Sonita: female expression and ethics in documentary filmmaking

24 Oct 2016 BY Elinor Walpole in Film Features

6 mins

Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami's Sonita is a documentary that follows a young refugee and aspiring rapper as she comes of age in an adopted country. Aptly titled with simply her first name, the film is driven by Sonita's sheer force of personality. Living with her older sister and niece in Tehran, Iran - having crossed the border from Afghanistan to escape the Taliban as a child - Sonita finds life in her new home is still very unsettled.

Like many girls of her age, Sonita is confronted with an undesirable situation; in this instance, she is called to return to Afghanistan - a country she fled in distress - to be married to a stranger. The arranged marriage is not just a cultural practice - there is also a financial aspect to the proceedings. Sonita's family need the dowry they'll receive for Sonita in order to finance her older brother's wedding. Unwilling to be bargained in this way, and still suffering from the trauma of her refugee experiences, Sonita discusses the issue with her female friends from a refugee centre, who reveal that they too are at the heart of similar negotiations, with many experiencing physical punishment for dissent against their parents' wishes.

Much as in Sonitathe spirit of resistance and female solidarity is also at the heart of Mustang, a Turkish film that tells the story of five sisters who are held hostage in a 'wife factory' in order for them to be taken off their family's hands by the local eligible bachelors. Similarly, Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi's comedy Offside also examines gender imbalance by focusing on a group of young female football fans who have disguised themselves as boys in order to support their local team. Taking on the issue of more fundamental human rights, documentary He Named Me Malala follows Nobel prize winning activist Malala Yousafzai as she recovers from the Taliban's attempt on her life, provoked by her defiant stance in trying to protect her right to education, when schools were being closed to girls in her area.

Womens' rights are at the core of Sonita, as her right to express herself and choose her own destiny hangs in the balance. Neither in Sonita's home country nor her adopted one is it acceptable - or even legal - for a woman to be a performer, and it is considered a disgrace to a woman's family if she makes herself visible in such a manner. As such, Sonita's rebellion is double: firstly in the content of her lyrics, which explicitly criticise the overbearingly patriarchal society she lives in, and also through her chosen genre of rap. Deciding to pursue performance is a genuine risk for Sonita, and she encounters many blockades caused by people afraid of the consequences of helping her. It's thanks to a risk taken by the director's cousin in reaching out to Ghaemmaghami for a studio contact on Sonita's behalf that the director first found her subject.

In a more gentle take on the kinds of activities permitted to women and girls in conservative patriarchal societies, Wadjda is a bittersweet insight into the situation of a young girl who finds the restrictions of becoming a woman stifling. Wadjda's desire is to ride a bicycle freely, like her friend Abdullah, and she sets out to find an unconventional way to make that happen.

Wadjda itself is a remarkable film for the fact that it was filmed in Saudi Arabia - where cinema is actually banned - and was made by a female filmmaker, Haifaa Al-Mansour, who expands on the covert way she had to direct in this interview with one of our Young Reporters.

Autobiographical animation Persepolis, based on the graphic novel by Marjame Sartrapi, is also a fascinating insight into a society in turmoil. Marjame's memoir focuses on her experiences as a young girl inspired by punk music, who sees her family and friends persecuted and her own experimentation with identity suppressed under a new regime put in place by Iran's Islamic Revolution of 1979. Music and self-expression for all genders is an issue also brought to light in No One Knows About Persian Cats, where a group of young Iranian musicians struggle to find an audience in their own country and attempt to get a visa to perform abroad.

Sonita combines these issues; the difficulties of being female and the desire to perform in a society that won't permit it. What emerges from the film is that Sonita is seen as a problem, and if she wont comply with her family's wishes, then another solution will need to be found. Sonita is too young to be truly independent, and her options are limited. It's at this point that the documentary diverges, as director Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami is looked to for interventive action by those who feel sympathetic towards Sonita, but have their hands tied because of the rules of their society.

While the first half of the documentary aims towards a more fly-on-the-wall style, as Sonita's story, personality and talents emerge, the situation eventually generates pressure for the filmmaker herself to become involved with the subject's dilemmas in a controversial way. Sure to inspire discussion, this is a thought-provoking film that will divide audiences on the ethics of documentary filmmaking and the impact of a filmmaker's direct engagement. Should objectivity be the aim, with the filmmaker purely an observer as situations unfold? Or is there a case that when the opportunity to make a positive difference presents itself, it would be wrong to stand back? Be sure to catch Sonita in cinemas now to find out for yourself where you stand on the issue.

Sonita is also showing in both Leeds and London as part of this year's Into Film Festival. Book your free tickets now!

Explore the themes of Sonita further with our Into Film Recommends podcast below, or log in to SoundCloud to download the podcast and listen on the go.

The Into Film Recommends Podcast Series is also available on iTunes.

Elinor Walpole, Film Programmer

Elinor Walpole , Film Programmer

Elinor has a BA in English Literature from the University of Warwick. She has worked as Education and Community Officer for Picturehouse Cinemas, and as Outreach Coordinator for Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

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