Initial impressions of Sonita’s chances of being a successful rapper are pretty grim. Living in a dismal flat in Tehran with an older sister who seems to have given up hope, they plead for an extra day’s grace in paying the rent. Afghan refugees without papers, they are dependent on the kindness (and exploitation) of strangers to get by.
Most of the people around Sonita though – her teachers, her boss (she is a cleaner as well as student at the children’s refuge), her chirpy niece – are sympathetic and supportive. Her teacher is dry too, noting that if she had Michael Jackson and Rihanna as her parents, she would have a US passport and be able to go anywhere – but not Iran.
Other girls have it harder it seems, one is used by her brother as a punching bag, another, barely in her teens, whispers her dread at being sold as a bride. Sonita retells her story in verse, and the younger girl starts to cry. ‘That’s just what I want to tell my father,’ she says.
And this is how Sonita turns out actually to be rather special. At the shelter they are led through Boal-inspired drama workshops, asking them to imagine the world they want to live in. At home, Sonita creates a scrap book of how she wants things to be in her future, as a musician, with crowds excited to see her, a flashy house. The music industry is difficult to break into wherever you are – and the lukewarm responses of recording studio gatekeepers are as crushing as anywhere – but an insurmountable problem in Iran and Afghanistan is that girls, by law, are not allowed to sing. But there is an even greater obstacle.
The aftermath of a fight with her brother has left her books and posters torn and strewn on her bed. The reason, in a dark echo to Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew: he wants to get married and he needs the money from her bride price to get a bride of his own. She turns to her mother who is not sympathetic. She too was forced to marry pre-teen to a man so old she called him uncle, and went on to bear him eight children. ‘Happy or not, it is the tradition’. If Sonita won’t go with her back to Afghanistan, then her brother will be sent to force her back.
And then things get really interesting, as all those watching on the sidelines, from the man carrying the boom, to random students hanging about, start to question whether her fate is sealed and what they can do... And as they talk, Sonita disappears, which causes an even greater problem to the filmmaker than the code of not getting involved; there won’t be a documentary at all if your subject is not there to film. And by then, they all have skin in the game.
Of course a documentary maker shouldn’t go out trying to make stories, but Sonita more than meets the director halfway in her bullishness and determination to succeed and you find yourself rooting for her and the filmmakers as they try and find a way for the girl to fulfil her dreams. And it is this breaking of the rules which makes this a great story. Sonita could have been beaten into silence. Instead of watching her being tamed like her schoolfellows, it is much more interesting and inspiring to see this girl roar. Terrific.
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