I stand accused of doing harm/Cause I'm Louder than a Bomb
The rat-tat-tat of each verse jabs away at not just a glass ceiling but a glass floor and glass walls. Soon, with each vocal punch thrown, Sonita Alizadeh hip hops her way out of a cage she lyrically and ferociously annihilates. Every line recited, every series of words rhythmically spoken, Sonita's voice carries both a bludgeoning desperation and an unapologetic aura of triumph; a combination spawning a vulnerable but muscular performance. Music is her ammunition, and as it pierces through the weak glass it ricochets across Iran, Afghanistan, and all around the world. And any girl able to listen to her syllabic suppresive fire will understand, no matter what sort of culture they were brought up in. Sonita's humanity mobilizes through her art.
And thank goodness for that because for the majority of the time in Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami's Sonita, every bit of the society she lives in wants to suppress such explosive behavior. Ghaemmaghami is not afraid to divert from Sonita's musical talent and focus on how she lives because the longer we are inhabiting the space this woman lives and breathes the more clearly we see that she cannot sit idle, that if unkempt and if ignored, we could lose such a prodigious storyteller. Sonita is a very intimate film, we see the titular subject live as an Afghan refugee in Tehran with her sister, go to school in a specialized institution, and slowly develop more of the courage and bombast to create and deliver her meteoric verses. We see Sonita talk with her friends, one of them is being married off to a thirty-five year old. Another one was beaten. It is certainly not that they find these things right but know it to be normal, constructed by powers beyond their realm of control. Sonita raps to one of her friends in consolation, deeply moving her; Sonita realizes the direct and intimate power her songs hold.
Yet, her situation is even more complicated than that, one that grows from a conflict of identity. Sonita is Afghani and must proscribe to different traditions than her Irani brethren. Her mother and father still live in Herat, Afghanistan, absent in familial love as well as enforcement of cultural rules. In a class exercise, Sonita was asked to create a fantasy passport that would include where she liked to have been born. Choosing the US, Sonita flanked her first name with Jackson, wanting Michael to be her father. Although we cannot quite tell how much she really despises her parents, even in the toughest of times, there are moments where she would have the right to snap. When Sonita figures out the real reason why her mother, after eight years, journeys to Tehran to see her daughter it is then that we see a cultural and economic blindness that propels Sonita into the unnecessary world of marital profiteering.
To be forced to wed so that the family can have enough money for someone else to wed is unfathomable for me to comprehend. To be pressured into submitting, "for the good of the family," creates an insurmountable tension for this young girl who just wants to exist without the expected orbit of a masculine figure. Such pressure heats up tension between Sonita and her family. We watch this. Ghammaghami watches this...but not for long.
One of the most interesting aspects of this film is the complexity of the filmmaker-subject relationship. Traditionally, authenticity is retained when the filmmaker does not intrude into the reality of their subject. Like Steve James paying for the Agees' electric bill so their lights can turn back on in Hoop Dreams, Ghaemmaghami actually pays Sonita's family to allow their daughter more time in Iran (it is a scene both raw and exciting where, if I might say, I have never seen a boom operator speak with such conviction...no offense to boom operators). But then she goes a step further. Not only do they produce a now famous music video, Ghaemmaghami connected Sonita with a music academy in the United States. The director, herself, becomes a primary subject. What started out as a casually intimate filmmaker-subject relationship, where Sonita regards the camera as an opening to vent, becomes a blurring of traditional roles in which the filmmaker influences the subject. In fact, this whole movie has the audience witness the dynamics of closeness and trust between filmmaker and subject materialize and reinforce.
As they bond, there is a sense that the intrusion of the filmmaker creates a palpable motivation for our protagonist. One female artist begins to vehemently support another female artist. Ghaemmaghami knows what Sonita wants and knows how she can fail. Lensed through comprehension, a fondness is imbued in the concentration the director places on the artistic process, how art is created in a restricting context that eventually begins to crumble (after releasing the music video, a superior at Sonita's school exclaimed that, by law, they can no longer support her). Sonita was born to express. At the beginning of the film she is asked to theatrically recreate a memory from her youth. In revisiting her trauma escaping Afghanistan, Sonita confidently directs the scene without words though folds under her still fragile and youthful mind. Later, she is shown directing the music video. The same confidence is there but a dormant anger seems to have possessed her; a possession that amplifies her performance, creating a beacon signaling through cyberspace, captivating global audiences.
It's silly when girls be selling their souls because it's in
It must be noted, though, that all the glass-breaking and societal destruction Sonita is reeking is not without the filmmaker participating in such an act. As the camera is the weapon of choice, I witness the rise of a woman waxing poetic from the struggles she was thrown into. I am allowed a brief glimpse of her world, of Iran, whose citizens are so excruciatingly normal I hate that our the US government and Iranian government keep us so far a part. I am granted the opportunity to see Afghanistan through eyes not affiliated with American news or military personnel, realizing that Kabul, though certainly not a safe city...is a city, with buildings and people and life. Though I gasp at the security one needs just for a hotel, I long to see more of this country because my image thus far is an obscure melding of explosions and terrorists and soldiers and debris.
As you can tell, there is a lot to take away from this film. In general, it is a a feel-good documentary, one that would certainly grant investment from most people watching. The truth is, there are still many things I wished to see in the film or at least see more of. In a more ambitious direction, I can only wonder what sort of film could be created if Ghaemmaghami followed in the footsteps of Steve James and created a Hoop Dreams equivalent for Sonita. There are many similarities between the narratives. Yet, the blemishes are greatly overshadowed by an incredible heroine of rhythm and rhyme, by the clarity of conflict she must overcome, and by the intricate bond she makes with the filmmaker. It makes sense that Ghaemmaghami breaks tradition to help a younger woman break tradition. Be damned, authenticity...at least for this instance.
I know this review has turned into an extension of my own obsession with detailing every nook and cranny of a film I enjoyed, so I will end by saying what Sonita endorses and represents is important. Although I am not the targeted demographic to her music and message (I think), I'd like to say she inspires me. As a man who continually re-evaluates what he has learned and witnessed in the past, I use this opportunity to, at the very least, build hope from where my previous mistakes lay. I hope her rat-tat-tat, verse jabbing, lyric popping, and world-building grabs a hold of more and more people and never, ever lets go. And, by extension, I hope Ghaemmaghami, whose Sonita is her first feature-length film, gets to document her stories, feelings, and desires with far more frequency.
Just a day in the life of narrating the scene