A Thousand Girls Like Me Interview: Sahra Mani

“I live in a society where women do not have a basic right to get an education or a basic right to get a job or even get married by their choice. Being feminist is the only option for women who are fighting for their basic rights.”

Khatera and director Sahra Mani

In 2014, a young girl appeared on national television in Afghanistan with her first child to talk about the continuous abuse inflicted upon her and her family by her father. She exposed the unjust system that protected her father before her and ultimately started a conversation in the country that would help her case.

Her plea for help became the start of this documentary.

A THOUSAND GIRLS LIKE ME is a gripping look at sexual and physical abuse, incest and societal restrictions upon women in Afghanistan. Through the eyes of Khatera, we watch as this brave young woman puts aside cultural and family pressures to charge her father for rape and abuse.

This documentary is a beautiful portrait of a woman standing up for her mother and herself in order to protect her children born from a violent situation.

In the age of #MeToo is it important to acknowledge the women in other countries who are also fighting for their rights, autonomy of their bodies and are trying to get their abusers to face their crimes in court.

While watching you are not only concerned for this family, who are being hunted by their uncles, but for the filmmakers who have involved themselves in this dangerous situation.

A Thousand Girls Like Me is a powerful documentary filled with brave people trying to expose how women are treated in their country in order to bring about change.

Director Sahra Mani

Director Sahra Mani is an Afghan filmmaker and founder of Afghanistan Doc House, a production company based in Kabul, and co-founder of the London-based Anahat Vision and Films production company. In 2013, she helped organize the Afghanistan Human Rights Film Festival. Sahra’s films have played at festivals around the world and won numerous awards.

You can catch A Thousand Girls Like Me at the Sheffield Doc Fest Friday June 8th and Sunday June 10th and at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York City June 19–20. You can watch the trailer below.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got involved with filmmaking.

Sahra Mani: I come from a photography and journalist background; I was introduced to documentary through my father. He was a documentary lover. When I was child he was watching Nanook of North by Robert Flaherty.

I grow up in very difficult situation as an Afghan refugee in Iran. My family immigrated to Iran in 1960. We did not have a normal life there, not having any right to go to school and work or even traveling as an Afghan refugee in Iran. My family was one of 2 million people who lived in a kind of prison.

When I turned 22 I immigrated to England, the place I could start new life and I could study cinema. The country gave me permission to work and study. Actually, my life started after age 22.

I started studying cinema so I could obtain my Master’s degree in documentary filmmaking. In 2012 I graduated from university as a top student with outstanding marks.

Tell us about A Thousand Girls Like Me. Where did the idea come from?

SM: I was watching TV I saw Khatera, my protagonist, confessing in front of millions of people and saying that she was abused by her father for many years. I decided to find her in order to help her. A few weeks after our meeting she asked me to make a film about her life story. It took me 6 months to find out if there was any story there for me or not because I did not want to talk only about a rape and incest. Once I found out there are many other women who are suffering from rape and incest, I thought the subject important to bring into our conversation. Even though it’s taboo in many conservative societies to talk about it, when there are many cases and many victims without future we have to bring it into our conversation.

Did you ever feel in danger while you were with Khatera and her family?

SM: Yes, I felt this many times, as she was in high risk from her uncles. Also when I tried to support her through the judicial system, some people from the law system did not like my film and my activities; many times they asked me to stop making this film. I remember I had many threatening phone calls from unknown people. One time I decided to go Germany and stayed there for three weeks.

When something is forbidden in conservative society it’s forbidden to talk about it too. Incest is taboo in my society and talking about it is forbidden. But I want to bring this conversation to my society.

Can you tell us about some/all of the other amazing women who worked on this film?

SM: I had my team but I was the only woman in my team. We don’t have very active cinema industry in Afghanistan. Being a filmmaker is not something very popular in my country. We have female filmmakers living outside of Afghanistan but working and living as a filmmaker is something unusual and of course difficult.

Khatera, her mother and her children

Tell us about why you are a feminist and why it’s important to your filmmaking.

SM: You don’t need to be feminist to be a filmmaker but being filmmaker and living in an unequal or conservative society makes it hard to forget how much women are suffering every day and how our lives do not same value as a men’s lives. I live in a society where women do not have a basic right to get an education or a basic right to get a job or even get married by their choice. Being feminist is the only option for women who are fighting for their basic rights. This is my goal and my wish, that my film could bring small changes to women’s situations in Afghanistan and all Muslim countries.

Who are your favourite women working in the film industry?

SM: I like Kim Longinotto’s films and my professor’s films at University of the Arts London, Nancy Platt.

I also like Sahrmeen Obaid’s documentaries; I think she is brave to highlight dark side of Pakistani women. Also, Kirsten Johnson’s documentary Cameraperson. I like very much Patty Jenkins’s films, especially her film Monster.

What’s the best advice about filmmaking you’ve ever received?

SM: Always listen, hear and see things in the ways others cannot.

What are you working on now/next?

SM: I am working again with a subject about women: young girls from Afghanistan who want to become the next music generation of their country.

What was the best thing that happened to you this past month?

SM: Being at Hot Docs Film Festival, meeting new people, and watching some good films.

If you had one extra hour of free time a day, how would you use it?

SM: I am reading books or juggling.


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