A Faint but Pervasive Whiff of Rodent
Like many other people, I have been keeping half an eye on the BBC's latest wildlife extravaganza, Beneath the Planet of the Earth, and the privations of the people who spend six months up trees waiting for sloths to get jiggy never fail to impress me. And, also like many other people, I suspect, I do occasionally find myself wondering: do they ever get the urge to, you know, assist real life a bit? Tell the lions where the baby giraffes are? Or, conversely, give the poor dying-of-thirst-in-the-desert hippo a crafty trough of lemonade between takes? Documentarians are only human, after all.
This was brought rather forcibly home to me by Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami's Sonita, undoubtedly this year's leading documentary about the Afghan hip-hop scene. (Cue the Editor muttering and grumbling that I'm trying to sneak yet another review of a non-existent film past him1.) Centre stage throughout is Sonita Alizadeh, who as things get underway is an Afghan refugee living in Tehran, dreaming of her future as a musical superstar. This consists of her sellotaping pictures of her own face onto magazine photos of Rihanna and rapping to her schoolmates at the refugee centre she attends. (She appears to be rapping about scratchcards, but it's still one of the top ten best Afghan-language hip-hop numbers I've ever heard.)
Sonita and her mate Ahmad are doggedly attempting to launch some sort of musical career in Tehran despite the lukewarm response of the industry professionals they meet and the numerous problems facing a young female refugee wanting to record American-style music in Iran. Things do not look rosy. However, they get even worse when news arrives from the rest of the family back in Afghanistan: her elder brother wants to get married, for which he will need $9000 to pay the bride-price on his intended. To raise the money, Sonita's mum has decided to realise one of the family's assets: by marrying Sonita off to a stranger, and receiving a hefty financial sum in return.
This is, if you will, the film's hippo in the desert moment, summed up by a moment in which Sonita looks forlornly at the camera and asks Ghaemmaghami if she can't stump up some cash of her own, effectively buying Sonita's freedom from the demands of her family. There is a long pause and the director gently tries to explain that it is not her role to involve herself in Sonita's life that way.
Many discussions ensue between the refugee centre boss and Sonita's alarming mother, followed by an extraordinary sequence in which Ghaemmaghami, the centre boss, the cameraman, and the boom operator heatedly discuss exactly what their responsibilities are towards Sonita and whether they should pony up for what is effectively blackmail by her mother: two grand will buy Sonita another six months of life in Tehran.
In the end a caption reveals that the film-makers decided to pay the $2000. From this point on the film is effectively dead in the water as a conventional documentary, but remains weirdly compelling viewing anyway: Sonita persuades the crew to film a pop video of her performing a number about bride-selling, which they then put on YouTube. As a result, she gets offered a scholarship to a school in Utah, but this involves a frankly hair-raising gamble: Sonita has to return to Afghanistan, from where she may not be able to leave again, and secure the necessary travel documents without her family finding out. It's very clear throughout that the director is basically egging Sonita on, utterly disregarding the concerns of her family. The code of ethics of (utterly non-)professional film critics prevents me from revealing how it all turns out (look on Wikipedia if you really must know), but many members of the audience at the screening I attended – primarily the young, American ones – were literally weeping as the film ended. Hmmm.
I mean, it's not as if Sonita Alizadeh isn't a winning screen presence: she's as engagingly stroppy and self-obsessed as any western teenage girl, and, as far as I can tell, which is obviously not very far at all, she does have some genuine talent as a writer and performer – but the problem is that the film's openness about how involved the crew were in shaping its events really makes you doubt and question the whole thing.
Even before the bit with the cash, I was slightly unsure this wasn't some bizarre Chris Morris-esque spoof of right-on documentaries, played absolutely deadpan: there's a scene in which a pair of stony-faced social workers get Sonita to use her classmates to recreate scenes of her family's escape from the Taliban. Other bits just feel staged: at one point Sonita has to pop off down the benefits office to ask for an advance on that month's money, and the scene is filmed from within the office itself, indicating the people there are complicit in having the documentary crew around. The same is true of a discussion of Sonita's fate between her mum and the refugee centre boss – if this is a genuine conversation of such import, what the hell is a camera crew doing there? Even the subtitles to Sonita's lyrics rhyme suspiciously well, given she's supposedly singing in a foreign language.
In short, the impartiality of this documentary felt deeply suspect from very early on, and the questionable element is by no means limited to the director's involvement in shaping the subject's future. The axe that the film is grinding is a noble axe, a justified axe, an axe that I am broadly very sympathetic to myself. But that doesn't negate the fact that it's a film with an axe to grind, and the clear intention of presenting Sonita as a sort of hip-hop version of Malala Yousafzai (or possibly Ms Dynamite, albeit with a background containing genuine explosives).
This probably isn't the place to rake over my own first-hand experiences with the partly quaint but mostly just brutal match-making practices of central Asia – suffice to say that the traditions which the film (and Sonita) rail against so effectively are certainly not fictitious and still have the capacity to ruin the lives of young women. But how we deal with this subject is a complex and difficult topic which is not especially well-served by a film which is so obviously partisan on the issues involved (one completely unconnected scene, early on, has a young woman with a black eye being assured that 'your brother says it won't happen again' – we are left to draw our own conclusions as to what's been going on). Are we so utterly self-assured when it comes to the righteousness of our own principles that we are prepared to casually disregard and obliterate the traditions of Afghan culture? Isn't the film basically presenting a very particular form of Americanism as the one true way forward? There is some troubling stuff here.
That said, what were they supposed to do? Let Sonita be dragged off to – essentially – domestic slavery as a drudge for a total stranger? I suspect I probably would have done the same in the film-makers' position. I can't argue with their choices, but they do colour the film and get in the way of it having the effect they no doubt intended. As a result, while Sonita is mesmerising to watch, it isn't always for the best of reasons, and – in a very rare occurrence – I am somewhat at a loss to say what actual merit it has as a film. It's agitprop more than genuine documentary, and embedded agitprop at that. But at least it's honest about its intentions, and constantly watchable as a result. Interesting soundtrack, too, obviously.