When the year began, I resolved to try new things.
My weekly urban hikes certainly qualify. But I’ve just embarked on another new-to-me experience — volunteering at the Portland International Film Festival.
2016 marks the 39th edition of the festival and this year’s lineup offers me the opportunity to not just give back to my community but also to enjoy free admission to a handful of movies among the nearly 100 full-length features and 60 short films from three dozen countries.
I’ve signed up for seven volunteer shifts during the Feb. 11-27 festival and had planned to wait until I had done two or three of them before writing anything. But that plan went out the window after Sunday’s amazing experience.
Arriving at noon in downtown Portland, I picked up my volunteer badge and then positioned myself at the entrance to the World Trade Center, where I greeted people and directed them to the movie on the third floor. Pretty easy stuff.
When my work was done, I hustled upstairs to catch the start of the movie — a documentary titled “Sonita.”
I loved it. Going in, I had no idea I’d be seeing a film that won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.
“Sonita” is the unlikely true story of an Afghan teenager who dreams of becoming a rapper. Sonita Alizadeh was a young girl when she and family members fled to Iran to escape the Taliban in her native country. Years later, she was still living in Iran as an undocumented immigrant when an Iranian filmmaker learned of her through a relative who worked for a non-governmental organization that helps Afghan refugees.
Sonita cleaned bathrooms for the NGO and learned to read and write, but when she was 16, her mother visited and said she must return with her to get married. As a bride in Afghanistan, she would be worth $9,000.
But Sonita doesn’t want to go back.
Learning the basics from watching music videos by Iranian rapper Yas and Eminem, she writes her own lyrics, speaking out boldly against forced marriage, against the subservient role of females in traditional Muslim society, against the war in Afghanistan.
It’s an audacious, even dangerous, thing to do in Iran or Afghanistan, where it’s against the law for females to sing solo. Yet, Sonita’s dream is to give voice to other young women like her who are forced into marriages arranged by their families.
The movie tracks her emotions as she flips back and forth between hope and disappointment, trying to raise money for a recording session while also confronting the stark challenges posed by family, bureaucracy and cultural traditions. It seems like an impossible dream.
But in telling Sonita’s story, director Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami tells the story of millions of girls whose talents and ambitions are stifled by the practice of forced marriage. Along the way, the director faces an ethical dilemma herself: Should she pay the mother $2,000 to buy more time for Sonita to pursue her dream? Or should she refuse to do so and confine herself to telling the girl’s story?
This is one of those films that draws back the curtain on places and people that we Westerners rarely see, including the interior of a Tehran apartment, street scenes in Herat (where Sonita grew up), government offices in Kabul, striking vistas of the rugged Afghan landscape.
More compelling, though, is Sonita herself — a devout Muslim, yet a strong-minded young woman determined to blaze her own trail.
When the lights came up, movie-goers applauded loudly. When they learned the director was in attendance, they rose to their feet. It was truly a Portland moment: a standing ovation and 15 minutes of Q&A with Ghaem Maghami, who said of Sonita: “I’ve never seen a child with so much ambition.”
Spoiler alert: My former Oregonian co-worker, Deborah Bloom, now at CNN, wrote a terrific feature story about Sonita last year, chronicling her struggle and inspiring success. Sonita’s “Daughters For Sale” music video has captured more than 350,000 views on YouTube and ultimately brought her to the United States on a scholarship to study at a private high school in Utah.
Tonight I’ll do the second one of my volunteer shifts. I expect to see a variety of dramas and comedies made in France, Paraguay, Argentina, Mexico, Iran and The Netherlands.
If they are anywhere near as good as “Sonita,” I will be thrilled.
(Thanks to my friend Lakshmi Jagannathan, whose own volunteering for PIFF years ago inspired me to do the same when I got the chance.)