For any indy filmmaker, getting an award at Sundance is a pinnacle of achievement. But getting two is almost impossible. But that is exactly what happened to my friend Rokhsareh, an Iranian filmmaker.
In 2013, Rokhsareh met a teenage refugee in Tehran, one of millions of displaced Afghans in Iran’s capital city. Sonita was a rapper, using Dari with a Herati accent (basically Farsi) to rap against the crushing patriarchy in her native Afghanistan. Sonita’s apparent destiny, it seemed, was to be sold as a bride to the highest Afghan bidder.
Rokhsareh was not sure she wanted to tell Sonita’s story when they first met. Sonita was around 17 or so (in post Taliban Afghanistan, birth records are hard to find) and she idolized Rihanna and had a notebook where she would take images of enormous pop concerts and crudely glue pictures of her own face atop the face of the pop-star. If there is any truth to the idea behind the 2006 international self-help best-seller The Secret—visualizing the life you want, in order to make it manifest—this would be classified as Sonita’s “vision book.”
With little support, Rokhsareh—hesitantly at first—started filming Sonita’s life. Sonita’s resolve had given Rokhsareh determination.
Every film is a journey with an uncertain end. Iran should know; the country has one of the world’s finest cinemas. At the time, what had started as a story about a special kind of subject, changed into a journey of intrigue and escape for Sonita. But Rokhsareh soon found she needed to help support Sonita financially. She needed to stop her family’s forced eviction from the room they called home. It would not be the first time she crossed the line between filmmaker and friend.
During filming, Sonita and Rokhsareh risked their lives to travel to the Afghan city of Herat, bordering Iran—this is where Sonita’s family wanted to sell her into marriage. Furthermore, they needed to go to Kabul so that Sonita could have documents to prove she existed. Sonita needed an Afghan passport. Her filmic future was about to change. And indeed, so was her life.
At one point in the film, we see Rokhsareh and Sonita literally trapped in a fortress of a hotel in Kabul guarded by men with guns. A claustrophobic sequence unfolds in her hotel room with its large windows, where filmmaker and subject wait for that Afghan passport that will prove Sonita is counted as a human. Rokhsareh is heard in the background, requesting the U.S. embassy for another date for their visa interview, since the passport has been delayed. Sonita watches the news anxiously. Rokhsareh asks her what’s on her mind. “I am looking at Afghanistan. At the city. I am thinking how 11 years ago I emigrated to Iran and now I am back. Nothing has changed. The war is still on. It’s even worse. I didn’t think I would still have to hear gunshots at night. Terrible. I can’t say how bad it is,” says Sonita.
She turns back to the television where the news station is showing shocking video of a suicide bombing that has just unfolded at the French Cultural Center. She points out of the window. Look, she says, “nothing but planes in the sky.” Behind the camera, Rokhsareh assures her. “Don’t worry,” she says, “as soon as we get your papers we will leave.” And pretty soon a triumphant Sonita emerges from a dank, makeshift office, and she breaks into tears. She shows her passport to the camera, urging, “Look!”
Soon, a U.S. foundation agrees to sponsor Sonita, providing her with a path away from an awful destiny. Rokhsareh found the foundation through her effort and research. She also created a rap video for Sonita that she posts on YouTube, in the hope it will go viral and get noticed. In that video, Sonita uses strong language to rap about the future her family wanted for her. “I wish you would review the Quran,” she spits, wearing a bridal gown. “I wish you knew it doesn’t say women are for sale.”
On the first plane journey of her life, also filmed as Sonita looks out the window, a dream told in Sonita’s voice plays in the background, “Last night I dreamt that you and I, we are crossing a river and we are barefoot. The water is so clear we can see our feet and the rocks at the bottom of the riverbed. We cross the river together and we arrive at a place where with dirty walls. They look like deserted ruins.” There is a certain darkness to this monologue. Especially because the next sequence in the film takes us to a place of snow-covered, endless plains, with an exuberant Sonita in a car. Rokhsareh has long since crossed the line from being a mere observer behind the camera to an active participant. This has not been an easy journey. Earlier, Sonita’s family in Herat demands $ 2000 so she can buy more time before her eventual marriage. Rokhsareh pays it.
