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Sonita's parents want to sell her for $9,000 – but she has an inability to take "no" for an answer

In Sonita, the girls chat about the opposite sex just like any other group of teenagers, except that here they are comparing the ages of their husbands-to-be. Plus: Queen of Katwe.

Hip-hop is a braggart’s game that can lapse easily into an inner-city equivalent of the “Four Yorkshiremen” sketch. (“Drive-by shooting? We used to dream of being killed in a drive-by shooting . . .”) Yet even a bullet-scarred South Central homeboy has it easy compared to Sonita Alizadeh, a 16-year-old Afghan girl who raps about the injustice of arranged marriage.

Near the start of the documentary Sonita, she is pasting pictures into her scrapbook of the luxurious house where she will live once she hits the big time, and fantasising about having Rihanna and Michael Jackson as parents. For now, she is being threatened with eviction from the poky flat she shares with her sister and niece in Tehran, where they have resided as undocumented immigrants since fleeing the Taliban several years earlier. Even if she manages to stay put, her family still wants to drag her back to Afghanistan to be sold, so that the $9,000 asking price can pay for her brother’s wedding.

Sonita, who has enormous brown eyes and a touching inability to take “no” for an answer, wants to record her lyrics, but studio costs are prohibitively high and producers risk falling foul of the law if they collaborate with her. (It is illegal in Iran for a woman to perform solo in front of men to whom she is not related.) Her mother argues that it is indecent for a girl to make music, though the old woman doesn’t have such harsh words for the practice of selling off children to men. “It’s our way,” she says.

Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami’s film is peppered with these instances of unremarkable horror, in which cruelty is borne with a shrug. Sonita and her friends chat about the opposite sex just like any other group of teenagers, except that here they are comparing the ages of their husbands-to-be. One girl, with an intended who is only two years older, is the envy of her peers, some of whom are being sold to men in their thirties – though she admits casually that she had to be beaten up first before she would agree to the match. No one seems shocked.

The film is at its most complicated during the interventions made by Ghaemmaghami into the action. Off-screen voices warn her that she shouldn’t interfere but she makes no pretence of editorial impartiality. (Even the boom operator joins in an argument about whether they should pay Sonita’s mother several thousand dollars for a stay of marriage.) Ghaemmaghami could be accused of steering the action to make a stronger film but her attempt to save Sonita from being married off is far more important than that.

Phiona Mutesi is another gifted youngster using her talent to escape hardship: this uneducated girl from the slums of Kampala was a chess grandmaster before she hit her teens. Queen of Katwe, a fictionalised account of her success, is produced by Disney but the story hasn’t been Disneyfied. If it goes in exactly the direction you would expect, the sights, textures and nuances along the way are anything but run-of-the-mill. Thank the director, Mira Nair, for that. Her 1988 debut, Salaam Bombay!, proved that she could coax revealing performances from non-professional actors amid a hubbub, and those skills serve her well here.

The cast includes the pensive newcomer Madina Nalwanga as Phiona, for whom chess offers strategies she can apply to her daily life. (In a moment of panic, she cries out: “Where is my safe square?”) Co-starring are David Oyelowo as her coach and Lupita Nyong’o as the mother reluctant to let her go, supported by a cast of young, yapping first-timers who deserve their own spin-off. Nair surrounds them all with bristling, lived-in detail. There is always something to tickle the eye: in a simple shot of a traffic jam, she has placed a child with his mouth squashed against a car window, while a motorcyclist weaving through the crowds bears a plume of multicoloured plastic containers, fanning out from the back of his bike like a peacock tail.

She saves the best for last: don’t miss the joyous end credits, in which fiction and documentary are united in the happiest of marriages

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood

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Fasting and Feasting: the eccentric life of food writer Patience Gray

Journalist Adam Federman clearly venerates his subject, and his research is overwhelmingly diligent. 

It is hard, these days, to open a food magazine or a news­paper’s colour supplement without finding an article extolling the charm of foraging. So fashionable has the Instagram-friendly pursuit become that the botanist James Wong recently  wrote of his alarm at finding pictures of food – often published on blogs proclaiming the evils of sugar, gluten and dairy – prettily decorated with flowers of extreme toxicity: narcissus, catharanthus, lantana and rhododendron.

