Sonita : A Film Review

: Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami. Cast: Sonita Alizadeh, Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami and further members of the family and the organisations supporting her.  Wasatch Academy. Utah. Genre.  Art House & International, Documentary , Musical & Performing Arts. Written by: Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami. Duration: 90 minutes. Cert. PG. Subtitled.

A real life story told differently.

This film, set in Tehran, Iran, Herat, Afghanistan, and Utah, America, is creatively astonishing and alarming as well as delivering to a wider audience the issue of the still practiced female subjugation in the form of, mainly child forced marriage in Afghanistan still manifest and unlike Iran un-evolved.  It is the story of Sonita Alizadeh, a young Afghan girl whose overflowing gifts of performance art, drama, singing, songwriting, theatre design for a fifteen year old whose creative world is driven (and you may wonder the magnitude of her gifts outside this) by the politics and plight she finds herself in.  Spanning broadly, 2014 to 2015, filmmaker Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami turns this story into a crossover of documentary drama having found Sonitas story, presumably via. the social media, SoundCloud, or whatever platform her main song met the world audience in which it is acclaimed as being a breakthrough rap song of immense clarity, succinct hard hitting lyrics.  How Rokhsareh was drawn to it doesn’t really matter but it presents for us the form which is sometimes viewed as staged, rehearsed, eavesdropping in the family situation Sonita is locked into.  

Here is a review sentence from the FT which quite rightly draws attention to the fine line documentary makers – for this is the onlay genre the makers wish to push the film, its in my mind a format which genuinely takes in theatrical performance and sublimely, if that’s not too pejorative – taking care to deal sensitively with the very harsh subject.  The view stated was FTGhaemmaghami’s various, blatant interventions in Alizadeh’s life (shooting and posting a video to one of Sonita’s songs that went viral, negotiating her passports and visas) probably broke every documentary-making code. 

It definitely crosses the line, I’ll agree. Backtrack it with the song Crossing the line Yamasata Winwood and Shrieve.  Long gone tune which expresses lots of things.

Sonita a refugee

Sonitas life is within a Tehran charity called The Society for the Protection of Working … (and nowhere can I find a link – yet OMID is a similar but women not child based charity) run by an Iranian woman, herself an irrepressible honest broker with vision whose wisdom allows access to Sonita who is after all under her guardianship, so no small element.  It is a place where, with due respect and local cultural deference she is, within the building they are housed; a free person, allowed to move around the city as an ordinary citizen, and able to mix with other girls her own age. We see through the vision of this refugee workers insightful management of what is an emotionally damaging situation – separation from her family, no papers to establish her identity formally, no proper education, no role or life management – what in fact is The Society’s purpose is to provide life skills to a girl entering womanhood.  The charity delivers hope to all the children in its care, not alone Sonita.

The cloud she’s moves underneath from.

By telling the story from an initial school based situation the parameters are defined.  Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami takes the role of an interviewer and asks Sonita as she beds down in a small sparse room on which she has a scattering of posters including one artist whose reception in Manchester this week was such that it’s overwhelming volume near hyseria had —-! leave the stage as it was impossible in their eyes to perform normally.  The next night in Birmingham was more constrained and both concerts showed the pinnacle of musical status her looked into in Tehran as an impossible dream. 

The questions are about her situation and Sonita keeps a private art diary/notebook of ideas, expectations/ambitions/observations full of perceptive irony and fledgling artistic ability.  By probing away, advancing the narrative Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami is delivering a deep involving complex picture of the background Sonita comes from and the central issue. Sonita has come from a now relatively – and that is only notional – safe environment of Herat after Taliban conflict she has not seen her mother for six or seven years.  Her father has died.  Father was old and mother was young as she shows Rokhsareh a family photo.  She tells of her Dad marrying a young bride, her Mum obviously and this is what is expected of her.  A marriage to be arranged which her mother shall sell her, and to someone of twenty years senior has already been put forward, for around $9,000 which may even be as little as $3,000 given her current exile status.  If she were to leave Tehran she would not be able to return.  To establish her identity properly she would have to return to Herat to authenticate her passport application no longer making her a refugee.  Another twist of passports is that Iran will accept all passports except American ones as valid.  The whole scenario is as complex as it sounds and in the film is shown though the sequencing, directorial clarity brought through the surreal depictions, ‘flashbacks’ cleverly linerally delivered by the astute Director and with I would imagine the input of Sonita and the primary ‘actors’.

Conventions of Female Subjigation

The pressures of being subject to a course of action out of her control and being manipulated from afar – it is the families ‘proposal’ back in Herat – along with a brother who appears not on the very fringes of this film, exherts pressure on Sonita to acquiesce to this child marriage for the sake of the family.  Beyond the immorality of the sale as is tradition in Afghanistan, not Iran, by being sold for so many dollars, – the figures of the film take on a life of their own – $9,000 say – it would allow her brother to then buy a bride in turn.  This trap is only a peculiarity and the number of girls in a family allow the Male dominated society to perpetuate the sale of daughters for such sums of money which amounts to the same as sheep or cows being sold and hence a basis of livelihoods.  It is this Sonita is highly charged about centrally, no surprise there then, and is what is behind Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami’s diligence in making this risky politically charged exposure of a specific family situation.  It brings plenty of risk which strangely and perhaps inevitably she has been able to convince various members of the family, especially Mother to participate and ‘act’ out their roles under her direction in order to project the story.  Several scenes are clearly rehearsed and not spontaneous as is the prospectus.

  An uncannily similar image appears film and Goya speaks!
Going viral

The songs are put together through a series of encounters which managed or unmanaged bring out the darkly striking rap song Brides for Sale which went viral.  The accompanying video and the interspersed additions of work take this film beyond any perceptions of transgression or willful interference.  It is an act in need of sustenance, established accord, and wide, very wide exposure which Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami has employed in the past.  She knows exactly what she is doing/has done and far from clouding the boundaries with irrevance of orginisational finger pointing she uses the art of film making to create in itself a poignant emotionally complex drama theatrical performance piece establishing Sonitas art.  Her art happens to explore her hardship and like many who cannot get to express their hardship in any shape or form Sonita charges ito also fully aware of the boundaries and is so imaginatively advancd as to grasp it for those who cannot.  The rappers in Chicago, Hidden China, Remorseless India, Battered Britain, Bombarded Palestine and many other exploited, suppressed regions share the same humanity as all of us but cannot express it.  Even such as Pussy Riot, Malala, The Idol, Deephan along with recent films are centrally political and important.

Conclusion ####4.

As the play’s of Shakespeare, the traditions of No theatre, the Morality plays Film again takes over the wider view of intensely important visulisation of ourselves in our times – since the invention of Film! Cast as a documentary to all platforms, Sonita evolves with magnetic, crushing, compelling engagement.  It is impossible to avert your eyes or shift your mind to blank out the at times surreal, avant garden polemic foisted on you rewardingly by Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami and Sonita Alizadeh whose life is at the centre.  Oblivious as most of us are to the extraordinary desparate conditions of culture inflicting subjegation on extensively, women.  We are present among our own preoccupations and prejudices and on a much reduced level – though clearly many women at the heart of a crisis rightly would disagree – in the so caled developed world.  The thrust of daily live often places compromises in front of us but we need to be aware of the ramifications of indulged political parameters and speak out against them.  Sonita provides documentary, wide vision and self awareness seldom seen in any other locatity enormously assisting those in the front line of argument to fight these outrages.  By having groups of allies outside who can support their fight is how it can advance change.  This film is a nucleus for change among many.  It is deeply entrenched in the goodness seen portrayed under ridiculous circumstances and delivered to our view by its many contributors including Grandma Alizadeh whose tentative but knowingly astute presence lever’s up an other plank from the rocky road.  

John Graham

27 October 2016


On at Queens Film Theatre Belfast from Friday 28 October through to Thursday 3 November 2016.

He Named me Malala : A Film Review

He Named me Malala Director Davis Guggenheim, Cert. PG. 1hr 27 mins.

This is Malala
The film is a documentary and part animation of the rise fall and rise again of the young Malala. She is interviewed by Davis Guggenheim over a period allowing her to narrate her one story and allow us into her interior home life as we also meet her inspirational family.

Some may see this as a campaigning movie but as Malala enters her 18th year she is considering the options for university along with millions of others and she will strive as an individual and not as a celebrity speaker to take on board all that education means. The right wing deplore her as self occupied and have sterile as expected reposts which are easily dismissed. So what of the film?

Her father is Ziauddin Yousafzai and he along with his wife presumably named Malala after a mythical woman who inspired and drove Afganistan people to fight against English imperialism. Not much alters in truth but this source of inspiration lay deep within her father obviously and his ability as a teacher not alone teaching Malala but at his own independent school, one he set up taught his pupils to question, reason and dispute anything which did not accord with their conscious.

The early life is told by animation in part as is the reenactment, in the style of the recent Persepolis complete general release feature film though there is muted colour and playful dreamlike sequences. The narration continues as Malala quite descriptively and spontaneously weaves a picture of her life.

Her father in an early aside suggests they are two souls in one. It is the union of their souls and harmony on things which is compelling and propelling the strength of their common beliefs and consequently their achievements.
Of the most critical, central almost fatal event which thrust Malala into our world consciousness we are gently taken towards it through the journey leading to the actual event in 2012. It is not only because the bloodshed and detail is shocking and may be too much for the younger audience Malala and Davis Guggenheim wish to reach but as a means of telling how she became a thorn in the side of her assailants the Taliban, the story takes us into the little known or less widely known penetration of the Taliban into the beautiful Swat valley in North East Pakistan and homeland of Malala.
Islam beside us
The truth about Islam is known and has been known for thousands of years and the place alongside other religions and faiths is one of harmony and tolerance for all except the misguidance used by a small virtually non-Islamic for the most part corrupting its core beliefs.
Only through the dismissal and manipulation for power and control have any violent insurrections of perfidious uprisings arisen. The religious faith and continuity of religions is always carried forth by the people who without ministers or partial influence carry internally and forever consciously the intimate knowledge inherent within.
Of course there is a component of teaching which Malala has received but and one of the first to provide testimony of this is quoted here – to cause or influence (someone) to accept an idea or feeling (usually followed by with ): Socrates inculcated his pupils with the love of truth. is the inculcation inbred.
It is harrowing, gripping and life affirming to watch this film reveal a side of humanity which has been suppressed and troubled by constant power based treachery. The news agenda which Malala became apart of is shown well before she became targetted. Her use of media as a fifteen year old under constant threat and continual oppression at school and suppresion of her right to speak her mind alongside women and children universally led her to become a voice to the world – she became the anonymous broadcaster through the internet of her plight as a resident of the Swat valley on the BBC Radio World Service. She would be able to transmit daily dairies as as voice within the occupancy by the Taliban. Her pen name was Gul Maki.

Here are a few of the messages she has since brought out as her driving wishes and thoughts.

‘One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.’
‘There is a moment when you have to choose to be silent or to stand up.’
‘We cannot succeed when half of us are held back.’
‘When the world is silent even one voice becomes
How to respond
Malala Yousafzai sets a task for us. She acts and provides with admirable focus and selflessness a centrality of goodness and willingness to change the harmful tragic parts of our world and human behaviour.
The honorable and right thing she suggests is inside us to find as she has found through the ability to learn and accept the clarity of focus and direction the supreme being and giver of life has provided us with.

This film enables us to learn further and take in the universality of our own difficulties and recognise them as failures to confront them and being silent.
There is no problem with activism and the voice will have inherent value the more it contains the truth and not lies.
Bring Education to all.
Sixteen-year-old Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by the Taliban for being outspoken about her country’s education system. The Pakistani government spends seven times more on its military than on education. The Taliban banned girls from attending school. Pakistan’s literacy rate is among the lowest in the world, with the number of school aged children who don’t attend school is second highest globally.

Malala survived and is now the youngest person to ever be awarded the Nobel peace Prize for her activism for female education. This is the story of Malala’s fight for a right to education and freedom.
From the website of comes this –

Buy a T-shirt for $25 to support girls education in Pakistan. To order email at malalafilm (at) gmail (dot) com

Download online by clicking this link: Vimeo on Demand

Organising a screening of Malala: A Girl From Paradise is an easy and effective way to support. Call a community to action and get your friends, neighbors and colleagues engaged in supporting girls education.

Feel free to tell us about your plan to hold a screening in your community, school, college or university. We’ll mail you a DVD of the film for your screening event.

– Join us on Facebook.

– Tweet about us.
More information
Please note: The movie is rated PG-13 due to the violent attack on Malala; no on-screen violence is portrayed in the film. However, it is recommended that, for children 4th grade and below, parents exercise discretion as to whether their child should attend the film.

Stand #withMalala is a global, multi-platform social action campaign that will accompany HE NAMED ME MALALA. Like over 60 million girls globally, Malala struggled for the basic right to be educated. The combination of poverty, violence, and tradition holds girls back, limiting their individual potential and stifling economic, social, and political progress for their local communities and the world as a whole.

You can visit to watch the movie trailer and to get involved with the campaign as a family. #withMalala in support of girls’ education.
Activist Malala Yousafzai (R) and her father Ziauddin Yousafzai (L) attends the premiere of “He Named Me Malala” at the Ziegfeld Theater in Manhattan, New York, Sept. 24, 2015.

The youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureate with her mother, Toor Pekai Yousafzai, left, and the younger of her two brothers, Atal. Credit Fox Searchlight Pictures
Kailash Satyarthi (born Kailash Sharma; 11 January 1954) is an Indian children’s rights and education advocate and an activist against child labour. He founded the Bachpan Bachao Andolan (lit. Save the Childhood)

Conclusion #####5
An outstanding treatise not just on human rights and equality but an exposê of the terrorism used by the Taliban and their suppression of women and denial of education to children in a section of a nation not controlled by the state. The depth of reporting the truth, the dangers of freedom of speech, the extent of oppression a few armed people can bring to many who disavow violence is palpable and horrific. The messages are universal and the strength of will inherent in the vast majority is once again shown. Malala and her Father have shone a light in a dark corner opened our eyes to hidden unspoken horrors and provided hope for countless thousands as the struggle which is being won continues. The film is one example of the openness of this century and the continuing expression of individuals who bring to the many the suffering being inflicted in previously virtually untroubled locations. Living in peace is not a right but a principle of life.
Foremost is the true heartfelt religiosity of Malala and her Father. Not prepared to condemn others visions of their spiritual faith but to commend it to the same supreme creator as present in all humanity.
Civil rights follow from Human Rights and are to be our goal.

John Graham

5 November 2015


At QFT Belfast from Friday 6th November until (inc.) Thursday 12th November 2015. Screenings normally at 6.30pm but check beforehand,
There is also a talk/Introduction being given on Friday 6th November by Carolyn Mason, Chair of Amnesty Belfast local group.