Sonita’s absolution lies in Utah at something called the Wasatch Academy, a private college-prep high school. Sonita wins a full scholarship here at a time when America was still filled with the promise of Barack Obama’s dream. And so Rokhsareh’s film ends on this hopeful note.
Cynics may argue that in Sonita, we have a woman from a different culture being painted as a victim and “saved” by the supposedly benevolent West. In the film though, as with all good cinema heroines, Sonita’s long journey allows us to see her story in a different light.
After filming Sonita’s story, Rokhsareh left Tehran the spring of 2015 with most of her worldly possessions—and most importantly, Sonita’s filmed life that now existed as terabytes of data on hard drives. Documentaries are really created on editing tables and that’s what Rokhsareh did over the next several months in Germany. The resulting film went on to win Best Documentary and the Audience Award at Sundance in January 2016.
Those wins propelled Rokhsareh into a worldwide tour of film festivals celebrating her work. At one point during those travels Rokh, left one of her two suitcases at my place. It contained awards too heavy to lug to 26 countries. Plus, both she and I are superstitious. It might mean that she would need to return to America and make it her home, as she wanted to, at the time.
For the past two years, Rokhsareh has lived out of suitcases like that, traveling across continents with one of the most suspicious passport in the world and rude, undeserved interrogations at airports, including American airports. For me, she is a fighter and a wanderer. It’s been two years of hotels and B&B’s. Last year she was in the U.S. four times and at film festivals ranging from Costa Rica to refugee camps in Algeria to New Zealand.
Rokhsareh has a very large heart and a self-deprecating wit. These days, we often exchange post-Trump jokes about the first banned and then unbanned Iranian passport on whatsapp. She continues to believe she is an “outsider artist.” But she has hardly found the absolution of her heroine.
Sonita will probably get a green-card one day. But for Rokhsareh this country has offered no happy ending. For those of us who felt the sky fall on our heads on November 3nd, denial is no longer a possibility. Like me in 2004, on the eve of Trump’s election, Rokhsareh was deep in the process of acquiring an “Alien with Extraordinary Abilities” visa and eventual green-card. This is the process that brought me (uneasily) to a U.S. citizenship just about two years ago. Rokh had all the credentials for this sought after and hilariously named visa category, which John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Sting and a host of celebrities also obtained.
After Trump’s election, Rokh decided to cancel her immigration process, writing to me via email, “it seems like wasting money. They will not give me a green card and if they do, why should I live with so many haters around me? Now I should think about a new home, maybe in Canada. Don't throw my suitcase out. I will come and "grab" it one day.”
Now, with the administration’s travel ban, the worst has come to pass.
“It is important to note,” I whatsapped her shortly after the travel ban was put in place, that “’radical Islamic terrorism’ is manufactured in countries like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.” She, like most sane people agreed. She reminded me that Iran has never engineered a terror attack on U.S. soil. And yet now, if Trump’s ban gets reinstated, this award-winning filmmaker may be banned from traveling back here all because of her passport.
“This is so ironic that Sonita is a movie about how America became a home to an Afghan Muslim girl and now I am banned from visiting US,” she told me in her email in November. “See you one day, I hope ;-)”
I am holding on to that smiley face. Rokhsareh’s packed suitcase waits. The fact that its owner is from a country non grata sends the message, loud and clear: This is no longer the America that looks beyond where you're from to focus on who you are and what you can accomplish. The America that welcomed me in 2000 and Rokhsareh more recently is being dismantled fast behind walls of tweets. And now, if your fate was to be born in a demonized nation like Iran, that misfortune trumps any other value you have.