Sahel Rosa Signals A New Frontier for Diaspora Films
by Juhi Dhingra
Extraordinary circumstances shape extraordinary talent. Such has been the story of Sahel Rosa, an Iranian actress who immigrated to Japan, fleeing a troubled childhood and the perils of war. Years after moving to Japan with her adoptive mother, Rosa doesn’t remember her birthday, but she clearly remembers the last day with her family – just another day in an ordinary Iranian household during the Iran–Iraq war. She lived in a house that didn’t have much running water or enough of a structure to protect them from heat, but she had a loving family, which was like an oasis in the middle of a desert. She remembers the last time she saw her 11 siblings and her parents before her house and the surrounding town was destroyed in an air raid during a supposed ceasefire.
It wasn’t until four days had passed that four-year-old Rosa was found and rescued by a nurse, who saw the hand of a child buried under the rubble next to a blue flower. But that wasn’t the end of adversity for Rosa—her struggles had only just begun. She spent the next few years in an Iranian orphanage where, despite the circumstances, she appeared on the TV for the first time. At just seven years old, Rosa appeared in a government-sponsored TV commercial encouraging people to adopt or foster war orphans. As fate would have it, the commercial reached Flora—the nurse who saved her years ago, who then decided to adopt her.
A year later, Rosa moved to Japan with Flora to live with her Japanese fiancé. After only three weeks, Flora and Rosa were thrown out, and left to fend for themselves in the foreign land. The duo didn’t know how to get by or understand the language people spoke. But Flora was a woman of substance and worked menial jobs to be able to send Sahel to school and feed her, even if it meant she wasn’t going to be able to eat herself. They would often sleep in public parks and wash and bathe in public washrooms, until some kind people helped them get a small apartment. It wasn’t easy for anyone, let alone a child, who looks different and speaks a different language to gain acceptance in a new country. Rosa’s identity issues were exacerbated as she became the victim of bullying for being different—an outsider—to the point where she contemplated ending her life. Through everything, her adoptive mother’s smile kept her going—her devotion to Rosa, her positivity, her resilience to go on.
To help her mother, Rosa was motivated to begin working right after high school – and she did. She started out as a reporter on J-Wave radio and later began booking guest appearances on TV and radio programs. This then snowballed into theater, modeling, TV commercials, a weekly program, a book (From War Zone to Actress, 2009), and into acting for feature films. Reflecting on her work, Rosa said in an interview with Metropolis Japan that she believed acting was her calling in life because “early in [her] life, [she] learned how to hide [her] emotions and put on a different face.”
Despite living in Japan for years, Rosa has stayed in touch with her Iranian roots. Even behind her fluent Japanese sentences, the nostalgia about Iran and her childhood reflects clearly—a feeling reciprocated by the pride we feel in her Iranian heritage and her veritable talent. Rosa continues to identify with her Iranian roots and has often spoken about her love and respect for Iran. In an interview with Japan Times, she articulated “Many people I’ve met in my life have told me they had a negative image of Iran, but many also told me that through my work, I’ve helped them change it… Iranians will always put others first—such as by offering accommodation to travellers or treating guests to the best even if they don’t have enough for themselves… I believe Iranians may have the most hospitable culture in the world.”
Rosa’s personal struggles and multifaceted identity has shaped her current reality, and motivated her consistent efforts to do justice to her art and be a beacon of hope for others who have endured similar experiences. Her situation serves as an example that goes beyond the typical diaspora narratives we see today. She is not merely a Farsi-speaking film professional collaborating with a European or North American producer (which is a feat within itself), but instead someone from with a much more complicated past – who is creating an undiscovered path for sharing her layered identity. One project that allowed her to do this was her portrayal of an Iranian art student in the Japanese Drama, West North West (Takuro Nakamura, 2015). The film, which premiered at Busan International Film Festival, amplified her zeal to tell her own characters through carefully constructed characters.
Rosa carries a narrative that traverses conflicting frontiers, serving as a new voice for the constantly evolving diaspora. Her work within the advocacy space as well as across the film and media sector signals a movement of even further boundary breaking with the global cinematic sphere.