An Interview with Roham Maher – Film Production Student at TFS Involved in Hot Docs Film, Sonita

By: Zac Schraeder, TFS Student Advisor

In response to US President Donald Trump’s travel ban on many countries with Muslim-majority populations, Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto screened a free film series titled “Ban this Series”. Its objective was to present a documentary from each nation affected by the travel ban and to ‘amplify their stories to celebrate the humanity and strength in each one of us.’

Sonita, a documentary screened during the series, tells a story of Sonita Alizadeh, a tenacious Afghani teenager living as a refugee in Tehran, Iran. She uses rap music to express her opposition to arranged marriage in her culture. It’s a film that explores the immense challenges that women face in Afghani and Iranian culture, but also instils a deep sense of hope in Sonita’s mission. Toronto Film School student Roham Maher was Sonita’s music teacher in Iran. He sat down with me after the film screened to chat.

Zac: Roham, how do you know Sonita Alizadeh?

Roham: When I was in Iran, Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami, the director of the film, came to me and told me about Sonita. She said that Sonita had no money and loved to sing and play guitar and wondered if I could teach her. I met her and saw that she was very talented and passionate about her work. We became quite close!

Z: The movie chronicles Sonita’s journey as a refugee Afghani female rap artist in Iran, and the incredible opposition she endures. It’s quite shocking for people here in North America to witness the attitudes and obstacles she faces. Tell me more about how these struggles play out in the movie.

R: At first, our vision was to make the movie about Sonita’s music. We thought that the ending could be a concert or a song recording with a famous artist or something. But, as time went on during filming, we saw that the message of the film was about Sonita’s fierce resistance to forced marriage, the international attention it received, opportunities she was given abroad, and her risky journey to Afghanistan to get a passport so she could travel. As a result, you can’t see much of the music her and I shot because we could see the film was taking on a new message.

The director, Rokhsareh, also played a part in the film by deciding to take considerable risks like paying $2000 to Sonita’s family so she could stay in Iran for 6 more months and travelling to Afghanistan with cameras and a crew to show more about Sonita’s plight.

Z: That’s something else I noticed about this film. It’s about music, it’s about this young woman named Sonita, but it’s also about the role of the filmmaker in a documentary, too.

R: It shouldn’t be, but…

Z: That’s how it ended up! If the filmmaker hadn’t influenced (and some would say interfered in) Sonita’s life the way she did, the story wouldn’t have happened.

R: It would have changed to a disastrous ending. Rokhsareh did the right thing, I think. Sonita wouldn’t get to use her talents and pursue her passion otherwise.

Z: How has this film impacted you – especially now that you have decided to study Film Production at Toronto Film School?

R: I was always in the film industry, but did advertising, posters, festivals, photography…. things like that. Because of this movie, we were on set at least once a week and got to experience it first-hand. The film premiered in the Netherlands and I experienced how film can impact people and make them want to talk to you about things they had never thought about. You can win awards. You can change lives! I look forward to combining my music training with what I’m learning at Toronto Film School for this purpose.

Z: Sonita showed as part of a series Hot Docs was doing called “Ban This Series”. It was put together to show how we are all similar through this type of art – especially in light of Donald Trump’s travel ban. How does this film show us that? How does this film unite us?

R: If you see someone in need, you want to help. You would do everything you could. Because of this movie so many people have asked how they can help Sonita – two years after it was filmed! They know that she is now in the United States at a music school, and they still want to help! The same can be said for war, for displaced peoples like refugees, or for people who are in their own countries and facing difficulties. Films like Sonita and the others at “Ban This Series” can provoke us to act.

Sonita has been screened internationally and has received acclaim at film festivals including Sundance and IDFA. Check out the Sonita’s official website for more details.