Volunteering at the Portland International Film Festival

George at PIFF

A new volunteer at the 39th annual Portland International Film Festival.

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.


PIFF volunteerArriving 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.


Afghan teenager Sonita Alizadeh uses rap to speak out against forced marriages. (CNN)

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.)



6 thoughts on “Volunteering at the Portland International Film Festival

  1. This article is about the movie, not the experience of volunteering. You don’t even touch on the issues of volunteering and the struggle for tickets that volunteers had to deal with in the past.

    • Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment. You’re absolutely right about this piece focusing on one movie rather than the volunteer experience. I see now the headline was misleading. Guess I got carried away by how much I enjoyed “Sonita” and hearing the director talk about the making of the film. I expect to write another blog post looking back on my volunteer experience. I’m halfway through my six commitments.

      As this is my first year participating, I’m unaware of “the issues of volunteering a’m sorry if you had a negative experience, but I hope they’ve been worked out.

  2. This morning Emily Zell sent me an email with your blog site [mentioning that she was a guest blogger] and I liked this article especially because it reminded me of how lucky we are here in the States—all things considered.
    You have an interesting and enjoyable blog site—congratulations. Oh, do Oregonians still fret over the poor influence from their neighbors to the south—I mean Californians? In the late 70’s driving through Oregon with a California license plate was, let’s say—interesting.
    Bob F. Leyba

    • Bob: Thank you for reading this piece (and hopefully others) and leaving a comment. I appreciate your feedback and agree with you that we are lucky here in the U.S.

      As to your question, yes. Anti-California attitudes have made a strong comeback with the surge in housing prices here in Portland. Because many people of means from California pay above the asking price (and often in cash), they are viewed as helping to drive the spike in prices. Similarly, any out-of-state developer draws an extra dose of wrath when new housing means the leveling of some older, lower-priced housing stock.

      My wife and I moved up here in the mid-70s and, as you suggest, it wasn’t advisable to mention your California roots at that time. We’ve been up here 40 years now and all three of kids are native Oregonians — or “unicorns,” as many of their friends would say.

      Again, thanks for your comment. In another hour or so, I will head out to volunteer again at another film, this time one made in The Netherlands.

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