Sonita: A suspenseful documentary about forced marriage

A documentary

Directed by Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami

Note: This exceptional documentary struck a tremendous chord when I saw at the 2016 San Francisco Film Festival. I wrote the review below at that time, but held back publication until until Bay Area viewers could see the picture.Now that Sonita is available on Netflix, I’m publishing my review.

Young Sonita Alizadeh dreams of becoming a rapper. But her mother has other plans. She wants to sell her daughter into an arranged marriage—effectively sexual slavery.

Director Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami unearthed this very real conflict and turned it into something rare: a suspenseful documentary. In the way it uses cinéma vérité techniques to follow a young person with a dream, and grabs you in way more often associated with narrative cinema, Sonita feels a lot like Hoop Dreams, and that’s high praise for any documentary.

The teenage protagonist was born in Afghanistan, but is  living in the relative freedom and security of Iran. She lives with her extended family, and attends a special school for kids who have suffered serious trauma–in her case, a war refugee. Her family escaped from the Taliban.

She dreams of music. She raps, and displays clear promise in the art. She wants to take the stage and tell her story in rhyme.

But her widowed mother has other plans. Sonita has an older brother, and he wants to get married. And according to Afghan customs—or at least the custom from the part of Afghanistan they come from–that means he has to buy a bride. How do they get the money to buy a bride? Simple; sell Sonita to a stranger back in Afghanistan.

Iran is no paradise for independently-minded women–Sonita runs into legal problems for recorded singing solo while female–but’s a whole lot better than Afghanistan. At least in Iran, women can’t legally be forced into marriage. At least they can’t if they’re Iranian. Refugees don’t get the same protection.

To tell the story, director Maghami bends the rules of cinéma vérité. She doesn’t pretend that she’s not in the room, or effecting what’s happening in front of the camera. She talks to Sonita, her mother, and her teachers, puts up money to delay the young girl’s fate, and does what she can to help her subject. She even helped her create this video:

Did breaking these rules bother me? No. in art, all rules are merely guidelines. And when you’re filming a human being facing a horrible fate, the human being is much more important than the art.

Maghami shows us a talented, charismatic performer, and lets us know that she’s in considerable jeopardy. I don’t think you can watch Sonita without sitting on the edge of your seat, worrying about this wonderful girl’s fate. But unlike a Hollywood thriller, the happy ending isn’t guaranteed.

That’s suspense.