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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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Over tea, the dominatrix told me that keeping a straight face was the hardest part of the job

"There is great power in being submissive," she explained.

As fetishes go it was fairly mild: just a bit of sissification – or, getting yelled at while wearing ladies’ clothing. He was a top entertainment attorney, a powerful man. He wore stockings under his suit to work. His wife didn’t want to engage – so she sent him to a professional, who put him in full make-up and forced him to run around a dungeon in high heels. Jenny Nordbak is younger than you’d expect for a retired dominatrix, stirring her tea in a King’s Cross café.

Nordbak, 29, serviced the movie moguls and lawyers of Tinseltown for two years. As a child, her Barbies always ended up gagged and bound. As a student, she defied a controlling boyfriend by dropping her trousers during a game of beer pong. And at 22 she took up her whip, for philosophical reasons, tired of bad sex and of the sexual politics women often live by: who starts it, who ends it and what to expect in between.

At her sex dungeon in Los Angeles, keeping a straight face was the hardest part of the job – especially during consultations, which worked like therapy sessions to unlock client desire. There was all the obvious stuff, such as the head-scissors (choking with the thighs). But there was also the man who wanted to lick a broom, and the one who asked her to ride a bike into him.

The stereotype is true: the more powerful they were in life, she says, the more demeaning their fantasies. “But I still wonder which way round it came: did they need a break from being in control, or had they become powerful because they secretly always felt humiliated?” She failed to control her laughter with one, only for him to pant in gratitude: “Mistress, no one’s ever laughed at me like that.”

Tea with Nordbak is a lesson in the lexicon of the underworld. Pro-dommeSub-flogger. Boner-check. Often her clients cried during sessions but they were clearly enjoying themselves – so I ask her in more depth about the nature of submission.

There’s a point that some people like to get to, she explains, in a low voice, called the sub-space. “A psychological state like being on drugs. Someone once compared it to a runner’s high. But it’s more intense because someone is inflicting it on you.” Nordbak has been there and didn’t like it much. But submission is misunderstood, she says – “It is powerful to be submissive!” – just as the desire to dominate is misrepresented in Fifty Shades of Grey as some kind of “affliction”, something you do if you’re broken somehow.

In Nordbak’s world it’s rather more nuanced; a dominatrix, after all, is submitting to a submissive’s desire. And working bloody hard. A dungeon pair build great trust between them, and great communication: sometimes your life depends on it.

She’s only once thought she’d killed someone – a woman, at the Burning Man festival in Nevada, who fainted during a headlock. Nordbak ran out of her tent for help, dressed only in boots and a strap-on. Female clients generally came to her because they wanted to learn her ways.

She gave it up when she started to get jaded, beating someone and thinking about her dinner. But her time as a pro-domme taught her to be more assertive in all areas of her life. “How does someone know what you want, in any area of life, if you don’t tell them?” she says. “Another person is never going to read your mind.”

Who’d have thought that S&M, the world of the rope and the ball gag, was all about communication? As with homosexuality, she thinks we all lie somewhere on the spectrum – a little bit submissive or dominant, whether we know it or not.

She is married now with a baby, and writing books. There is only one thing she misses and that is the look on a man’s face when you lead him across the room by the balls.

“They shut down,” she says, passing her palm over her eyes. “They follow you. They will do anything. Every woman should have that experience.” 

“The Scarlett Letters” by Jenny Nordbak is published by St Martin’s Press

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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