Beats, rhymes and a bet­ter life

SONITA ★★★★ Di­rected by Rokhsareh Ghaem­maghami. Fea­tur­ing Sonita Al­izadeh. Club, QFT, Belfast, 90 min

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM REVIEWS - DON­ALD CLARKE

Rokhsareh Ghaem­maghami’s de­light­ful doc­u­men­tary about a de­ter­mined, re­source­ful Afghan girl who dreams of be­ing a rap­per tells us plenty about the tri­als of be­ing a wo­man in the most ag­gres­sively pa­tri­ar­chal so­ci­eties.

Liv­ing as an un­doc­u­mented ex­ile in Tehran, 16-year-old Sonita Al­izadeh is at risk of be­ing sold (that word is used fre­quently) to a po­ten­tial hus­band back in the home coun­try. She may fan­ta­sise about hav­ing Ri­hanna and Michael Jack­son as par­ents, but her rhymes are drawn from her des­per­ate ev­ery­day re­al­i­ties. No blag. No bling.

Sonita put to­gether Brides for Sale, now a YouTube hit, as her mother was ne­go­ti­at­ing for a $9,000 dowry from the fam­ily of an older man. Sonita and her friends walk around with vir­tual price tags on their head.

The teenager proves to be an ideal sub­ject for a film-maker. Ar­tic­u­late and stub­born, she has the courage to press older women on the in­jus­tice of the ar­ranged mar­riage. “It’s our way” they re­ply va­cantly.

It is also their way to pro­hibit women from singing for any­body apart from their hus­bands. Early ten­sion de­rives from con­cerns that Sonita may never make her es­cape.

About half­way through, the pic­ture takes a swerve that pushes us into tricky, self-con­scious ter­ri­tory. The boom op­er­a­tor im­poses him­self in a con­ver­sa­tion Ghaem­maghami is hav­ing about pay­ing Sonita’s mum to de­lay any po­ten­tial mar­riage. The di­rec­tor then points the young rap­per to­wards a schol­ar­ship at a col­lege in the United States. The nar­ra­tive gets tenser still as the hero­ine trav­els home to se­cure a pass­port and ar­range a travel visa.

Doc­u­men­tary purists may balk at the way the film-maker al­lows her­self to be­come part of the con­ver­sa­tion. In fact, she does more than that. Ghaem­maghami’s in­ter­ven­tion makes a con­ven­tional story arc – re­mote pos­si­bil­i­ties lead­ing to re­mark­able tri­umph – con­sid­er­ably more likely than it would oth­er­wise have been.

The truth is, how­ever, all up there on the screen. It would be mean to com­plain too vol­ubly. A de­light.

Hip-hop hooray: Sonita Al­izadeh in Sonita

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