Sonita is the first feature-length documentary by Iranian-born filmmaker Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami, who studied filmmaking and animation at Tehran Art University. Her 2007 short doc Cyanosis combined these, animating the work of Tehran artist Jamshid Aminfar. Maghami's work tends to focus on such 'outsider artists'. For Sonita, she stuck to a more traditional documentary format.
“Animated documentary is my passion,” the filmmaker says, “because I want to show people’s inner life, memories, dreams, nightmares... but when I meet somebody whose story catches my eye and mind, I just try to find the best way to tell that story.” As is clearly the case with the protagonist of Sonita – a double outsider, as an Afghani living illegally in Iran and a young woman interested in rap music in a culture that does not permit this.
“My cousin, a social worker, told me about Sonita,” Maghami recalls. “This girl who needs help recording music and making music videos. So I met Sonita, and started teaching her the basics of filmmaking. I also helped her make music videos. She was very clever, but cold and distant at first. She was obviously traumatized; it took a long time before she came to trust me as a friend.”
Maghami’s friendship and involvement with Sonita end up going much further than either of them anticipated at the beginning of the film; at a certain point, Maghami becomes a character in her own film, stepping out of the role of filmmaker to intervene directly in Sonita’s problems. “This caused me a lot of tension and concern”, Maghami says. “Somehow I was happy with this crisis I needed in my movie. Friends warned me that I could be ripped off. But I asked myself, what will Sonita think about me if I don’t try to help? Won't she think that I only used her for my movie and abandoned her when she was in trouble?”
“In terms of thinking about stepping into the movie physically, I worried about making a narcissistic movie about a filmmaker acting like an ‘angel’ and saving her protagonist. If it wasn’t Sonita who was my protagonist, I am not sure if I would have helped her. I hope the audience will come to its own decision about this. Also, I felt free to help Sonita because when I entered the movie, helping Sonita was not ‘interfering in the protagonist's life’ anymore: Sonita and I are both protagonists.”
As well as sharing the role of protagonist, “the main way I relate to Sonita – and this is also the main theme of my previous movies – is the liberating power of art and being an artist in spite of the realities of your own life”, Maghami reveals. “Living as an artist when everything is against you. This is also my own story – I had, and still have, a lot of difficulties living as a filmmaker in my country.”