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.
Published date: February 26, 2016

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.

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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 …

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