While a filmmaker’s personal involvement in the life of a subject is frowned upon, Iranian filmmaker Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami saw Sonita not just as the subject and the title of her film but also a person, a refugee who needed to be rescued from being sold as a bride in Afghanistan and who aspired to become a rapper.

“I think that I’m too emotional to be a good filmmaker,” Ghaemmaghami told Scroll.in in an interview after screening her film, about an undocumented Afghan refugee, Sonita Alizadeh, at the Dharamshala International Film Festival.

Sonita Alizadeh.
Sonita Alizadeh.

“I can’t really separate myself from anything that is in the movie,” added Ghaemmaghami, who arranged $2,000 to pay off Sonita’s mother to keep the girl in Iran and eventually help her find a scholarship at a school in the United States.

The documentary was premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival in the United States, where it won the World Documentary Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award.

Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami.
Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami.

If Sonita, now 19, had a say in things, Michael Jackson would be her father and Rihanna her mother, as the film reveals. Ghaemmaghami captures Sonita’s dream of being a famous rapper in her scrapbook, at a time when her only fans are the other teenage girls in a Tehran shelter. There, Sonita gets counselling for the traumas she has suffered and guidance in shaping her future. Her family has a very different future planned for her, as per an Afghan tradition: as a bride she’s worth $9,000, which would help her brother buy his bride. How did Sonita succeed in making her dream come true?


The film is candid about the role Ghaemmaghami played in helping Sonita reach her dream. In the interview, the filmmaker speaks about her emotional journey of making the film, and also about civil restrictions in her own country, Iran.

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Interview with Iranian filmmaker Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami.