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Bride for sale: Dreams of an Afghan rapper


In a scene in Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami’s documentary Sonita, the teenage protagonist, Sonita Alizadeh, works on an assignment for a class at an NGO, the Tehran Society for the Protection of Working and Street Children—she draws her real passport and the one she wishes she had. In her fantasy passport, Sonita chooses Rihanna and Michael Jackson for her parents.

That tells us a lot about Sonita, who faces a bleak situation—having left the war in Afghanistan and the Taliban as a child to be an undocumented immigrant in Iran. Then her mother wanted to send her back to her country so she could get a bride price of $9,000, which will pay for Sonita’s brother to get a wife. Sonita’s idea for her future is wildly different from her family’s—she wants to be a rapper, and at the beginning of the film we see her pasting her face on singers’ bodies in her scrapbook and imagining an audience going crazy as she performs. 

Sonita lives with her older sister and niece in a single shabby room in Tehran and works as a janitor at the NGO. Considering what’s facing her, and her seeming lack of options, Sonita has a vision and confidence in herself that seems remarkable.

Maghami, who recently appeared at the film’s screening at the San Francisco International Film Festival, thinks some of that self-reliance comes from having been raised without parents. Maghami also gives credit to the NGO where Sonita works and learned to read and write.

“She took some life-skills classes there that were very important to develop her self confidence,” Maghami says. “They said when she came she didn’t talk at all and when they asked her name, she had to repeat it five times because they couldn’t hear her.”

Maghami met Sonita through a cousin who is a social worker at a nonprofit supporting child laborers. The cousin told her that Sonita was talented and suggested Maghami could help her with recording her music.

“I saw how ambitious she was and how she had so much passion and seemingly no chance,” Maghami said. “When making a documentary, I always want to find somebody who has a problem in present time, and see how she will succeed or not. I wanted to show the situation of illegal immigrant teenagers. Iran never gives anybody citizenship—it’s only by blood. I wanted to focus on illegal immigration and being a girl, but it changed to be more about child marriage.”

When Sonita’s mother comes to Iran, saying that Sonita must return to Afghanistan and get married, Maghami, who went to the Tehran Art University and has made six previous documentaries, including Cyanosis and Going up the Stairs, takes the controversial step of getting involved. Sonita asks the director if she could buy her, pointing out that she’s for sale anyway. At first Maghami tells her she can’t, but then she reconsiders and gives her mother some money so that Sonita can stay in Iran longer.

Sonita used that time to focus on her music, and Maghami helped her make a video, in which Sonita is made up with a bar code on her forehead and black eyes, wearing a wedding dress. “Like all other girls, I am caged. I am seen as a sheep only to be devoured,” she raps in “Brides For Sale.”

Maghami posted the video online, where it went viral and led to Sonita getting a scholarship to a school in Utah, where she is studying music.

Maghami says doesn’t want people to think the message of the movie is to go to America—but in Sonita’s case, being able to work on her music and not worry about being sold into marriage is, clearly, a good outcome. The film has been a hit at festivals, Maghami says, winning multiple audience and jury awards.

“People really have loved the movie,” she says. “People are very happy it finished with some hope, that it ended in a good way.”

Maghami says she was told in film school not to interfere and to be a fly on the wall—but she says viewers have challenged her when she didn’t get involved with previous subjects. She says she always tried to do something for people in her movies such as buying their artwork or paying them some rights for the movie. She doesn’t regret at all giving Sonita’s mother money and helping with the video as well as going with Sonita back to Afghanistan so she could get her birth certificate, necessary for a visa to leave the country.

“The whole journey was very interesting,” she said. “I’m very happy I could change somebody’s life. Finally I did something good.”

In the coming months, Sonita will be showing at the Seattle International Film Festival, AFI Docs, the New York Human Rights Watch Film Festival, Sheffield Doc/Fest, the Sydney Film Festival, Doc Edge New Zealand, and DocsBarcelona.

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