There are two concurrent and intertwining stories playing out in Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami’s irresistible, crowd-pleasing documentary Sonita. The main event is the tale of the eponymous teenager, an Afghan immigrant in Tehran with dreams of being the next Rihanna. She’s cocky, charismatic, and does a great line in punchy, socially-motivated hip-hop. She’s the perfect focus for a tale of adversity, triumph and female empowerment. However, there’s also a secondary narrative that begins to develop around the director’s own involvement in Sonita’s story which raises infinitely more fascinating questions about ethical boundaries.
Maghami is certainly present right from the outset as an interlocutor with Sonita Alizadeh, her sister, and her niece but that relationship seems to become ever more entangled as the time passes. First there is a moment early on in which Sonita is tired and doesn’t want to answer any more questions. When Maghami doesn’t stop filming, Sonita gets up and switches off the light before saying “Looks like we’re done.” In an of itself, this is just a mildly humorous display of her spiky attitude, however at around the twenty minute mark, she asks the director for her camera. She wants to start asking the questions – she’s uncomfortable as the passive object of the image. With the camera trained on the filmmaker, Sonita asks “When will you give it to me?” to which Maghami responds, “When you know how to use the focus and the zoom.”
The next cut is to a point-of-view shot through a car windscreen, ambiguous as to whose eyes the audience is supposed to be seeing through. This scene may also seem innocuous when taken at face value but its existence and, furthermore, its inclusion in the final cut of the film by Maghami would suggest otherwise. In this moment, Sonita quite literally takes control of the narrative and places the director, who usually remain invisible in observational documentary, right in the middle of the frame. It emphasises the subject’s will and agency but also strips the director of distance and objectivity. Suddenly, she is part of the story too. In this case, Sonita is very fortunate as Maghami comes to see herself as having responsibility to act when Sonita’s mother arrives in Tehran wanting to marry her off in order to secure $9,000 to then be used for her older brother’s own dowry. The director doesn’t explicitly interrogate this decision. She pays the mother off to buy Sonita more time and facilitates her rise to YouTube stardom.
It’s not that Sonita doesn’t deserve the recognition that she receives, but it’s a real ethical dilemma for Maghami and one that warrants more attention. The fact that she largely ignores it can’t help but make the conclusion feel less celebratory than self-congratulatory – as much happiness as it will undoubtedly engender in viewers. That said, there’s more than enough for the audience to pick over themselves, not least a moment in which the social workers that know Sonita question how concerned she really is about her plight after a smirking stand-off. Does it suggest that she’s already expecting help? Is it a side-effect of ‘constructed reality’, which the film certainly utilises? Or is it just a facet of Sonita’s undeniable spunk? One thing’s for sure: she’s heading places, regardless of whose will gets her there, and most will thoroughly enjoy the ride.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson