Sunday, 24 April 2016

SONITA - HOT DOCS 2016 Review By Greg Klymkiw - Teen Rapper Tale veers into jingoism

Sonita (2016)
Dir. Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami
Starring: Sonita Alizadeh

Review By Greg Klymkiw

It's not surprising that Sonita won the Audience Award during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, playing to rapturous applause. Even within the rarefied conclave of American Liberalism, the thing that's most troubling about the film would have skipped right over the heads of most Americans.

First, the positive. The film is a superbly made story about the title subject, a teenage Afghani refugee living under the aegis of a charitable organization in Iran which provides shelter and schooling to kids who were hustled away from Taliban rule for a better life. Sonita and her siblings have lived in safety, but have done so at the expense of being separated from the rest of their family who've remained in Afghanistan for many years.

Director Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami not only paints a vivid portrait of life in Tehran, but manages to do so with slicker than usual production value. Both the cinematography and sound are first-rate, delivering an extremely palatable presentation of life in a repressed country like Iran - one which seems like a bastion of free speech compared to Taliban-influenced Afghanistan.

Sonita's music is a real treat also. It often dazzles and moves us with her passion, skill and promotion of both social justice and equal rights for women. (There's a music video, which Sonita essentially directs, which will inspire considerable happy gooseflesh.)

Sonita is a hugely talented singer-songwriter who has found her calling in rap music. She sings about women's rights with verve and passion, but even Iran (as seen in this year's Raving Iran) strictly forbids music which is not government sanctioned, nor does it allow women to sing. Sonita must pursue her dreams in secret.

The most urgent conflict occurs when Sonita's family in Afghanistan is appalled that she's singing and they begin the process of bringing her back home in order to be sold into the slavery of a forced marriage. This sequence is nail-bitingly suspenseful. Though there is some talk that director Maghami's financial intervention to buy Sonita some time crosses over into "journalistic" heresy, this hardly seems to matter since we're dealing with the life of a deeply passionate and extraordinarily talented young artist.

Though the suspense ratchets up even more skillfully during the final conflict in which director Maghami again intervenes, a very sour taste begins to foul the proceedings since it involves Sonita potentially being saved by the evil corporate imperialism of a country that has caused all her problems to begin with, and in fact, all the problems associated with extremist middle eastern terror that plagues the world.

For anyone who accepts that America has dug its own grave and continues to dig graves for the rest of the world, much of the goodwill the film builds up has far too much potential to render it as little more than lunkheaded Argo-like American propaganda.

I can see why American audiences lapped this up. Alas, it left me cold as ice.


Sonita is a FilmsWeLike (FWL) release, its Canadian Premiere is at Hot Docs 2016