Sonia Nassery Cole Talks About the Power of Film

By Patricia Danaher

When Afghan film director Sonia Nassery Cole was a young girl in Kabul, she and her father would go to the cinema together every week. As the eldest of three children, her father pampered his daughter with this special time together, little suspecting that Sonia would go on to become a fierce and challenging teller of stories to the world about her homeland. The director of two movies in Afghanistan, The Black Tulip and I Am You, as well as the documentary, The Breadwinner, Sonia has been a fearless challenger to the Taliban all her life. Today is no different. From her home in New York, she spoke to the HFPA about her film making and her political activism.

Talk to us please about how your love of film first emerged, as a child in Afghanistan.

Every Friday afternoon after work, my father would bring just the two of us to see a movie together. The first movie that I remember distinctly was a John Wayne movie and it was in the Ariana Theater in Kabul, which was a huge theater with 600 seats, all red velvet, massive screen. The drapes would open slowly and then the movie would start, it was just like something beautiful to me, I loved going to the dark room and watching movies. I used to get very, very touched by movies that my mom and dad said I would cry a lot. I would ask a million questions afterwards, like “why did this happen?”, “why did that happen?”, “why didn’t they take revenge on that?”. I always had a lot of questions! After seeing this first movie, my father said, “you never sat back in the chair during the movie, you always sat on the edge of the seat, with your hands on your cheeks and your stomach. And you couldn’t eat candy or popcorn, anything!” 

What movies influenced the most?

Pelle the Conqueror was the first movie that really affected me deeply. Cinema Paradiso is another movie that really changed my life. Then probably the third one was the Brazilian movie Children of God. These movies made me realize that you could get across the messages of hope and compassion and feeling and art and save people. People could see themselves onscreen and say, “that is me, that’s what I relate to”. That’s when I realized those are the kinds of stories that I want to tell, the kinds of movies I want to make. But my father said, “you are studying political science, you are going to be a diplomat like me.”

You became a refugee at 15 when the Taliban first invaded Afghanistan.

I came to America at 15 and I wrote a letter to President Reagan asking for help for the people of Afghanistan. I kind of put film on the side and I met an Irish-Welsh American who was not encouraging of me being in the film business. I studied it and after eleven years of studying film, I wrote the script for The Black Tulip. I showed it to him, and he said “it’s incredible. Who is going to make it?” I said “I am going to make it, why do you think I studied directing, writing, producing, all these things for what? And he said, “that’s just for fun”. I said no, “the fun is about to begin”. I went to Afghanistan and, of course, in that process I lost my marriage.

I wanted to do something for the world to see. Prior to that I had done this documentary called The Breadwinner, where I saw the power of film. I showed that at the Senate and 53 Senators came and I will never forget Diane Feinstein looking at me and she said, “this is the best film I have ever seen in my life”. I realized I can speak so much about my country and what is happening, and it will mean nothing. But a little film is magic. I saw that I could tell other stories and messages in this way and make an impact.

Talk about the making of The Black Tulip and the response it received.

I opened the film, The Black Tulip, in Afghanistan in 2010 for one hundred thousand American troops and local Afghans. I took my best friend Natalie Cole with me, God bless her soul, and she was the only performer that ever performed for our troops in Afghanistan because it was so dangerous, no celebrity ever went there to sing.

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General Petraeus was in charge, and he thought it was really dangerous to screen this movie in a public place in Afghanistan. And I said, “General Petraeus, I came all the way here to show the movie to you and the Embassy in Kabul for the Ambassador, I showed it to the veteran base, to the American Embassy for only one reason, because I want to open the movie for my people in my country, so you have to help me and protect me”. With all the disagreements I had, they knew I was very passionate, and they helped me with the security, and we opened in the theater for 700 people. There were buckets of guns collected outside! It was insane, everybody put their guns down with their name on them! I saw young girls, women taking their burkas off with their little scarves and there were a lot of women and men and people from city and foreign affairs and culture and Afghan cinema people, everybody was there. And the crazy part was, the theater was nailed down by the Taliban for years, for six years.

