Like millions of other girls around the world, 15-year-old Afghan refugee and budding hip hop artist Sonita Alizadeh’s dream is to perform in front of adoring crowds, walk red carpets in glamorous dresses and be chauffeured around in a car with her name on the numberplate. The problem is that she lives in Iran, where women are forbidden by law to sing, let alone rap. It doesn’t help that Sonita’s family in Afghanistan want to find an older man who’ll pay good money to marry her. Sonita’s response? To record a diatribe against marital slavery, post it on YouTube, watch it go viral and infuriate everyone around her.
There have been a few Middle Eastern kid-with-dreams-of-stardom docs in recent years. What makes ‘Sonita’ remarkable isn’t just its charismatic, articulate, almost frighteningly self-possessed teenage heroine. In the hands of Iranian director Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami, the film is also a fascinating insight into a documentary-maker’s relationship with her subject, and it asks how much the act of filming affects what’s being filmed. Does a filmmaker have a duty to step back, to allow events to take their course? And if she does get involved, is that an act of selfless generosity or an attempt to exert control over the direction of her story?
The result is a warm, uplifting but often challenging film – a compelling human drama packed with searching questions about artistic responsibility and the nature of charity.