Sonita is a powerful new documentary that premiered at Sundance earlier this year and just screened at the Dallas International Film Festival. The film tells the story of Sonita Alizadeh, a 15 year old Afghan refugee living in Iran. The film follows her journey as she pursues her dream to become a rapper while simultaneously trying to avoid being sold into a marriage she doesn’t want. The film is an emotional and stunning portrait of not just Sonita, but a community of women all grappling with the consequences of cultural and economic forces that are often out of their control. Sonita, as depicted in the film, is a fierce, clear-eyed critic of these forces and wants nothing but to use her music to fight back. Emotional, powerful and at times thrilling, this documentary is an important work from accomplished Iranian documentary filmmaker, Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami.
We learn early in the film that Sonita’s name means “migrant bird,” which perfectly captures who Sonita is and is going to continue to be. A refugee from her home in Afghanistan, Sonita is living in Tehran. Soon, though, she will have to flee again to escape her family who wants to marry her off for money. We spend a lot of the early parts of the film getting to know Sonita the teenager. She has hopes and dreams and fantasies. She keeps a notebook of magazine pictures; these cutouts are of famous pop stars which she cuts and pastes into scenes of performance, her own face taped over the stars. She wants desperately to perform in front of others and share her music with the world. Several times in the film Sonita tries to record an album only to be turned away by studio owners who don’t want to break the law by allowing a female to perform using their equipment. Sonita persists, though. She’s a force of nature that won’t be stopped.
As the film progresses two things become clear: just how dire Sonita’s situation is and also just how inextricably linked her art is to that situation. One thing that makes Sonita such a fascinating, powerful character is that she isn’t just a teenager with a dream of being famous, she also has a very clear, personal point of view and she’s got something important to say. In one troubling scene, she talks with her peers about the money their families are getting from their future husbands’ families. The other girls all seem resigned to this, if not a little incredulous as to the arbitrary sums of money involved. One girl recounts a story of her price being quoted as either $2,000 or $12,000 depending on other factors related to the bargain. Sonita is there all along listening, questioning, prodding, trying to understand. I had the sense that she was just barely able to control her anger and exasperation, not at her peers, but at this horrible situation. That she’s able to combine this POV and message with her skills as a poet and lyricist is a real testament to her talent. Her songs are powerful, even in one instance when we are provided no subtitles, her vocal performance alone was enough to convey the pain and sense of betrayal she feels at the hands of her family.
Sonita’s future becomes very much in jeopardy when her mother shows up in Tehran, wanting to take Sonita back to Afghanistan to be sold into a marriage. In one pointed scene, Sonita sits in the foreground, staring at the camera, while her mother and sister sit in the background discussing Sonita’s upcoming marriage and the price they will get for her. It’s like Sonita isn’t even there. The film gets into some tricky ethical territory here as the filmmaker’s begin openly debating with each other if they should intervene in the situation with some kind of monetary payoff to Sonita’s mother. Fortunately they’re pretty transparent about this whole thing (or at least make a real attempt at transparency, regardless of what else may have transpired) and ultimately handle this section well. I don’t want to reveal anything else about what happens in the documentary except to say that it is at times heartbreaking, moving, suspenseful, and even thrilling.
The film marks the emergence of a powerful new voice in the fight against child marriage in Sonita Alizadeh. She is someone I think we will be hearing more about as she continues to get more music out there. I also think we will continue to hear more about director Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami. As her films reach larger audiences I hope she’s able to take on larger, higher profile projects. Sonita screened this last weekend at the Dallas International Film Festival. It also won the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. Sonita is currently seeking distribution. Keep an eye out for it!