Still from film 'Sonita'
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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?

“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.

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.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

Emma Moore as Ruth Ellis
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Rasping old cassettes bring new depth to a familiar true crime tale in BBC Four’s The Ruth Ellis Files

Plus, a BBC Two documentary about Brixton reggae producer Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin.

I thought I knew the Ruth Ellis story inside out: when I was writing my book about women’s lives in the 1950s, her name came up so often – almost daily, it fell like a shadow over my desk – I finally had to give in and take a detour, reading everything about her that I could find, for all that she wasn’t part of my plan (if you’re interested too, and want a primer, I recommend A Fine Day for a Hanging by Carol Ann Lee). But perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps I didn’t really know anything at all, for I never once felt even half so haunted in the British Library as I did the other night in the moments after I finished watching Gillian Pachter’s three-part documentary series, The Ruth Ellis Files: A Very British Crime Story (13-15 March, 9pm).

It wasn’t that Pachter, an American filmmaker who specialises in true crime, had vast quantities of new information; the thrust of her investigation had to do with the part played by Ellis’s other lover, Desmond Cussen, in the murder of David Blakely, the crime for which she alone was hanged on the morning of 13 July, 1955, at Holloway Prison, north London. Pachter suggested, like others before her, that Cussen provided Ellis with the gun with which she shot her violent boyfriend, and that he should therefore have been tried as an accessory.

Nor were her long-winded films, so deeply in love with their own processes, without their irritations, from the tonally jarring film clips she insisted on using to illustrate situations for which she had no images, to her bizarre and utterly pointless desire to recreate the pathetic last bedsit of Ellis’s son, Andre Hornby, who committed suicide in 1982, aged 37. Faced with certain expert “witnesses”, among them a couple of retired coppers who couldn’t have been loving their moment in the sun more if they’d been slicked with Ambre Solaire, Pachter was never anything less than wide-eyed and credulous.

What she did have, though, were some rasping old cassettes, the complicated provenance of which would take far too long to describe here. And so it was that we heard the voices of Cussen and Ellis discussing Blakely; of Hornby gently interrogating Christmas Humphreys, the counsel for the prosecution at his mother’s trial, whom he tracked down in the months before his suicide; and even of Blakely, loudly toasting the company at a party. She made maximum use of these tapes, playing them repeatedly, and it wasn’t hard to see why; if the words sometimes meant relatively little (“he’s just a little drip… a cheapskate… a skunk…” Ellis said of Blakely, perhaps only telling Cussen what he wanted to hear), the voices nevertheless spoke volumes, whole worlds conjured up in their strangulated vowels, their urgent hesitations.

Here was Ellis, a working-class woman, speaking in a painful, put-on RP. Here was Hornby, his life utterly destroyed by his mother killing the man who was then the closest thing he had to a father, trying desperately hard not to sound mad (“she lived on the borderlines of insanity,” he said of Ellis, possibly unaware that it takes one to know one). And here was Blakely, so obliviously chipper, his voice all dry gin and privilege. Ellis’s story has always reeked of Raymond Chandler: the racing driver lover, his floppy-haired beauty destroyed by bullets; that blonde hair, which she determinedly bleached again in prison ahead of her trial. Hearing them, though, all that fell away. What messes and muddles people get into. What calamities hit them, head on, like meteorites.

After a ten-year absence, Molly Dineen has returned with a documentary about Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin (12 March, 9pm), a Brixton reggae producer. Three years in the making, it included some remarkable events in the life of this local celebrity, among them his conviction for money laundering; Dread’s dreads, uncut since he was 14, now reach to his feet and deserve a film of their own. But though I admired its intimacy, the warm and effective way Dineen mined his universe, in the end there was something self-indulgent about it, too. Like Blacker’s barber, her editor was, alas, seemingly surplus to requirements. 

The Ruth Ellis Files (BBC Four)
Being Blacker (BBC Two)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game