directed by Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami
Hot Docs, the Canadian International Documentary Festival, runs April 28-May 8, 2016 at Toronto's Bloor Cinema. Visit the fest's official site for more details.
by Bill Chambers By coincidence or zeitgeist design, Sonita is my third consecutive Hot Doc about the disenfranchised's quest for "personhood." Here it's the titular Sonita Alizadeh, an Afghan teenager who fled the Taliban and, as the film begins, is living in a fleapit in Tehran with her sister and young niece; an unseen brother apparently resides nearby, close enough to duck in and trash her belongings while she's out. Sonita's nightmare family expects a lot from her--when they're evicted, her hookah-smoking sister barks, "Go find us a new home! Now!"--and that includes that she will one day soon return to Afghanistan to be sold into marriage. She has dreams of becoming a recording artist, though, and a wilfulness that director Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami tries desperately to cultivate without violating the documentarian's Prime Directive of impartial observation. When Sonita's mother extorts Maghami for $2000 to buy her subject six more months in Tehran, Sonita and Maghami get busy and make a video for Sonita's prosaic but politically-charged rap song "Brides for Sale," which goes viral and attracts the attention of a nonprofit that wants to fly Sonita to America, birthplace of her beloved Michael Jackson. (In a memorable sidebar, she's baffled by an Iranian map of the world that colour codes the U.S. as a desert--propaganda at its most diabolical.) Because I didn't follow Alizadeh's story as it happened live, the final third of Sonita played for me like a heist movie, with Sonita tiptoeing back into Afghanistan to retrieve her passport while keeping her final destination on the down-low. But there's a sadness gnawing away at the suspense: Sonita's mother is determined to find a man who will pay nine grand for her so that one of her sons can afford his own $9000 wife (she's the kind of older person who enforces the awful traditions to which she was subjected out of spite), and in Iran Sonita's social circle is drying up because nobody wants to be seen fraternizing with an outlaw (given that women there are technically not permitted to sing)--institutionalized misogyny has left her without a sanctuary. Sonita's victories are by no means Pyrrhic, yet the lonesome final shot shows that freedom and isolation are sometimes uncannily similar.