The two shots that bookend the title card of Sonita  tell entirely different stories. First, before we see the film’s name, we see its namesake: Sonita Alizadeh, a teenage Afghani refugee living in Iran and receiving an education on behalf of a NGO. She’s rapping her own lyrics to a captivated audience of fellow students, the kids start chanting her name, and then the title fades in. The moment plays like a triumph. But immediately afterward we’re looking at the same teenager, now sullen faced—glass cleaner in one hand, a rag in the other—working to earn her own keep at the same center. In the scene that follows, she returns home only to find that she, her sister, and her niece are essentially being evicted. Sonita already considers herself an activist at 15, and has ambitions to write music that will alter the world she lives in—but her own literal place in that world is hardly secure in the meantime.
The most oft-repeated image in this film is of Sonita, in something like a close-up, longingly gazing out a window. We see her do so in cars, cabs, schools, homes, and hotel rooms. She’s yearning, quite physically, for the opportunities beyond her own grasp. And the relatively unique drama of Sonita is that it’s her director who has to decide whether to give them to her. That director is Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami, who was introduced to the youthful rapper shortly before the aforementioned eviction—and in an article published by the Guardian, she revealed that the initially reticent Sonita opened up to the camera only after her director had aided the family in solving their housing problem. This is the kind of personal-versus-professional conflict that comes to engulf the film later on. But you get the impression from early scenes of Sonita that Ghaem Maghami’s initial approach was much more traditional than the movie she ended up with. Her focus begins on the various social issues that intersect with Sonita’s daily life: child marriage (Sonita’s mother, still in Afghanistan, is constantly evaluating cash offers made by potential suitors), the social status of an Afghani refugee (Sonita’s lyrics make it clear she is regularly oppressed for her race), and the legal restrictions placed on women within the involved societies (permits are required in Iran for female solo artists to record, leaving Sonita unable to pursue her own passion, even at the amateur level).
This is why Ghaem Maghami is following Sonita: specifically because she represents an inroads into representing those subjects in a cinematic sense. She is using the personal micro to represent the societal macro. And that is—in terms of documentary filmmaking—something like the norm. So are the means used to document the life itself. Some scenes are observed from an ostensibly uninvolved perspective (classroom discussion are recorded from the corner), others feature direct address interviews (Sonita speaking in her bedroom about her reticence to remove her scarf on camera), and others appear to have been dramatized (such as one where Sonita asks a friendly advisor for an early paycheck, and the camera has the subjects blocked and composed before the conversation begins) to one extent or another. It’s not of any valid interest for me to make judgments on the performative nature of these individual sequences. But given the regular use of multi-angle editing—various other scenes cut to different camera set-up’s in the middle of sentences, in a manner that contradicts where we previously knew the camera to be—you do know that what you’re watching has been molded into a narrative shape.
This is, again, in line with the documentary traditions we’ve come to accept. But then, about a half hour into the film, Sonita grabs the camera herself. She turns it around on her director. She messes up the focus, but she keeps Ghaem Maghami’s face in the frame. She asks to use the camera to record her music illegally. And her director, to put it bluntly, advises that she’ll allow it upon further maturation. For all we know, Ghaem Maghami might already be thinking about the music video she’ll end up directing for Sonita—the one that’ll change Sonita’s life, and this film along with it. This passing of the proverbial torch sets the course for the remainder of the film. The subject brings her own director into the movie. And then her director has to stay there.
Ghaem Maghami’s position within the frame becomes permanent once Sonita’s mother returns, announcing intentions to marry off her daughter—for a sum of money that will be used, in kind, to buy her brother a bride. Following disagreements with Sonita, her sister, and the NGO’s advisors (one of whom puts up a staunch and spirited moral argument, one surely fueled by the black eyes and battered faces we’ve glimpsed in earlier scenes), the mother agrees to allow Sonita further time in Iran in exchange for a smaller sum of money than she’d draw as a potential bride. In the sequences that follow, the director and Sonita film their aforementioned music video (“Brides for Sale,” which is sung directly into the camera from behind made-up bruises), orchestrate its release online (to an audience of thousands), then receive an invitation to study at a location in Utah. It’s the sort of affirmation that would usually conclude such a narrative, whether it’s nonfiction or not. But Sonita’s status as a refugee—without residential permits in Iran, without even an identification card in Afghanistan—means that it’s only the end of the second act.
The movement that follows brings the film, its subject, and its director into yet another social conflict: the sheer bureaucratic terror of trying to validate your own identity as an immigrant. Sonita returns to Herat, Afghanistan, risking her own life and liberty by putting herself in the vicinity of her own mother, all for the sake of a few pieces of officially stamped paper. And Ghaem Maghami, of course, must follow her—with her camera having an unacknowledged but undeniable effect on the treatment this young woman receives from the individuals that surround her, for both better and worse. Throughout the film, Ghaem Maghami references her ethical responsibilities as a filmmaker, often protesting that she shouldn’t have an influence on the events she documents. But by these final sequences, her own role in the narrative has become undeniable. Her aesthetic, once traditional and somewhat passive, has become active and entirely personal. When Sonita’s mother first comes to Iran to reclaim her, Ghaem Maghami searches for her subject in a true-life “chase scene”, leading the camera from the front instead of composing its gaze from behind. This seems a deliberate structural construction—the shift away from passive documentation lines up with the very moment where Sonita turns the camera around toward her director—and that suggests a reversal away from the “detached” intentions the filmmaker once declared. Ghaem Maghami remains a director, but she earns herself an additional credit: as a rather saintly co-conspirator.
When Sonita plays at the Brattle on Monday, it’ll be presented by the DocYard—an organization and screening series that often provides a welcome home to nonfiction films that similarly skew away from traditional forms (its fall lineup has previously featured Cameraperson , Fraud , and the animated Tower ; its next season will begin in January with theatrical screenings of the 467-minute O.J.: Made in America ). As is traditional with its events, an interview with the filmmaker will follow; Ghaem Maghami will Skype into the Brattle following the screening. While much of that discussion is sure to rightfully be centered around the social issues measured by the movie, it’s also sure that much of the talk will revolve around the ethical and practical nuances of its production. For whatever flaws it may have, Sonita belongs to a rare class of films—it forces you to think about the way it was made.
SONITA. MON 12.5. 7PM. BRATTLE THEATRE. 40 BRATTLE ST., CAMBRIDGE. WILL BE PRECEDED BY A SHORT FILM PRESENTED BY THE GROUNDTRUTH PROJECT. $11. SEE BRATTLEFILM.ORG OR THEDOCYARD.COM FOR FURTHER DETAILS.