Afghan teen uses rap to raise awareness
When the Iranian filmmaker Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami began her documentary about an aspiring teenage rapper at a refugee center in Tehran, she had no idea how it would end. Midway through the three-year effort, her subject’s family, tried to sell the 17-year-old off as a child bride. The price was $9,000.
"I did not know, it could have ended at a wedding party in Afghanistan," said Maghami during a phone interview in advance of her feature-length documentary’s debut at the Sundance Film Festival.
At that point, Maghami made a controversial decision — to abandon her role as an objective documentarian and become an active player in the plot. She paid Sonita’s mother $2,000 to buy time to prevent the marriage.
When they met, Sonita was supporting herself by cleaning the refugee center where she was also learning to read and write. But between chores, the teen had become infatuated with rap music. Then, after listening to her mother and a friend haggle over how much they could make by selling her to an older suitor, and emboldened by listening to Eminem and other rappers, Sonita secretly made her own music video and posted it to YouTube. The song became a viral sensation — much to the dismay of her traditional Afghan family which was carefully chronicled by Maghami.
The video, "Brides for Sale" likens the practice of forced marriage to child slavery and makes no bones about its connection to domestic violence. The message, and the fact that it starred a young woman, violated the strict taboos enforced on her community by the Taliban.
It was apparent to Maghami and the social workers at the refugee center that Sonita’s future was in peril.
According to Maghami, her colleagues, even some on her film crew, advised her not to get involved. But as a fellow artist, Maghami said she couldn’t help it.
"What is so charming about Sonita, to me, is that she is very proud. Despite her problems she has confidence and ambition. We traveled together through a lot of dangerous conditions. I was nervous but she had faith, she had this power," said Maghami.
In another part of the world, Cori Stern a cofounder of the U.S.-based Strongheart Group saw Sonita’s video online and contacted Wasatch Academy, a private school in Utah that welcomes refugees from around the globe. After a Skype interview, and with support from a Strongheart philantropist, Sonita was offered a scholarship.
But there was a hitch, one that required both the filmmaker and her subject to make a dangerous trek back to Afghanistan — Sonita had no birth certificate or passport.
The film traces their trip from Tehran to Sonita’s home in Herat and documents a tense standoff with the extended family and a poignant reunion between Sonita and her little sister.
In a telephone interview earlier this month from her dorm room at the Academy, Sonita recalled that trip.
"It was hard. I was so happy to see my family, but hard because I thought they wouldn’t let me go to America. I thought they would sell me."
But, after a few nail-biting days waiting for the paperwork to be approved, Sonita managed to dodge the family’s snare and, in January, 2015, she boarded a plane bound for Utah.
Sonita remembers receiving a warm welcome at Wasatch Academy.
"It is my first time in a real school. I am not worried about my food, my clothes, the rent. I am just thinking about my studies, about music and how to end child marriage," she said.
But she also admits that, with almost no English language skills, the first weeks were hard. Even when she was better able to communicate, she said, the students found it hard to comprehend her circumstances.
"At the beginning they couldn’t believe my story. When I showed them my video they said it’s not real. But now, some of them are learning about child marriages and they are helping me to work for women’s rights."
And with a Sundance premiere on the horizon, her classmates have begun to realize the gravity of her call to action.
Wasatch Academy Head of School Joseph Loftin says he is filled with admiration for Sonita.
"She speaks on an international stage now," said Loftin, who traveled with her to Amsterdam for an international conference. "Sonita is a force of nature. This is a girl with a purpose, she is driven."
According to Loftin, the entire school will be attending a special screening of Maghami’s film in Salt Lake City during the festival. "Our whole community is excited about this."
As to her post-Sundance plans, Sonita hopes to finish high school and earn a law degree in college.
And, ultimately, return to Afghanistan.
"I want to go back to my country even though I know it is dangerous. But I am standing for what is right and I want to keep working on it.
"Now that I am working with other people and organizations, I want to end child marriage all over the world, not just in my country. When we join together we can bring big change," she said.
In addition to attending several screenings of the film to answer audience questions, Sonita will perform at the Sundance Music Café on Tuesday, Jan. 26 at 4:40 p.m.
‘Lots of Sonitas at Wasatch Academy’
Herat, Afghanistan is 7,000 miles and a world away from Mt. Pleasant, Utah, but thanks to a chain of humanitarian efforts and a private school dedicated to embracing a diverse student body, a young refugee has been able to bridge that gap.
Last year, Sonita Alizadeh, a refugee and the subject of the Sundance Film Festival documentary, "Sonita," was granted a full scholarship to study at Wasatch Academy. But while her story is dramatic, Headmaster Joseph Loftin says she is not the only student who comes from distant parts of the globe
"We bring people of all different backgrounds here to beautiful central Utah and we celebrate those differences as well as embracing our commonality," he said.
According to Loftin, the school was founded 140 years ago with a specific mission — to bring diversity to an otherwise homogenous community. Over time, the school has made a special effort to reach out to children in areas that are embroiled in conflict, including Eastern Europe, Rwanda, Sudan and now the Middle East.
"When the Rwanda genocide occurred, we brought in a large number of students who had experienced that, who had lost parents," he said, adding that the school invests $3 million annually in tuition scholarships. "But even if it isn’t in the budget we still do it because it is who we are."
The school’s philosophy is that diversity is essential to navigating today’s interconnected world.
"We want our students to accept differences, to appreciate different viewpoints and be able to communicate with different cultures," Loftin said.
Admitting students from other parts of the globe, he says, benefits the school’s affluent students as well as those who come from challenging environments.
"For the students coming here who haven’t been exposed to the hardships Sonita has been exposed to opens up their awareness of the greater world. So the educational value of a person like Sonita is immeasurable. At the same time, what Sonita gains from our American kids is their openness, their creativity and willingness to explore other ideas. That is exhilarating for students who come from environments that are more tightly controlled."
"We have a lot of stories like Sonita’s here — she is a gifted person among many gifted people here."
According to Loftin, the goal is to offer students like Sonita an education so they can return to their native countries with the tools and expertise to have a positive impact where it is needed most.
"Sonita is very attached to her family. She loves her mother, her siblings, she wants to go back to Afghanistan and help her people and we are fortunate to be in a position to serve that higher purpose."
For more information about Wasatch Academy: http://www.wasatchacademy.org
"Sonita" is showing in the World Cinema Documentary section of the Sundance Film Festival at the following times and locations:
- Jan. 22, 6 p.m., Sundance Mountain Resort, Sundance
- Jan. 25, 9 p.m., The Yarrow Hotel, Park City
- Jan. 27, Noon, Temple Theatre, Park City
- Jan. 28, 6:45 p.m., Broadway Centre Cinema 3, Salt Lake City
- Jan. 29, 6:30 p.m., Redstone Cinema 1, Park City
- Jan. 30, 9:15 a.m., Holiday Village Cinema 2, Park City
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J GO Gallery’s “Of Film” exhibit pays homage to movies and the Sundance Film Festival.