We went and took those nails off and the wood off, started cleaning the theater of the bombs and dust and dirt and it came out shiny and new. And we played the film and that was probably the most memorable, the most scary time for me as a filmmaker. When people were crying or laughing or making movements in the theater, I was just beside myself seeing that it was touching people, especially my people from my country, relating to it. And there were some kids there that said, “we have never seen Afghanistan without war”. Imagine being 40 years old and never knowing anything but war. That was the story of The Black Tulip. Warner Brothers invited me to edit my movie with them. They said, “you come from Afghanistan and you made the movie, we would like to offer you to come and edit it at Warner Brothers”. I wrote a book about the making of the movie called Will I Live Tomorrow?

The story of Afghanistan is the story of my family, the stories of what I hear. And nobody else goes there to make these movies. I felt a moral obligation that I must go and tell these stories because if I don’t, who will do it, from Hollywood, who would go there, because it’s always been a warzone, it’s always been a red zone and it’s hard and a very dangerous place, so they make up movies about Afghanistan that they do in Burbank. 

You’ve taken a lot of risks filming in Afghanistan when you could have used comparable landscapes in less risky territories.

The Kite Runner for example was shot in China, that’s not Afghanistan. For me the star of the movie The Black Tulip was Afghanistan. For I Am You, I shot partially in Afghanistan, but mostly in Turkey and then on locations, because the film is not just about Afghanistan, it’s about three Afghan refugees, but they take off to go from Afghanistan to Iran, from Iran to Turkey, from Turkey to Greece and Greece to Munich.  So, it’s a road trip.

But there is a price on my head in Afghanistan and probably that price is double now because of the first movie about the Taliban and ISIS and the second one is about why somebody leaves, and what happens to them on this journey.  I Am You is very precious to me. We were about to get distribution for it when COVID happened and I couldn’t get it out at all. And then all this hell broke loose in my country. I produce everything I do, I direct, I write, it’s a lot of jobs that I take on, because that is the problem when you have low budget films, and you are taking risks like this. It all comes from passion and passion is contagious and the stories are really contagious. If you relate to the story you want to make it. So that is how I have gotten quality people to make quality films for nothing. 

You mentioned John Wayne earlier. Please talk about some of your other cinematic influences.

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Well, Hitchcock always gets me, there’s nothing that Hitchcock does that I don’t love. There’s something about the way he tells the story and the moving pictures, it’s just breathtaking and it never gets old to me. I can see his movies one hundred times and I still learn something new from it. I love David Lean

Believe it or not, I very seldom watch commercial movies. I have this channel called Crustacean Channel and it’s all black and white movies from the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, those are the movies I watch, when I have time. Because I feel like the commercial movies, they just mess with my mind and they change my mind, the sound is so much for me and there’s so much action that I feel numb. If you can imagine, I fall asleep during those movies because I check out. But then a movie that is slow moving but is telling a little story, because life is in details, film is in details, and it’s not such fast moving pictures, that happens and that happens and that happens! I just like the storytelling in that way and then I am riveted. The slower the picture moves the slower the story reveals itself, the more I get excited about the picture, the more I am awake with it.  But that’s me, it’s always been foreign films, I love Fellini very, very much. I just love the acting, I love the writing, I love the shots, I love the storytelling. 

What about female directors or writers?

Kathryn Bigelow’s, The Hurt Locker was one of my favorite movies. At the time that I saw it, believe it or not, it was in a little theater in New York and nobody else had heard of it. I walked in and it was just me at two o’clock in the afternoon, I sat there, and I walked out and I called everybody and I said, “oh my God, this movie is amazing, you guys have to see it”. I honestly didn’t go because it was a woman or man director. I like her, I think she has a point of view, especially lately in the kinds of films she has made, that she wants to express something that she is passionate about. 

