Refugee escapes child marriage by singing her way to freedom
Film-maker Rokhsareh Ghaem Mughami struck documentary gold when she stumbled on teenage Afghan refugee and aspiring rapper, Sonita, living in a Tehran slum. But the director wasn't expecting to become an integral part of the remarkable story that is told in the Sundance award-winning 'Sonita'. K caught up with her on a flying visit to London for a special screening at Bafta.
Tottering on her new Stella McCartney heels, Iranian documentary director Rokhsareh Ghaem Mughami feels out of place amongst the 'slebs' and 'paps' gathered at the headquarters of Bafta (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) in London's Piccadilly one blustery evening in late November. But luxury fashion and glamour, the director confides shyly, is not a world she's familiar with, “She [the designer] is the daughter of one of the Beatles right?”
Ghaem Mughami has been invited by the Kering Foundation and principally Stella McCartney herself, as well as her movie star friend Salma Hayek and Francois-Henri Pinault, to a private screening for 200 guests of her latest film, Sonita. The occasion is marking the White Ribbon for Women Campaign which coincides with UN International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.
Sonita tells the true story of 14 or 17 year-old (out of ignorance her mother doesn't know exactly when she was born) rap-singing, Afghan refugee subsisting in Tehran. Through determination, charm and luck, and with more than a little help from the director, she manages to return to Afghanistan, obtain the necessary papers and fly to the US for a high school education and the promise of a better life.
It's not as easy as it sounds. Sonita Alizadeh, to use her full name, fled to Iran with one of her sisters and niece after the Taliban shot her brother and threatened to kill her family. In Tehran, she was denied access to school, like all Afghan refugees without any papers, and because of discrimination struggled to get a job. A kind woman in the mosque where she was cleaning taught her to read and write though there was no paper or ink. Thanks to a charity, she managed to learn more.
Her dream was to be a rapper because she had so much to say. Ghaem Mughami's cousin, a social worker, asked her if she could help her find a music teacher. Initially hostile, “she had been traumatised”, weak and shy, Sonita clearly showed she was decisive and determined: “She wanted the film but couldn't open up”.
The director has a certain affinity with Sonita. As her trilogy of documentaries shows, she “has a passion for outsider artists”, that is, those without any education or training. The first film, Cyanosis, was about a schizophrenic artist living on the Tehran streets, who sells his paintings for €1 each.
The second, Going up the stairs, was about a 52 year-old grandmother who was married at the age of nine to a man 20 years her senior. She never had a chance to go to school and her husband beat her. Through her paintings, which she hides under the carpet, she manages to express her emotions.
Similarly, Sonita wanted to be a singer but did not have any prospects. As well as wanting to portray the liberating power of art, the director had another motivation to make the film: to draw attention to the plight of the three million Afghan refugees living in Iran but who “are invisible”. They live in ghettoes with the women being “caged in their homes” and, as in their home country and others like Pakistan and Yemen in particular, child marriage is rife.
As well as wanting to portray the liberating power of art, the director had another motivation to make the film: to draw attention to the plight of the three million Afghan refugees living in Iran but who “are invisible”.
For a while the director filmed Sonita – eventually shooting a total of 100 hours of footage over a three-year period – while she provided some proper food and basic healthcare to her, her sister and niece, as well as finding them alternative accommodation. She was aware that if she interfered too much she “would kill the story”. But then a much bigger dilemma appeared in the form of her mother, who had travelled from Afghanistan to collect and bring her home. The reason? To sell her for $9,000 to a husband, so that her brother could buy a bride for himself.
“I was happy when the mother arrived. Then we had big trouble!”, says Ghaem Mughami, but the added drama came with a price. Questioning her professional probity, the director says ironically, “It's inconvenient to appear in your own movie as a protagonist.” Eventually the director 'bought' six months of time from the mother, and started to plan Sonita's trip to the home country to get a birth certificate from her village, then a passport in the capital, and finally an exit visa. Sonita's performing in front of the Afghan ambassador and other officials helped of course.
In the meantime, she created a video rap Brides for Sale in which she wears a white wedding outfit and increasingly grotesque cosmetics to portray the effects of domestic violence on her face, “No make-up can cover my shame”.
The online video went viral and was picked up by someone who ran a private school in the US who offered to pay for Sonita's education in America. The director is aware of the strangeness of the situation: “In this new Internet world, it was the trailer of the film that helped finish it!”
Ghaem Mughami admits, not without embarrassment, that she had to be a bit sneaky: for dramatic effect, she delayed payment to the mother for as long as she dared. But at one point the film crew lost Sonita, who was running away from her violent, drug-crazed brother in law who had just been released from prison. He wanted to sell his daughter, Sonita’s niece, whom he tried to kill for getting in his way.
No make-up can cover my shame.
During the Q&A session after the screening, many people asked what they could do to help. “Spread the word”, said Ghaem Mughami, “raise awareness. This [child marriage] happens to many women across many countries.” But rather than have white, middle-class Western women wring their hands and say, “'I cried two times'”, the director prefers to show it to Afghan refugees, for example in Austria – Vienna was her destination the next morning – to change attitudes. It's difficult to screen in Afghanistan itself as there are few cinemas and “it's not safe”.
Not that that this approach is plain sailing. The movie often provokes controversy, with the Afghani women tending to empathise with Sonita and acknowledge the problems, and the men who tell them not to interfere with “tradition”.
Nowadays Afghan refugees are beginning to have more rights in Iran and women can go to school there. As one distinguished audience member, Bianca Jagger, put it, “She's an inspiration and so are you!”
And what news of Sonita? She's apparently thriving at her school in Utah; she wants to be a human rights lawyer and work to end child marriage, and she's keen to return to Afghanistan. Is the director in touch? “Of course, she's like a daughter to me.”