Genre: Documentary, Biography, Music
Directed by: Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami
Starring: Sonita Alizadeh & Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami
Sonita Alizadeh could be any star struck teenager in the west when we first meet her. She’s busy pasting her face over a picture of Rihanna and dreaming of performing on stage in front of thousands. That’s it for the similarities. She’s an undocumented Afghan teen living a life of borderline poverty in Iran after fleeing the Taliban. She dreams of being a rapper, yet lives in a country that doesn’t allow women to sing publicly, and soon she’ll face the likelihood of sale into marriage to raise money for a brother’s marriage. Shot across three years, Sonita is a remarkable achievement, uplifting with its bleak material, and thought-provoking in the way it calls the role of the filmmaker into question.
The early stages focus on her living situation and rapping dreams. She scrapes by with help from a Tehran centre for refugee children, earning what little money she can cleaning. Eviction hangs over her head and new accommodation, hard to get without cash or documentation, will be needed. The rest of the time she’s either at the centre or trekking around recording studios in the hope of finding a place to record her songs.
Like the best documentaries, Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami offers unobtrusive insight into a world shut-off from the West. The work of the centre is tough and rewarding, sometimes having to smooth over violent home situations, sometimes offering a safe space for the children to act out their worst nightmares. Sonita’s involves her flight from Afghanistan. Of equal fascination are the scenes in which she slogs around recording studios auditioning her lyrics and trying to convince someone to give her a chance despite her work breaking the law in several ways.Then a big lurch occurs as Sonita’s mother shows up unexpectedly from Afghanistan to try and bring her home and sell her to the highest paying suitor. It’s a horrible situation handled sensitively. As unsympathetic as the mother seems, Ghaemmaghami avoids dressing her up as a pantomime villain. She’s a victim of exactly the same thing: penned in by tradition, poverty and a lack of viable alternatives.
Here’s where an unexpected change of direction occurs. To save Sonita from being shipped home, Ghaemmaghami thrusts herself into the film, stumping up money to buy her an extra six months in Tehran. A film that could have ended on a bitter note instead explodes into something glorious as Sonita channels her frustrations into a competition winning song about forced marriage. From there further opportunities free Sonita from the fate that had seemed most likely. It’s certainly an interesting decision by Ghaemmaghami, far from the position of passive observer, though on a purely human level one that can hardly be criticised. That reprieve substantially changes Sonita’s life, all for the better.
Ultimately what Sonita does, both in the way it’s made and the decision taken by Ghaemmaghami, is to put a talented young woman refusing to accept her fate centre stage. It’s her story, stumbling between victories and defeats over a three year period, and ultimately ending in a far more uplifting manner than could ever have been the case without the film. This is the power of cinema on a broad and very individual level.