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Sundance 2016 Women Directors: Meet Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami – ‘Sonita’

Sundance 2016 Women Directors: Meet Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami - 'Sonita'

Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami studied filmmaking and animation at Tehran Art University. Ghaemmaghami is the author of “Animated Documentary, a New Way to Express,” which is a product of her research on animated documentaries in university. She has directed six documentaries, including “Cyanosis” and “Going up the Stairs,” which have had wide international exposure. In all, Ghaemmaghami has won more than 20 international awards. Her latest film, “Sonita,” won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the IDFA Amsterdam Film Festival. (Press materials)

“Sonita” will premiere at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival on January 25. 

W&H: Please give us your description of the film playing.

RG: Making “Sonita” was a journey into the depths of society to understand poverty, immigration, war, identity, sexism, tradition and human values versus filmmaking conventions.

Sonita Alizadeh is a force to be reckoned with. With a poet’s soul and an activist’s passion, Sonita uses her rap lyrics and powerful voice to fight child marriage. She speaks out for the rights of girls and women to choose their own destiny. Sonita’s advocacy began with herself as a teenager, when she created a video to protest against her own impending marriage. The song was written from the viewpoint of her young friends, who were also about to be sold, and it is becoming a rallying cry for many girls across the globe. She succeeded in avoiding a marriage and embarked upon a journey to end child marriage [all over] the world.

While growing up as a refugee in Iran, Sonita met me, and over three years, I documented her remarkable story, which became this film. This film also led to life-changing opportunities for Sonita. Starting with her impoverished childhood on the streets of Tehran, where she finds her voice through the power and beauty of rap, her life takes an unexpected and near-tragic turn when she is almost sold into marriage as a child bride. The film then journeys with Sonita as she uses her music to bravely escape that fate and forge a new path to fulfill her dreams.  

W&H: What drew you to this story?

RG: I met Sonita through my cousin, who is a social worker working in a nonprofit to support child laborers. Sonita’s ambitious dreams and her self-confidence in spite of the horrible situation she was living in drew me to her story.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

RG: Whether I should interfere in Sonita’s life or not. If I did, what would happen to the authenticity of my movie?

W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?

RG: I want them to think about small changes they can make happen.

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

RG: I really don’t have advice. I can’t advise such a diverse group of people, whose problems are so diverse. How can I advise a Danish female filmmaker in a way that it will be useful for an Iranian or Iraqi female filmmaker?   

W&H: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?

RG: They always ask me if it is difficult for a woman to make movies in Iran. Harsh censorship makes it difficult for all Iranian filmmakers, but being a woman does not make it more difficult. There is some misunderstanding, and [mis]taking Iran for Saudi Arabia. Also, there is a tendency in the media to magnify the “problems in Iran,” but my movie is focused on the Afghan tradition of selling girls.

In spite of having an Islamic regime in Iran, 20% of fiction-feature filmmakers and 35% of documentary filmmakers are females, according to the Iranian cinema guild. 

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

RG: Grants from Germany, Switzerland, USA and the Netherlands. TV channels from Japan, France, Germany, Switzerland, Korea and Taiwan were involved too.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

RG: “The Blue Veiled” and “Nargess,” directed by Rakhshan Bani-Etemad. These movies look at the situations of women with the understanding of the situations of men in regards to class, the economy and social dynamics.

I don’t like it when some movies, women or feminists refer to men as evil and women as victims. Patriarchy is an economic, social and cultural system with its own dynamics and mechanisms. Individual men are not to blame.

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