If 18-year-old Sonita had a say, Michael Jackson and Rihanna would be her parents and she'd be a rapper who tells the story of Afghan women and their fate as child brides. She finds out that her family plans to sell her to an unknown husband for $9,000.

The intense and suspenseful portrait of an Afghan teen's desire to change the world

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: True to the style of a successful documentary, Sonita has a plotline equal to any of Hollywood’s finest hero’s journey stories. The difference, of course, is that this is real life, and while the hero(ine) may claim the reward, the experience doesn’t end with the satisfaction of a neatly plotted romantic comedy. The ‘happy ending’ of a documentary can feel temporary and conditional, and this is certainly the case for Sonita.

This compelling and tense film by Tehran filmmaker Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami follows Sonita, an 18-year old undocumented illegal Afghan immigrant, who lives in Tehran’s working class suburbs with her sister and niece. She works as a cleaner at a centre for refugees (also a school, which she attends), and subsists on her dreams of becoming a rap star.

Her desire for fame isn’t different to any aspiring singer, except that she has plenty of obstacles to navigate: she’s a young, poor, unmarried refugee living in a country that doesn’t permit women to sing in public. Nevertheless, Sonita’s hopes are dutifully compiled into a scrapbook in the equivalent of a vision board, and for this feisty dreamer, no thought is too big. In one scene, she pastes her face onto Rihanna’s head; she performs for the refugee kids at the centre but talks of filling stadiums; and she sets herself grand targets for the future – a beautiful mansion, a car, and a studio filled with musical instruments.

But all around Sonita is a deep, foreboding sense of devastation. In a disturbing scene, a fellow pupil at the school sits in a counsellor’s office, her eye bruised after a beating by her brother. Later, another student confides in Sonita about her unwanted marriage to an older, already wedded man. You get the sense, quietly, that both of these incidences aren’t unusual, and the latter one sees Sonita sympathise with her friend, lamenting, “We don’t have price tags like sheep". Then, always a performer, Sonita raps a song called ‘Brides for Sale’.

We’re not unaccustomed to querying the humanity in auctioning off women to the highest bidder, even though we tend to see this as a problem relegated to the “third world”. In the hands of a western filmmaker, this could be a very different, arguably condescending, film, but with an Iranian at the helm, it allows the players in Sonita’s life, as well as the audience, to question these norms.

The discomfort of selling girls off only deepens when Sonita’s mother comes from Afghanistan to visit, with the sole intention of taking Sonita back with her to Afghanistan to a forced, arranged marriage that will deliver her family $9000 (the going price for brides at the time), and allow her brother to marry.

It’s here that the Iranian filmmaker, Maghami, takes the unusual, perhaps questionable, but undeniably compassionate step of paying off Sonita’s mother to buy Sonita time. She’s been a supporting character, but here Maghami becomes a saviour, and a crucial figure in Sonita’s life path.

Sonita smiles a lot, even when things are going badly, so it’s difficult to gauge what really drives her. Yet, facing her own loss of freedom, she comes alive with her music, rapping from a place of truth in a video clip that shows her looking bruised and broken, a barcode painted on her forehead.

It gets Sonita attention online, leading an American organisation to offer Sonita a scholarship to develop her musical skills in the US.

In a strange moment, you see the results of Sonita's manifestation – a studio with guitars and a piano. But she's alone, without family support, in a country where she doesn't speak the language and no one understands her message.

The well-meaning Americans don’t understand the depth of Sonita's struggle. It's the idea of Sonita, and what she represents that they’re celebrating, rather than advancing her message. They recognise the underdog, the embattled female who wants to change the world. But one wonders how effectively Sonita can change the status quo for her female friends and family from another country where her dreams are encouraged.

Perhaps this dissonance is the point. Where do you take your dreams so that you can fulfil them? And how do you reconcile your losses to make them count?

Given the potency of Sonita’s enthusiasm, you get the sense she’ll go far, but it could be a long, lonely road.

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Watch the 'Sonita' trailer


1 hour 31 min
In Cinemas 20 November 2015,