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
This article appears in the 19 Oct 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood