It’s very easy and convenient to have that image: they only want to have one image and to stick to it and never change it so, it’s challenging to do that. It’s always very disturbing and I really get upset when I go around the world and I have to prove that Iran is not what the media says. Because, you know, people have an image of Iran and women that they should have for Saudi Arabia because what they think happens in Iran, in fact, happens in Saudi Arabia. That’s something that upsets me.

So, what’s next for you?

I really don’t know [laughs]. I am a bird that just flies from one tree to another tree. It’s like asking a bird; don’t ask a bird what it does.

Sonita premiered at the Sydney Film Festival on June 12 and June 14.