By Christine Westwood

“It’s my dream to be a rapper, to sing what’s in my heart, and be heard by people everywhere.” Many teenagers dream of something like that. But these words belong to Sonita Alizadeh, a refugee from Afghanistan who had never received regular schooling, who lived at the bottom of the social order in Tehran, who didn’t have a passport, and whose family planned to sell her as a bride. Besides, in Afghanistan, as stated by Sonita herself, “Girls just don’t sing.”

“I first met Sonita through my cousin, who is a social worker involved in film and music for refugees,” says Tehran-born documentary filmmaker, Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami. “My cousin asked if I could help Sonita with some music training or opportunities to record; she was already writing lyrics and wanted to be a rap artist. After a while, I was thinking about making a movie about her when I got to know how ambitious she was and how big her dreams were. She had nothing – no resources – and I was thinking that it would be an interesting story, but I couldn’t see any future for her. I was thinking as a storyteller. It would be interesting to have a protagonist that has these dreams and drive, but at the same time to show how she doesn’t have any chance at all of achieving them.”

We follow Sonita from when she is sixteen to eighteen. She is a beautiful girl, and in spite of her trauma, gives an impression of strength and vivacity, and projects a clear, compelling voice. Sponsored by The Centre For Protection Of Street Children, who provide basic funds and group therapy, we follow Sonita in some of the group classes. One exercise is to enact one of their worst moments. For Sonita, it was when she was eight-years-old when her family were fleeing Afghanistan and they were stopped at the border by Taliban soldiers. She positions some of her peers to form a tableau of the events: two brothers held at gunpoint, a child clutching her mother’s skirts. In another class exercise, the teacher invites them to draw their own passport, and to imagine where they would like to live, and who their parents would be. For Sonita, she would be the child of Michael Jackson and Rhianna.

Sonita Alizadeh in Sonita
Sonita Alizadeh in Sonita

At home in the bare flat that she shares with her aunt and sister, Sonita cuts out pictures and sticks them in an exercise book. The pictures show a rap artist performing to a cheering audience, and Sonita has stuck her own face on the performer. Another picture shows a room full of musical instruments.

Maghami explains how she gains close access to her subjects: “When I want to make movies about them, I spend a lot of time with them. I become a part of their life. I am not only a filmmaker. Many times when Sonita needed help, I was there for her. That’s the only way that you can get close to people. Nobody really needs a filmmaker around! Sonita was really traumatised by being an illegal immigrant in Iran. Being an Afghan in Iran, there’s a lot of discrimination. People look down on Afghans. She had never had a voice. She couldn’t talk to her family, and she couldn’t talk to people around her. She found me as a person who would give her a voice, and that’s why she embraced it. She wanted this movie.”

Sonita’s mother arrives in Iran intending to take the girl back to Afghanistan to be sold as a bride. We learn that there was a previous attempt to broker her at the age of ten, but the deal didn’t go through. In a controversial twist, the mother offers the filmmaker a deal. For $2,000, Sonita can stay in Tehran for six months before being taken back. As a viewer, you want to hate the mother as the betrayer, and the villain of the piece, but Maghami’s even-handed reporting undercuts simplistic judgements. “Sonita’s mum is not a bad person,” she explains. “She’s a product of the culture. She was sold when she was a kid to a man much older than herself. This is what she experienced, so how can we expect her to suddenly be a rebel? That’s what her society, and her community, expects from her. They expect her to sell her daughter. If your daughter isn’t sold, it means that there’s something wrong with her.”

Sonita3

The situation represented a disturbing lure for Maghami. “As a filmmaker, I was very happy that her mum came to take her back to Afghanistan and sell her, because as a journalist and as a filmmaker, we love people to be in trouble,” she says candidly. “We love problems. So in one part of my brain, I was happy, but in another part of my brain, I was thinking, ‘I will feel guilty for the rest of my life to witness such a horrible thing and do nothing when I could help.’ I didn’t have much money, but $2,000 isn’t an impossible amount of money to pay. I thought, ‘She has been in front of my camera for a year-and-a-half, I can’t just let them take her and sell her.’ But I knew that if I did this, I would kill the story. Was that a smart thing to do? There were so many dilemmas. If you google this movie, you will find a lot of criticism that I am a puppet master, and that I’m not a good witness because I interfered. Also, should I myself be the saviour of my protagonist in the movie? Isn’t that self-promoting? It was all hard, but in the end, I decided that I had to do it, and that I had to appear in the movie myself.”

That six-month reprieve allowed Sonita to make a video with Maghami’s help. It is of her self-penned rap song, “Daughters For Sale”, an unequivocal protest against the child bride custom. In the video, Sonita appears in a bridal gown with a bar code on her forehead and a bruised face, a terrible echo of one of Sonita’s friends in the centre whose brother has beaten her. The video went viral on YouTube, and Sonita’s dream of being heard by audiences everywhere was suddenly becoming a reality. What happens next is nothing short of, as Maghami describes, “magic.” The documentary doesn’t need manufactured dramatic tension. Scenes where Sonita has to go back to Afghanistan to get her birth certificate and passport, with no guarantee that she will ever get out, are as nail biting as any suspense thriller.

The documentary won The World Cinema Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and has enjoyed more acclaim since. Maghami has created a compelling film, offering an inspiring human story, adding to greater cultural awareness, and opening up the debate about responsibility and ethics in the field of documentary making. Sonita’s life was changed forever through the making of this documentary, but so was the filmmaker’s. “The idea for doing visualisations came from a social worker who had classes for the girls,” Maghami says. “She tried to give them this because when they have this trauma, teenagers lose the ability to dream. Making this film changed me, and mostly I believe in the power of dreams. Dreaming is painful, but we all need to do it.”

Sonita will screen at The Brisbane Asia Pacific Film Festival on Monday, November 28 at 6:30pm. For all ticketing and venue information, head to the official site. For more on The Brisbane Asia Pacific Film Festival, head to the official site.

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