MIFF Review: Sonita (Iran, 2015) offers a lot to contemplate

Originally posted on The Iris (August 17, 2016)

All too often, the scene of refugees fleeing from the religious violence of Afghanistan and the Taliban is a common image to appear on our television screens and the news publications that slips into our Facebook feeds. The documentary filmmaker, Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami, uncovers a more distressing cultural issue ingrained within Afghani traditions of the misogynistic and patriarchal culture where young women are sold to men in marriage.

Ghaem Maghami’s gripping documentary is a profile of charismatic and strong-willed 18-year-old Sonita Alizadeh, an undocumented Afghan refugee in Iran who wants to change the world with her rapping. While she works as a cleaner at a refugee center that doubles as a school, Sonita wants to follow in Rihanna’s footsteps. Though her story and aspirations don’t differ from any other rising star, the obstacles she must navigate around are haunting: she’s a young, poor refugee with unprecedented talent living in a country that does not allow women to sing.

Despite this, her hope never diminishes. Sonita puts her goals and dreams into a notebook equal to a vision board, where she spends her days sticking her face atop Rihanna cut outs from magazines and pasting in crowds she hopes to sing to one day. The difference between her and Rihanna is that Sonita doesn’t rap about fame or love, instead, she’s unknowingly an activist. Ultimately using her music and her words to fight against her sexist surroundings as an Afghan teen girl.

Sonita offers a lot to contemplate. While the documentary takes a focus on a struggling artist trying to make it, there is a deep, threatening sense of chaos and devastation that surrounds Sonita’s story. In a shocking scene, a teenage girl at the school sits blankly in the counsellor’s office. Her eye heavily bruised after a beating from her brother, simply shrugging off the incident as the counsellor asks if she wants to talk about it. Later, another student turns to Sonita, speaking of her unwanted marriage to a much older, already wedded man for $3000, while simply stating that her father had beaten her at the first sign of a protest. She laments with Sonita about the awful conditions they are confined to crying, “We don’t have price tags like sheep.” Like the performer she is, Sonita draws inspiration from the situation and raps a song called ‘Brides for Sale’.

The simple, handheld camera work of the documentary, paired with the placid emotion behind the horrific incidents strengthens the quietly looming realisation that such events are entirely normal. The documentary gives a strong commentary about life in Afghanistan, showing their traditions to be an extremely outdated, disgusting mistreatment of women, identifying girls as possessions to sell. Such images are a haunting reminder of what Sonita is rapping about, trying to fight against a large social justice issue that plagues their country and their people.

Sonita certainly raises intriguing questions about directorial interference and obligation. While the director’s camera was never an unobtrusive, “fly on the wall” situation with Sonita’s friendly and informal relationship with the director, Ghaem Maghami never once physically interfered. That was until Sonita’s mother was adamant on bringing her back to Afghanistan to sell her as a bride, for $9000, so the family can buy Sonita’s brother a bride of his own.

Ghaem Maghami pays the mother $2000 in order to give Sonita six months of time to keep her in Iran. The director instantly moves from spectator to participant, giving the documentary a very different ending had she not intruded. Given Sonita’s dilemma, it’s hard not to sympathise with the director’s judgment.

Whatever your opinion on Ghaem Maghami’s decisions, there is no denying the power of her documentary, and the incredible journey she’s allowed Sonita to experience due to their unyielding friendship. The director shines a truthful and important light about the repressive culture some young girls are facing in other parts of the world, and the talent that could shine given the chance.

Rating score: FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Sonita was screened and reviewed as part of Melbourne International Film Festival

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