The Power of Dreams: From Afghan Refugee to Rapper for Change in 'Sonita'

Mar 2, 2016

This story is part of True/False Conversations, a series of in-depth interviews with the filmmakers of this year's True/False Film Fest. Find the rest of them here or download the podcast on iTunes. 

The film "Sonita" follows the life of a young, passionate Afghani refugee living in Tehran, Iran, who dreams of becoming a rapper, but faces many challenges – including her status as an undocumented immigrant living in Iran and her mother’s plan to sell her as a child bride worth $9,000.

Sonita is this year’s recipient of the annual True Life Fund, which is a monetary collection organized by the True/False Film Festival. These funds will go toward supporting Sonita’s future education and goals.

KBIA's Rebecca Smith spoke with the director of "Sonita", Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami, to talk about the film and about Sonita herself.

Smith: To start off our conversation today, I'm just really curious where did the idea of "Sonita" come from? 

Ghaem Maghami: I met Sonita through my cousin who is a social worker and she was working in an organization for street children and child laborers, and Sonita was supported by that organization. So one day my cousin asked me to go there and see Sonita and see if I can help her with her music and her music videos.

Smith: And were you just so smitten with her story initially? Or what did that process look like - of getting to know Sonita and knowing what, you know, a documentary about her life would look like? 

Ghaem Maghami: When I met her I had no idea that I am going to make a movie about her. But then after a while that I kept meeting her and talking her about what she wants to do and how can I help her.... I was seeing how persistent, how motivated she is, and how little is her chance to meet her dreams. So that made me [think] about making a movie, and I didn’t have any idea that she will succeed at the end because I was thinking ‘I should make a movie about a teenager who has a lot of dreams, but there is no perspective for her dreams in this society.’  

Smith:  Do you face any difficulties as a female filmmaker? 

Ghaem Maghami: No no no no no. This is not true. I mean, in Iran, we have a lot tradition of female filmmakers…. So it's difficult to be a filmmaker in general, but it's not more difficult for women to be a filmmaker. Even it's a bit easier because you have more access to some houses, some homes, some families that they are not very convenient if you are a man… It is not a problem - in Iran at least. 

Credit Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami

Smith: Did you learn anything about yourself while making this film? Did you come to any realizations about yourself? 

Ghaem Maghami: I learned a lot from Sonita. I learned a lot from Sonita… For example, from Sonita I learned the power of dream. That dreaming has a power and really is a strong power. I always knew that, but I really saw it in Sonita how much if you really want to do something it will happen.

Smith:  Just out of pure curiosity, what's Sonita up to now? 

Ghaem Maghami: She's studying in high school because she has never been in school in Iran, a real school. So she has to finish her high school and she wants to go to college and she wants to study law in college… She wants to be a lawyer.

Smith: And now this one is just more about the festival itself: Is there anything you are looking forward to during the True/False film festival? 

Ghaem Maghami: I mean the great thing is that Sonita won the True Life award at the True/False film festival. So this is an award that - it’s a very amazing thing that happens only in True/False festival. I've never heard about it anywhere else that they give an award to a protagonist and not the filmmaker.  And this award can - this money - can be bigger if people donate more. And this money will go to Sonita’s education and Sonita's music training and all [her] plans.

Smith:  I hope you enjoy yourself, and I hope Sonita enjoys herself. Thank you again so much for taking the time out of your day to speak with me.