Directed by Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami
Germany, Switzerland, Iranian 2015
A stand-out in the extensive documentary lineup at the 2016 Sydney Film Festival is Iranian woman director Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami’s ‘Sonita’, about an 18 year old Afghani rapper who succeeds in living her dream, thanks to the director’s intervention. The film, a German, Swiss and Iranian co-production, has already won the main award at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam in November 2015 as well as this year’s Sundance Festival’s Grand Jury Award and audience award, and Ghaem Maghami is a guest at the Sydney Film Festival, while Sonita Alizadeh has achieved international fame. We first see Sonita (whose name means ‘migrating swallow’) in Iran, where she has lived for ten years, at the Tehran Society for the Protection of Work and Street Children, an NGO which is both a refugee centre and a school for girls. She is just 14, an undocumented Afghani refugee who works as a cleaner at the centre while living in a squalid one-room flat with her niece and younger sister. She performs her socially aware raps with girls from the centre supplying a chorus, and keeps a ‘dream book’ in which she sellotapes pictures of her face over magazine cutouts of Rihanna. When a teacher asks the girls to draw their ideal passport, Sonita gives her name as ‘Sonita Jackson’ imagining herself as the child of Michael Jackson and Rihanna. More movingly, she creates a tableau in a drama class of her family’s journey from Afghanistan to Iran, where they are stopped at gunpoint by the Taliban, and she dissolves in tears at the memory.
Later she visits a recording studio, only to discover that without a license from the Iranian government and without identity papers she has no chance of ever recording anything. But this is nothing compared to the risk of death under the Taliban that she faces for her music in Afghanistan. Her fantasies of success are then rudely interrupted by a visit from her mother, whom she has not seen for eight years, and who wants to sell her as a bride for 9,000 US dollars so that her brother can buy himself a bride in Afghanistan. At this point, Ghaem Maghami’s film undergoes a crisis. If Sonita returns to Afghanistan into marital bondage, as her mother did at the age of fourteen, there will be no more film. Maghami decides to intervene in her own film, and we see her discussing the situation with her male boom operator. The director then offers to pay Sonita’s mother two thousand dollars and buy six more months of her time. This intervention has drawn considerable criticism and commentary, rather like Australian director Dennis O’Rourke’s 1991 documentary The Good Woman of Bangkok, where the director buys a house in the country for his prostitute subject, only to discover later that she has returned to the streets. In this case, the outcome is positive – inspired by Eminem and Iranian rapper Yas, the first rapper authorized to perform by the Iranian government, Sonita and Ghaem Maghami make a powerful music video of a rap about her plight, ‘Brides for Sale’. Sonia appears with a bar code on her forehead, cuts and bruises on her face – an idea she got from one of the girls in the refuge – and wears a white bridal dress. She raps in Dari Persian, the main official language of Afghanistan, which is also understood in Iran, and Ghaem Maghami supplies English subtitles. The video begins in a whisper, as it is against ‘Sharia’, but opens into the scream of a fifteen year old girl, ‘for a body that broke under the price tags you put on it’. One of the lines reads ‘the Koran never said women are for sale’, and the rap ends with Sonita leaving her doll as a memento for those left behind: ‘don’t let her cry and don’t let her be sold’.
What looks like a drastically toned-down version of the video was one of three winners of 1,000 dollars in a 2014 online ‘Afghani Election Anthem Contest’ screened on Afghani Tolo TV, aimed at encouraging young Afghanis to vote, and funded by the US Institute of Peace, but not the Afghani government – a fact played down considerably in the film. Sonita sends the prize money to her family. As a result, the subtitled video of ‘Brides for Sale’ goes on YouTube, and gets attention, most notably from the US Greatheart Foundation, a representative of whom talks to her on skype and arranges for a scholarship for her at the Wasatch Academy in Utah. But much remains to be done in order to realise this American dream. Director and rapper return to see Sonita’s family in Herat, but also to secure her birth certificate. Her family is not told about the US offer, but Sonita is delighted to know that they have seen her video, and her younger brother and sister can recite it by heart. The duo then travels to Kabul, to get a passport and student visa, a torturous process which finally results in Sonita receiving a hand-written Afghani passport and proof of her identity. She also needs to learn English, and we see Ghaem Maghami teaching her: ‘forget the word for scarf, you won’t need it there’. (Earlier in the film, Sonita tells the director to turn the camera off because she wants to take her hijab off to go to sleep). Sonita finally arrives in Utah – the film’s time span is three years – and is presented at a Wasatch student assembly as ‘a genuine rapper concerned with social justice’. The credits roll as Sonia performs her rap (in Dari, but presumably with English subtitles) in California.
Despite my lingering suspicions about Sonita’s successful outcome – she became a social media sensation before the film was even released, and has already travelled the world as a celebrity, performing at the 2016 Women in the World Summit Live in New York City – the film is a refreshing contrast to all the recent ballyhoo about Beyoncé’s Lemonade, and visible proof that Afghani women’s lives matter. One thinks, for example, of the Afghan girls Sonia left behind at the refuge in Tehran – what will become of them? The Young Turks program on the US TYT network has claimed that in 41 countries in the world 30 percent of women are married before the age of 18, mostly in arranged marriages. Sonita was first threatened with being sold into marriage at the age of ten, when she was unable to see it as other than a game. At the Q&A for the film at Sundance, she expressed the wish to become a human rights lawyer and defend girls sold into arranged marriages. She also performed part of ‘Brides for Sale’ in reasonably good English, while when asked why she chose rap, she said it allowed her to ‘say more’ than pop music, which she started off in. She also claimed that her mother was now a fan. In answer to an audience member’s question about what help they could offer Sonita in the USA, Ghaem Maghami stepped in and said on her behalf that a green card would be most desirable. As one reviewer put it, ‘the tale of Sonita Alizadeh is now Maghami’s responsibility too’.
Sonita has released other YouTube clips without subtitles about the war in Afghanistan and she is not the first female Afghani rapper. That distinction goes to Soosan Firooz, a hazara (ie. Dari-speaking) rapper who released a YouTube video, ‘Our Neighbours’, about the plight of Afghan refugees, in 2012, in which she appeared in Western style-clothing and jewelry. Subsequently she was disowned by some members of her family, most notably her uncle, and faced death threats. Her father, who initially granted her permission to rap, then quit his job as an electrician so that he could protect her, and Firooz also works as a soap opera actress to bring in income to support her family. But unlike Sonita, she does not write her own lyrics, with her rap dedicated to Afghani women being written by poet Suhrab Sirat with music by Afghan singer Farid Rastagar, both men. Nonetheless her raps are powerful: ‘What did we achieve in Iran and Pakistan?/Half became addicted, other half became terrorists’ (Our Neighbours). Another track, ‘Naqisul Aql’, which means ‘mentally disturbed’ an expression used against women in Afghanistan, states: ‘I was raped once but why they did they stone me? … Woman is not only a body/ Or a single body part/So you can kill her/whenever you like’. The chorus goes: ‘If women are mentally disturbed/So is your wife,/Your sister/And your mother is mentally disturbed too’. The video clip was filmed in a bombed-out palace and she wears jeans, no headscarf and chains, and is supported by two masked men. Firooz, a fan of Shakira, has also experienced refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan with her family when they were forced to flee Afghanistan, but now lives with her family in Kabul. Her mother is a humanitarian worker and has also suffered death threats. The risks endured by Afghani women rappers make the celebrity deprivations of the likes of Beyoncé pale into insignificance.