The food writer Patience Gray loved narcissi, whose springtime appearance on Naxos she described in her 1989 account of a year spent on the Greek island, Ring Doves and Snakes; but she would have known better than to use them as a garnish. Her passionate interest in foraged and seasonal food, which began during her wartime years spent in a primitive cottage in Sussex, where she pursued a scholarly interest in edible fungi, developed over the many decades during which she lived with her partner, the sculptor Norman Mommens, in some of the remotest parts of the Mediterranean.

On Naxos, in Carrara in Tuscany and for the last three decades of their life together at Spigolizzi, a masseria (farmhouse) in Apulia, Gray and Mommens found a way of life still governed by the elemental rhythms of sowing and growing, feasting and fasting – rhythms they adopted and incorporated into the practice of their work. “Métier” was a talismanic term for Gray.

“It sometimes seems as if I have been rescuing a few strands from a former and more diligent way of life, now being fatally eroded by an entirely new set of values,” she wrote in Honey from a Weed (1986), her evocative fusion of memoir and cookbook. “As with students of music who record old songs which are no longer sung, soon some of the things I record will also have vanished.”

Patience was one of a formidable cohort of female writer-cooks whose celebrations of food in muscular, elegant prose sprang from the privations of the Second World War. A contemporary of Elizabeth David, M F K Fisher and Julia Child, she wrote just three cookery books, only two of which were published in her lifetime: the bestselling Plats du Jour (1957), co-written with Primrose Boyd and warily subtitled “Foreign Food”, and the eclectic Honey from a Weed. The Centaur’s Kitchen, a book of Mediterranean recipes written in 1964 for the Chinese cooks of the Blue Funnel shipping line, was posthumously published in 2005. She also wrote two wayward volumes of memoir: Ring Doves and Snakes and Work Adventures Childhood Dreams (1999).

Despite this comparative reticence (she wrote bitterly in Work Adventures Childhood Dreams of her mother, whom she accused of valuing only published work: “But Patience, is there anything you have written that is actually in print?”), the publication of Honey from a Weed turned her into a celebrity, and the austere household at Spigolizzi, devoid of electricity, telephone or sanitation, became a place of pilgrimage for such keen food fanciers as Paul Levy (the co-author of The Official Foodie Handbook) and the late Derek Cooper of BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme. As her biographer, Adam Federman, remarks, “A full account of her remarkable life is long overdue.”

Gray divided her adult life into two parts: before 1962, when she began living with Norman Mommens, and after. On either side of that meeting her life was eventful. Of her upper-middle-class upbringing she wrote, “I have listened to other people’s accounts of their happy childhoods with sadness mingled with disbelief.”

Educated at Queen’s College in London (where Unity Mitford was a contemporary) and the London School of Economics, she worked for the designer F H K Henrion on the agricultural and country pavilions at the Festival of Britain, and had three children by Thomas Gray, an elusive  married “artist-designer” whose name she took.

Having left him, she won a competition to become the women’s editor of the Observer. Sacked after three years (by the paper’s new features editor George Seddon, under whom things “became dull, more serious”), she “began a different and more creative life”, sharing and recording the ancient traditions of seasonal food production and preparation of the communities among which she occupied an ambiguous position as both participant and observer until her death in 2005, aged 87.

Federman – a journalist, academic and “former line cook, bread baker and pastry chef” – clearly venerates his subject, and his research is overwhelmingly diligent. While Gray possessed the sharp observing eye, selective memory and comic timing of an instinctive writer, Federman is dogged and respectful.

His book is dutifully strewn with the names of Gray’s wide acquaintance, but he lacks the gift of characterisation and conveys little impression of their personalities. Even Gray, so vivid a presence in her own books, seems oddly muted in Federman’s portrait (though he gives a lively account of her exhilaratingly awful behaviour at her daughter’s wedding).

For admirers of Patience Gray’s remarkable prescience in anticipating what has become known as the “Slow Food” movement, Federman’s exhaustively detailed biography will be a valuable resource. But for those who long for a flavour of her personality – as pungent and earthy as the dishes she recorded – it is best read with a copy of Honey from a Weed to hand. 

Fasting and Feasting: the Life of Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray
Adam Federman
Chelsea Green, 384pp, £20

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books: The Fox in the Cupboard and The Stranger in the Mirror, a memoir of middle age, published in 2011. She writes on books for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder