Is the credibility of a documentary film in danger when the director changes the life story being portrayed in order to get the saleable result he or she wants?

Hilde Susan Jaegtnes
Hilde Susan Jaegtnes is a writer and actress.

The film Sonita is an important story of triumph over traditions that are oppressive to women, but it also raises difficult questions about the role of the filmmaker.

18 year-old Sonita Alizadeh is standing on stage in California. With deer-like eyes and blindingly white teeth, the rapper whispers the beginning of the hip-hop song Brides for Sale. The words are unfamiliar to the American audience, but is relayed with glowing intensity, and gets response. And Sonita’s story is truly like a fairy tale. In the three years during which Sonita was the main character of Iranian director Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami’s documentary, she changes with the help of the director from a paperless Afghan refugee washing toilets in Iran, to a hip-hop phenomenon and activist in the USA.

Favorite fairy tale

Directors documenting social issues cannot avoid being confronted with their own role in the field. Should they act as a passive observer, hoping that someone in the audience will pick up the fight against injustice – or should they be an active driver for positive change? In De Andre (The Others, 2012), Norwegian director Margreth Olin chose to keep the role as an observer, and not help the young, expelled asylum seekers to any great extent, although she later noted that it was a difficult decision to make. In Helena Trestikova’s Marcela (2006), however, the director consciously crosses the line from observer to supporter in a decisive moment in Marcela’s life.

The dramaturgy in Sonita is very similar to one of Hollywood’s favourite fairy tales. Helped by the Fairy Godmother’s good powers, the oppressed Cinderella gains access to the right stage, and her wish is fulfilled. But Sonita is also an enlightening portrait of triumph over traditions that are oppressive to women. In contrast to Cinderella, Sonita isn’t dreaming of marriage. The 15 year-old is under pressure from her Afghan relatives to be married for the sum of 9000 dollars, so that her brother can afford to buy a bride of his own. The scenario is not compatible with the dream of rapping about social injustice.

Bitter happiness

Sonita’s story is told in a laconic interplay between the teenage girl and the director Ghaem Maghami, who repeatedly appears in front of the camera. The exchanges between the two female artists are characterised by subtle power struggles, as when Sonita is being interviewed in her bedroom about her love and her plans for the future. Sonita claims she has never been in love, and asks director Ghaem Maghami the same question, insisting on filming her. «Do you know how to use a camera?» asks Ghaem Maghami. Sonita takes the camera with an overbearing smile and directs the lense at the director. Curls of red-dyed hair stick out from underneath Ghaem Maghami’s headwear, and she gives some quiet instructions on how to use the focus and the zoom function. Sonita teasingly begs for Ghaem Maghami to give her the camera as a gift, so that she can make her own music video. The director dryly points out that it takes more than basic skills with the camera to make a music video.

Over the three years, Sonita’s carreer as an artists takes off. After the studio recording of an anti-war song, Sonita’s grandmother comes to visit, and to take her home to Afghanistan. Sonita suggests that the director should lend her money so she can get out of the forced marriage, but the film technicians are sceptical to such involvement. Ghaem Maghami still decides to bribe Sonita’s family with 2000 dollars to get the wedding postponed for six months. In a short period of time, the film crew produces a music video which gets Sonita a full scholarshop to the Wasatch Academy in Utah. Ghaem Maghami accompanies the grateful Sonita to Afghanistan, where she collects a birth certificate as well as a passport and a visa to the U.S. In a heartbreaking scene, Sonita says goodbye to her little niece Fadia, who cries when she is told that her aunt will be gone for a long time. Probably, the niece is also in danger of being sold. The question is whether Fadia will be able to find her own Fairy Godmother. Can we accept that talent and charisma increase the chances of a freer life, because they make up the ingredients in the hyper-commercial fairy tale of the worthy person’s victory against all odds¬?

Finally in Utah, Sonita can hardly believe her own happiness. Everything she dreamt of came true, with the help of the Fairy Godmother Ghaem Maghami. But the privileged artist has no peace from the thoughts of the female relatives she left to be forcefully married, and of the domestic violence.

Questionable win-win situation

The strength of the film is in its everyday closeness to Sonita’s world. It is staggering how many spheres Ghaem Maghami has been able to enter – spheres which in a nuanced way explain the family structures and social structures Sonita has to live within. Sonita’s relatives are not driven by cruelty when wanting to marry her off, but by tradition. The dominating male figures are absent in the movie, with a few exceptions: When Sonita is let into the armed and heavily guarded passport office in Kabul, she is given her passport by an officer in uniform, who exclaims «Have a nice trip!» with a smile to the camera.

The general audience prefers inspiring stories where the main character reaches her goal against all odds, through her courage, talent and resilience. Thus far, Ghaem Maghami’s first full-length documentary has won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize and the audience award at Sundance, as well as the audience award in the Dutch festival IDFA. Undoubtedly, there has been an exchange of services between the director and the participants, which has improved the careers of both parties. It is understandable, but debatable, that an emphatic filmmaker uses her own resources to save a bright and talented person from captivity. Either way, it is valuable that the mechanisms that lead to the sale of young girls are documented closely.

In the music video Brides for Sale, Sonita stages her own hypothetical future as a purchased bride with a bar code on her forehead and bruises from her husband’s fists. The last line brings tragic associations to her niece Fadia: “I leave my doll/Don’t make her cry like me/Don’t sell her, she’s a gift to remind you of me.»

Sonita is being screened on 18 and 21 February during the film festival Human Rights, Human Wrongs at Cinemateket in Oslo.


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