Oh 2016, what a time to be alive. It feels like lately news of another terror attack on Western soil flashes up on our phones about as often as we fall victim to refreshing a Facebook newsfeed throughout the day. In response to these countless attacks, social media becomes flooded with sentiments of Western comradery; #prayforparis alone received over 70 million shares on Instagram. On the other hand, it feels the global divide between the West and ‘the rest’ is only growing with each Murdoch-sponsored article that could well be read from the pages of ‘Refugees for Dummies’. The mere fact that a man like Donald Trump actually stands a fighting chance in ‘Making America White Great Again’ speaks volumes for the global distrust so many hold against any man, woman or child who have been forced from their home. For the record, right now that figure stands at 65.3 million people. Of those, 21.3 are refugees. That’s the just under the entire population of Australia for those of us who are still counting.
For a film like Sonita to then screen at the ‘Stronger Than Fiction’ Documentary Film Festival in the ACT is refreshing to say the least. Through the portrait and evolution of 14-year old Afghan refugee Sonita, film-maker Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami sets out to challenge our preconceived notions of who a refugee actually is. A thrilling documentary, Sonita explores issues of identity, gender equality and racial stereotypes through both a factual lens and the motive of music and lyrics, tapping into our capacity for compassion and understanding in a way only confronting raw art can.
Like many pop-culture-crazed 14-year old girl, Sonita dreams of becoming the next Rihanna. A larger-than-life figure amongst her peers, she writes and performs rap songs when she isn’t working as a cleaner for a local refugee centre. Yes, Rihanna, Sonita does actually have work-work-work-work-work-work, and even then it’s not enough. Unlike most 14-year old girls, though, Sonita writes not for boys or the illusion of fame, rather her music becomes an artistic medium through which she can recount her struggles as an Afghan, paperless girl in Iran. It becomes apparent all too soon that the beautiful, confident girl we saw at the outset of the film, dancing in front of her friends with great ease, is about as shaky as the hand-held camera through which she is shot. This fragility becomes only more apparent upon learning Sonita’s estranged mother wishes to sell her hand in marriage for $9000. Rather than see the subject of her film taken back to Afghanistan, an interesting and unconventional role-reversal occurs between Ghaemmaghami and Sonita. Tired of being asked questions, Sonita takes charge of the camera. Ghaemmaghami, no longer a fly on the wall, rather a subject in her own film, becomes so invested in Sonita’s world she goes so far as to pay her mother $2000 to buy time for Sonita to remain in Iran. In the transition from director to participant, a blurred professional line leaves us wondering at what point we are all, in some respects, participants in the inequality showcased in front of us. In the case of Sonita, this unexpected generosity would see her evolve in her own right as an artist over a well- documented three-year period. We can only sit back and watch in amazement as Sonita finds her own voice, rising from the ashes of a world hopelessly against her.
Rather than the anonymity of ‘boat people’, portrayed as illegal immigrants only to be held indefinitely captive in our detention centres, Sonita offers an honest portal through which we can focus on the commonalities that reside at the heart of what it is to be human. With an informed understanding of what it is to be a refugee, I for one have great hope in finding answers in compassion.
Sonita is showing at the Stronger than Fiction Festival, this Sunday, July 31st 2016 at 6.30pm (for a 7pm start) – Palace Electric Cinema