The teenager rapping into a spoon in the back yard is grinning wide, bursting with self-belief, clapped and cheered along by an audience of younger girls who clearly adore her. Her lyrics are full of the kind of confidence that only comes with being sixteen (or thereabouts – she isn’t quite sure of her age). “My future is bright, don’t worry about me,” she yells, and her audience shout the chorus back at her and scream her name.
This is Sonita – a teenage Afghani immigrant who fled the Taliban as a child, living in Iran without papers, and now the star of an award-winning documentary about her life.
It’s easy to see what interested filmmaker Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami about her – she lives illegally in a country where it’s against the law for women to sing or perform in public, yet Sonita has decided that she’s going to become a rapper and has every intention of making that happen – by force of personality alone if necessary.
As a child, she explains during the film, she wrote pop songs, but she realised she had too much to say and that rap was really the only medium she could express herself in. She’s articulate, political and, increasingly, angry.
There’s a necessary hardness around this girl, who cleans bathrooms to try and scrape together the rent money for her, her sister and young niece; who even at her very young age responds to threats of eviction by marching between letting agents trying to coax them to drop their prices. She doesn’t quite trust the camera crew following her around at first; her eyes are sly and there’s a possibility she’s not being entirely honest with them.
“Now it’s my turn to ask you some questions”
As a subject, she’s wilful and stroppy, often dictating what can and can’t be filmed, switching the lights off to indicate a conversation is finished, and even, in one sequence, turning the camera on Rokhsareh when she’s uncomfortable with a line of questioning. And yet, she’s still very much a child in some ways. As the film opens, she’s cutting pictures out of magazines, taping her own face over a picture of Rihanna live in concert and daydreaming about the size of her audience. Her fantasy father-figure, she says, giggling in class, is Michael Jackson.
A still from Sonita's music video
At school, Sonita and her friends (all fellow Afghani refugees) sit around and gossip, like teenage girls have always done. They’re not really talking about boys, though. What elicits a swoon is not a tale of romance, but the detail that one girl will be wedding an eighteen year old – most of these young teenagers have already accepted that they’re going to be married to men at least twice their own age, and that they don’t have a say in it. “Did you agree or did they beat you?” the newly engaged girl is asked. “At first they beat me up, then I agreed,” she says, lightly, trying to laugh it off.
“We don’t have price tags like sheep!”
Sonita is working on a new song, a protest song about the Afghani practise of selling girls into marriage, and with touching self-confidence announces “I’m sure that when my song is released, some things will change, even a bit.”
Suddenly, everything does change. The film that we thought we were watching and that Rokhsareh thought she was making – a character study about an illegal immigrant girl hustling to become a rapper – is turned on its head, becoming in part a debate about the nature of documentary filmmaking and the need for filmmakers to remain objective outsiders.
“Maybe you could buy me? I’m for sale, anyway.”
Sonita’s mother decides that she, too, is to be sold for her bride price, so her brother in Afghanistan can buy himself a young wife. Sonita immediately appeals to Rokhsareh and the film crew – could they buy her? Adopt her? Could they lend her the money? Rokhsareh, forced back in front of the camera again, insists at first that she must record the truth, that it’s not ethical for her to interfere in Sonita’s life.
However, is it any more ethical to let a girl be sold into marriage against her will, when you have the power to stop it? These questions, and the gradually building bond – of trust, friendship and respect – we witness growing between the filmmaker and her subject, add a fascinating layer to an already compelling character piece. Sonita, her lyrics, her defiance in the face of patriarchal family expectations and this unusual, twisting film about her life, will stay with viewers for a long time.