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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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Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition