It’s hard to think of two groups of people more routinely misunderstood in contemporary Australia than Muslims and refugees. Make that a double, and watch the morning TV show hosts flail. When the Muslim refugee is also a young woman who wears hijab, you can also generally bank on a side serving of white feminist moralising. But when that young, Muslim, hijab-wearing refugee is also a renegade rapper with pretty serious chops, the taxonomy gets twisted.
Sonita is a 16-year-old Afghani refugee living in Iran. When she’s not working to support her sister and niece, who she lives with in a tiny apartment, she’s pasting pictures of her face onto Rihanna performing on stage. She catches taxis through the streets of Tehran with her musical collaborator, Ahmad, in search of a studio that will record her voice in a country where women are banned from singing, and performs a capella to younger, adoring girls at her school, using a rice scoop as a stand-in for a microphone. But everything looks set to change when Sonita’s mother arrives from Afghanistan with a mission: to marry Sonita off for money.
It’s heavy subject matter when you’re dealing with a young person who has already been through unimaginable hardships, and looks set to suffer through more. Filmmaker Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami is never uncomfortably heavy-handed, encapsulating Sonita’s past trauma and the realities of her potential future in just a few choice scenes. Sonita numbly putting together a tableau of actors to show her family being held up by the Taliban at the Afghan border, breaking down only as she identifies one actor as her father being held at gunpoint, is one such scene. Another shows news footage of an artistic performance in Kabul as it is targeted by a teenage suicide bomber: a sharp conflict between the creative future that Sonita dreams of, and the future that can all too easily trap disaffected young people in war-torn Afghanistan.
Sonita’s music is prominent throughout the film, and she is at her most honest and passionate when she performs. She talks about impending marriages with her schoolmates as though it’s banal, but rips furiously into the idea that women are simply born to be sold in her raps, and dissects the realities, so hard to discuss in the day to day, of growing up in a conflict zone. Objectified, her musical skill is an immense source of self-worth, as well as a conduit for connection with others. Reunited with her extended family in Herat, a sweet moment occurs when Sonita’s nieces and nephews rap her lyrics, committed to heart, as she unabashedly grins with pride in herself and love for them.
“What can I do to prove my personhood?” Sonita incants in a music video, tears coming to her eyes. Dominant discourse around refugees and Islam in the West is overwhelmingly negative, but it’s hard to see someone as faceless and unknowable when they’re standing right in front of you, telling their story. The more people like Sonita are given a platform to tell their stories, the more the balance inevitably, incrementally shifts towards greater understanding. Then again, to reduce Sonita to a mere platitude on improving cross-cultural relations would be an injustice to this beautiful piece of film. It’s a sharply honest look into the life of a young woman who’s fought through massive odds to have agency and autonomy over her destiny, and somehow also managed to make a start on changing the world through music.
Sonita is showing at the Stronger than Fiction Festival, this Sunday, July 31st 2016 at 6.30pm (for a 7pm start) – Palace Electric Cinema