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?

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“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.