Sonia Nassery Cole was interviewed twice in September 2021 by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association:
1. On September 15 by Kirpi Uimonen Ballesteros on the GoldenGlobes.com podcast “HFPA in Conversation: Sonia Nassery Cole Gives a Voice to the Voiceless”:
Sonia Nassery Cole’s father always told her that she could do anything. Afghan-born American filmmaker and human rights activist Nassery Cole tells HFPA journalist Patricia Danaher that attitude was embedded in her. From early on she had a fascination with movies. “It’s interesting how early in life we know what we want, but we don’t know what that is exactly. I didn’t know myself until my father told me years later this story.”
Nassery Cole used to go every Thursday to the cinema with her father. After they watched a John Wayne movie, his dad asked her opinion about it. Nassery Cole analyzed one scene throughout. “I guess I was looking directorially, even at eleven years old I wanted to visually see things.”
When she came to the United States she became politically involved and later, in 2002, founded the Afghanistan World Foundation. “I saw what happened to my country and I wanted to fight for the refugees of Afghanistan. That’s when I became politically involved by writing a letter at the time to the President of the United States, it was President Reagan. I wrote a nine-page letter crying in the middle of the pages with teardrops on my letter. When you are a teenager you think anything is possible and the President is going to call you, but I truly believed it with every essence of my body that he was going to read it and he was going to call.”
And he did. “From that day on I became a humanist and an activist on human rights and the refugee rights for Afghanistan as a teenager that kind of became my life goal and for a moment I forgot about filmmaking.”
But she found her passion for films again. In 2007 she directed the short documentary The Bread Winner. In 2010, her film The Black Tulip was Afghan’s Oscar Submission. “My mother, in the beginning, was not very happy with me and didn’t agree with me going to Afghanistan to make The Black Tulip. I lost my marriage in that process because I had this amazing drive and he didn’t agree with me going to Afghanistan, neither did my mother. But my father, I remember sitting and telling my mom and dad that I am going to Afghanistan and my father said to my mother, “she is never going to be at peace, she is never going to be happy, this is her dream. And if she dies like this, she dies like this, but she’s doing something she wants to do, so I am going to let her go.” And that meant a lot to me, to get my father’s permission to actually follow my dream and him knowing that I may not have come back alive.
Her most recent film, I Am You, tells the story of three Afghan refugees who flee the Taliban and seek refuge in Europe. “You would think I would learn my lesson and never do that again, but nobody was telling the stories of refugees and what was happening in Afghanistan. I decided to write the story, a true story again, of a young boy that came to Germany and just kept writing to me his story on Facebook. That took me back to Afghanistan, but by its nature, because it is a road trip from Afghanistan to Iran, from Iran to Turkey, Turkey to Greece, and Greece to Munich, the locations were different and I just shot a little bit of the film in Afghanistan.”
She wanted to open a door to a world people think they know but they really don’t. “I made it because I want to give a voice to voiceless people and show what’s going on behind the scenes.”
Listen to the podcast and hear what kind of childhood memories she has from Afghanistan; why she couldn’t watch cartoons that have sad moments; why she doesn’t want to share her refugee story yet; how she communicated with her family while they were separated; what president Reagan told her; what shaped her and why she thinks she is like 95 years old; how she describes past and present in Afghanistan; does she have hope for Afghanistan?; how she describes differences between women and men filmmakers; what her mother thinks about her career now; and what happened to her and her American crew in Afghanistan while they were about to film The Black Tulip.
2. On September 7 by Patricia Danaher for the GoldenGlobes.com article “Sonia Nassery Cole Talks about the Power of Film”:
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.
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.