When we join Afghani teenager Sonita Alizadeh, she has spent the last 10 years of her life as an undocumented refugee Iran. She’s working part-time at a Refugee Centre in Tehran, the same place where she receives her schooling. While she may find herself in a dire situation, economically, politically, and socially, she still has dreams – dreams of music and making it big.
Sonita dreams of being a singer – a rapper, to be more precise. She cuts out photos from magazines, pasting them in her journal, and gluing her head in place of the star’s. Sonita doesn’t rap about sex, drugs, and the celebrity life, she raps about the restrictions on Afghani women, abuse and forced arranged marriage. She raps about what she knows, despite it technically being illegal for her to do so.
The film sways between uplifting and infuriating, as you feel both admiration for Sonita, and anger at the situation that these young women find themselves in – being sold off as brides to the highest bidder with no thought paid to their feelings. Sonita herself is at risk of being married off, as her family needs the money to buy a bride for her brother. When Sonita’s mother comes to visit her to inform her of this, you genuinely begin to worry for her safety. What future will an aspiring rapper have as the wife of a conservative man who is likely twice her age?
Director Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami is not passive in her telling of Sonita’s story. It is evident that she has clearly become an important part of Sonita’s life, an aunt or mother figure for a girl who lives without these important female family members. At times Sonita addresses her, asking for advice or expressing frustration at her situation. The line between filmmaker and subject becomes even grayer when Ghaem Maghami is put in an impossible situation – help Sonita, or accept that her story is finished. It’s a difficult decision to make as a documentarian as there is a widely held belief that you shouldn’t intervene in the life of a subject; but as a person, it’s a completely different decision to make.
I didn’t know anything about Sonita before seeing the film, and I’d advise you not to look into it if you aren’t already acquainted with her story, as there is real tension in seeing where it goes. Both eye-opening and inspiring, Sonita is one of those documentaries that makes me grateful that film festivals exist. These types of documentaries deserve championing; there is so much that they can teach us.
By Sam McCosh
Director: Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami
Country: Germany, Switzerland, Iran
Language: English and Farsi
Runtime: 91 minutes