I love Nora Ephron and her comedies and I think she was so great and funny. One of a kind.  I had the pleasure of meeting her, in the Hamptons in New York. She just was a very special director and storyteller and had a beautiful sense of humor in her writing. And as far as commercial is concerned, I thought the best. 

Who do you read or where do you look for ideas?

I don’t believe at all in remakes, I think they are just such a stupid idea. There’re so many incredible stories out there in the world and when I see a movie being remade, I feel like the laziest part of Hollywood is out. “Okay, it worked so let’s do it again with bigger stars and let’s do it one more time with younger stars”. And especially if a movie is great, it really upsets me.  I mean imagine doing today for example one of my favorite movies, The Unbearable Lightness of Being with Daniel Day LewisJuliette Binoche, you can’t. It’s about that moment in time. It’s so well done, it’s so special, why would anybody want to make a movie, to repeat something like that? So, when I watch movies, these old movies, they are inspirational in a way that maybe I can feel a moment, a scene, a feeling from it, to inspire me to put it somewhere and pile it in my brain when I am doing my own stories.

I get a lot of inspiration from younger filmmakers, young girls, young boys, especially the young girls in Afghanistan who are so excited about becoming filmmakers. And I was going to do a competition thing with them online so that they could shoot a five-minute film on their I-Phone about what their dreams are and if it was really good, I would write the script with them and I would make a movie with them. It was such an exciting time because women really wanted to make movies and they were so excited about lighting and shooting and cameras and oh, it’s just so sad that that’s gone. But those stories that they would tell me would inspire me. And I have a very vivid imagination.

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Your latest movie sadly couldn’t have been timelier. What has been the biggest challenge with I Am You?

Because the movie doesn’t have big stars, it has been very difficult to get it distributed internationally. It’s on Apple TV and Amazon, but internationally I am getting thousands of phone calls and emails, “I can’t see it in London,” “I can’t see it in Paris,” “I am in Australia and I can’t see it, please, how can I see it?” The stars of the movie are refugees. I didn’t cast Hollywood actors to do that, which is really hard to get distribution in Hollywood, no matter how special your film is, unless you have stars attached to it. And for me I think that’s a mistake because the best jewels are the movies that don’t have big stars attached to it or PR. 

I haven’t gotten any stories in Variety or The Hollywood Reporter about a woman going to make a movie about refugees. And right now, the hardest subject of our life is the refugees that are coming from Afghanistan. And it is like art imitating life, it really just happened. So, I think a lot of people in the world are very curious about who these people are, who the Taliban are, who are ISIS, why they left, what were they doing in Afghanistan. This film shows you what the Taliban does to people.

What can people do right now to help those fleeing Afghanistan?

It’s going to be very, very difficult to do anything on the ground with my Afghanistan World Foundation, because the Taliban are not going to allow me to go there, or they will take the money and it will never get to the people that we want it to get to. So that is going to be extremely impossible and challenging. But what we can do now is, there are thousands and thousands of refugees that came out around the world and a lot of them went to Albania for example. Albania can barely take care of themselves. So, I like to do fundraising and helping women and children, more refugees that are living in this country and in very, very difficult circumstances, they are going to be locked up in an area with chains around them and they will throw some bread and water at them. It’s going to be very difficult for them to survive. And it’s up to us, the Western world and the Europeans, the Americans especially, because American people have amazing hearts.

I have gotten so many emails from them, “I am so sorry,” “I am ashamed of my government, what they did to your country, what can I do to help?” I get this daily, hundreds of messages a day. I would like to have those people get involved in doing something for the refugees that made it out, because these people are going to be a massive addition to the world. They are all doctors and professors, engineers and women that are so talented in so many ways and they all have crafts and dreams. I want these women to be supported, to be in school, for the little girls to go back to school wherever in the world they are and to supply them books and computers and teachers to help them.

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