Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
11 March 2016

Sonita: A film about an Afghan rapper is the most modern of fairytales

This week, the Human Rights Watch Film Festival will bring some of the world's most moving films to the big screen. But should we feel guilty for enjoying them?

By India Bourke

“Like other girls I’m caged and confined, kept like a sheep on which you would dine,” raps 18 year-old Sonita from Herat, Afghanistan, the star of a new hit documentary at the London Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

Sonita’s story is the most modern of fairytales. Over three years filming in Iran and Afghanistan, we witness our protagonist snatched from the jaws of war, destitution and an oppressive (if well-meaning) family, and delivered into the arms of her own American dream. Except, instead of a prince, Sonita longs for a recording contract; and instead of a scary stepmother, she faces forced marriage and Sharia law’s restrictions on female artists.

Her mum is set against the scheme. She is desperate for her daughter to avoid scandal and to get married, so that her brother, in turn, can afford to buy a wife. But Sonita hopes for more: “I’m sure, when my song is released, things will change just a little.” And, at least for her, they change a lot.

But what makes a human rights documentary a success? And does a happy ending make us less likely to take action?

In Sonita, director Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami makes these questions a part of the film itself. She records her own struggle to gain Sonita’s trust, and then personally intervenes to save her from a wedding she doesn’t want.

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

Ghaemmaghami meets the aspiring rapper in Tehran, where she lives as an undocumented asylum seeker and dreams of stardom whilst struggling to make the rent. From here unfolds a relationship that travels from the transactional to the trusting.

More than happy to perform for the camera in public, Sonita is initially reserved during filming inside her tiny flat. When Ghaemmaghami gets too personal – “Have you ever been in love?” she asks – Sonita is quick to evade, asking instead if she can hold the camera. Another time she switches the bedroom light off altogether.

Wary and gaurded, Sonita’s is a generation familiar with the vagary of media power. Be it Hollywood or Herat, a rap video can raise you up as easily as a home movie can spell humiliation. So the director looks like she’s got a tough job on her hands – until Sonita’s estranged mother arrives from Afghanistan, demanding she earn the family $9,000 by marrying an older man.

Suddenly the dynamic shifts. Sonita now needs Ghaemmaghami as more than just a filmmaker; she needs an ally, an advocate and a source of funds. In a staged shot, looking up at the camera from the corner of the room, Sonita suggests that Ghaemmaghami pay her family instead, at least long enough for her to finish making the planned rap song.

That you shouldn’t pay protagonists is an unwritten law of documentary filmmaking, and one Ghaemmaghami thinks twice before breaking. Not least since she risks endorsing the very monestisation of marriage that has Sonita entrapped. Ending this expectation would improve life for countless girls, in a way that one fairy-godmother filmmaker never could. 

Yet Ghaemmaghami’s money is the silver slipper that saves the day. Sonita shall go to the ball/ finish her rap-video. And, in turn, she welcomes the camera fully into her world. From now on we are witness to Sonita’s most intimate moments: her frustration, her joy and her tough resolve.

It’s a feel-good finale but one which the filmmaker’s own journey makes clear is also a messy, compromised solution. Many questions are left unanswered: what will happen to Sonita’s younger sisters? Or other young women in their position? Will it really make a wider impact?

Few documentary films ever make a measurable and immediate difference to the issues they address ( Blackfish and The Invisible War being a few of the heartening exceptions). The best many can do, in the words of Maya Angelou, is help end “the agony of bearing an untold story inside of you”. In helping us see this truth, as well as its inadequacy, Sonita goes one step further.