Sonita: the Afghan girl who raps against sexism and forced marriage

Director Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami reveals how she came across the subject of her Sundance prizewinning documentary Sonita: an Afghan refugee with aspirations to be the next Rihanna.

Sarah Jilani

Sonita (2015)

Sonita (2015)

“I scream to make up for women’s lifetime of silence,” begins the debut rap song by Sonita Alizadeh, a teenage Afghan refugee living in Tehran. The rest of her track, ‘Brides for Sale’, is just as hard-hitting, eloquent and contemporary as its opening lyrics.

Sonita escaped from Taliban-ruled Afghanistan to Iran when she was 10, and lived as one of many undocumented Afghan child refugees in Tehran with her sister and niece. But this 18-year-old has a remarkable spirit that bravely questions tradition and holds on to her dreams in the most difficult of circumstances. She dreams of being a rap superstar.

As she spends her days superimposing her face on Rihanna’s concert photos and watching Iranian music TV, her mother pays a visit from Afghanistan with news. It will spark both Sonita’s darkest fears and subsequent rebellion: her bride-price has been settled at $9,000, and she is to be wed so that her family can pay, in turn, for her brother’s bride-to-be. This is the second time Sonita was in danger of forced marriage – the first was at 10 years old, which luckily fell through. Sonita is now determined to show that a daughter cannot be a commodity, but facing Afghan traditions presents an uphill battle for a teenage girl – and to be a singer is to bring shame on the family.

Sonita (2015)

Sonita (2015)

At this point the documentary takes an interesting turn when its director, Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami, steps in from behind the camera. Buying some time from her family, Rokhsareh supports Sonita as she enters and wins an online rap competition with ‘Brides for Sale’ – accompanied by a chilling music video of herself as a child-bride, with bruises on her face and a barcode on her forehead.

She catches the attention of an American NGO and is ultimately offered a scholarship to an academy in Utah, but Sonita’s lack of documentation throws up further obstacles. These will take her back home to Kabul, as she hides her whereabouts from her family and awaits the passport that will allow her to take the bravest step of her journey yet.

Ghaemmaghami’s documentary spans three years, in which Sonita goes from working as a cleaner while rapping to fellow refugee children, to finally getting a hard-earned shot at an education in the US.

During our conversation, Ghaemmaghami reflects on how she chose Sonita as her subject, the documentarian impulse among Iranian filmmakers, and how art could enable social change for girls.

Sonita (2015)

Sonita (2015)

What drew you to the subject of the documentary – why an Afghan refugee girl and forced marriage in particular?

I found Sonita through a cousin who asked me to go and meet her, to see if there was material there for a film. I got more and more interested in her story. Her situation was bad – no papers, no social rights, no future and no access to education. At first, I approached wanting to make a movie about child labourers, Afghan teen refugees in Iran, and their social situations. But as things began to happen for Sonita herself, I grew more and more focused on the subject of forced marriage.

Early or forced marriage can also happen in Iran, usually in rural areas rather than cities; however, this struck me as a large and ongoing issue in Afghanistan at all levels of society.

Did you and your crew experience any difficulties when making the film, in terms of how willing people were to talk about these issues, or let you film?

Sonita’s family were very open with me, and willing to talk about it. But then again, I was focused on Sonita, and did not look to talk to a wider group of refugees for the purposes of this particular film.

Sonita (2015)

Sonita (2015)

What draws you to documentary over fiction film?

I wanted to be a documentary rather than a fiction filmmaker from the very start. When I decided to be a filmmaker, I also decided to be a documentary filmmaker; I always felt documentary is what I could do best, what was closest to my abilities. I still think that this is the only job I could do.

Who are some of your cinematic influences? Iranian cinema has such a rich film heritage.

Much of Iranian cinema is on the border of documentary and fiction. I think we have a rich heritage in documentary too, and many of our feature films are very documentary-like in quality. Not only in the sense that they can be considered social realism, but in their cinematic technique and rhetoric, as well. They play with the limits of documentary and fiction.

Rakhshan Bani-E’temad, for example, has made a lot of documentaries, but the first Iranian documentary filmmaker – who made only one – was Forough Farrokhzad in the 1960s. Her film The House Is Black (1962) was the first documentary made by an Iranian woman, and it’s still very influential.

Sonita (2015)

Sonita (2015)

What do you think are the ethics of documentary? From a human standpoint, your getting involved in Sonita’s story was admirable, but it was also provocative.

I don’t think documentary filmmakers were ever just flies on the wall. They were always elephants in the room. Your presence changes everything; people see you, they know you are there, and that affects their actions. Some documentarians interfere but deny it; yet they may change things and lead the story in a particular direction. I believe it comes down to transparency. I have received some negative criticism about my interference, but I do not care about the naysayers – the life of a person is more important than preserving documentarian values.

Sonita (2015)

Sonita (2015)

Sonita’s dedication to her art changed her life – yet she is an exceptional example among the many Afghan child and teen refugees in Iran. As a filmmaker, what are your thoughts on the intersection of art and social change?

I don’t think a movie can change the world, but a successive build-up of efforts will bring about change. A film is like a brick in a wall: one of many voices calling for the protection of girls. It can have an effect, but nobody should think that a movie can make all the difference. The social awareness film can bring is certain, though, and they should continue to address social issues.

Do you have any new projects at the moment? What are some themes or subjects you would be interested in working on in the future?

I am open to fresh inspiration at the moment and seeking new possibilities. I try not to do what I’ve done before, but I am always attracted to real stories about outsider art and artists. I’m particularly interested in individuals who have never had an education in art and yet are natural and instinctive artists – undiscovered talents, like Sonita.

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