Chloe Walker from the Phoenix Picturehouse, Oxford previews this week’s Discover Tuesdays presentation Sonita.
When we meet 15-year-old Sonita Alizadeh, she’s already been through enough trauma for several lifetimes. As an infant she escaped from war-torn Afghanistan with her family to Iran. Although the threat of imminent death had gone, with no papers and very little money, Sonita’s life continued to worsen. And then her parents started to try and sell her into marriage.
To cope with this nightmare of a life, Sonita turned to the frenetic beats and poetry of rap music. Her lyrics are frightened and furious. One of the film’s most moving scenes is when she’s rapping in front of one of her friends, who has just been promised to a man more than twice her age.
‘I hear my dad saying ‘It’s a deal!
We’re selling our daughter
To pay for our meal’.
On his face, the biggest smile
I’ve seen for a long while….’
When she finishes, her friend smiles tearfully: “That’s exactly what I would like to tell my father.”
The most important rule for documentarians and journalists is frequently cited as ‘don’t become the story’. But for filmmaker Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami, this wasn’t an option. Sonita’s mother, chillingly mercenary, insists on money or else she will sell her daughter to the highest bidder. Sonita begs the director for assistance, and she contributes enough money to win Sonita a reprieve. During this time, she also aids Sonita by putting her first music video ‘Brides For Sale’ on YouTube. It goes viral, and this extra attention gives Sonita all the help she needs.
Sonita is astonishingly brave and astonishingly talented. Later in the film, when it appears all hope is lost and that Sonita is going to end up as yet another child bride, she says goodbye to her kind teachers with a smile. One of them is surprised at her demeanour: “She was smiling when she left. Did you see it?”
But that’s just Sonita: defiant and determined, she persists when so many others would have given in. Her music is so powerful because she is so powerful.
Sonita is a paean to the importance of art as a tool of expression, a weapon against oppression more powerful than guns or bombs. To see Sonita perform in front of a crowd of her peers, to see her giving inspiration and a voice to those who so badly need it, is to witness something truly special.
This is a vital film, uplifting, inspiring and filled with fury – just like its heroine.
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