Turban Decay: Sonita (2015)

10/20/2016  By  Jordan Saïd     No comments

Turban Decay deals with images of Arabs in the cinema, as observed by Front Row Central staff writer and actual Arab Jordan Saïd. The column deals with stereotypes and changing perceptions both before and after 9/11.

We Americans have automated and commodified war. We’ve done this so thoroughly that even out of the 12% of Americans who can find Afghanistan on a map (26% for Iran), our instincts cause us to dismiss Iran and Afghanistan as those places we want to raze because “they hate us.” But what if someone in Iran or Afghanistan wants to make life better for both Americans and Iranians, but repressive cultural traditions, a totalitarian government, and the constant threat of suicide bombers reduces her to a statistic before she even can?

Sonita, a documentary by Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami (who plays an active role), tells the powerful story of Sonita Alizadeh, a budding Iranian rapper whose socially conscious lyrics aim to end the tradition of forced marriages and the struggles of families living in abject poverty. For any of a dozen reasons—none her fault and few under her control—Sonita could have become a statistic, just another battered teenage housewife of a wealthy Afghan man, a living deed sold off by her own family, for the price of a used car, so they could put food on the table or afford a daughter-in-law of their own. Through a long succession of miracles—including the creation and release of this film—Sonita has a chance to take control of her life and to make a difference for the people of Iran.

Sonita’s pure heart shines above everything else in this movie. We see Sonita’s daydreams in the form of a binder full of magazine clippings. So many of her clippings detail what she wants to do for others: laser surgery for her mother; money to get her family out of Afghanistan; a big house for her family. Sonita wants to end the practice of forced marriage not just for herself, but for the children she sees every day who did get bought and sold as unwilling wives. Rokhsareh makes sure we see the consequence of this. She shows girls Sonita’s age, married, with black eyes. We see one of Sonita’s best friends talking about how her father wants $12,000 for her… but will settle for $3000 and a nice dowry. Sonita writes song lyrics about her friend’s plight; her friend, in tears, says that Sonita wrote exactly what she wanted to say to her father.

Even in abject poverty, Sonita’s fashion choices say so much about her personality.

The real tragedy of Sonita lies in what forced marriage has done to her family. Sonita believes—perhaps correctly—that her older relatives see her as nothing more than a piece of meat to auction off. She shows more familial love to the social workers who help displaced Iranians than toward her relatives. She fears removing her hijab on screen lest she lose her family’s respect. Her family never tires of dismissing her musical ambitions as “indecent,” even as she shows genuine promise. She sees her mother as venal and intransigent, and we viewers can’t disagree.

Sonita’s mother rationalizes literally selling her own daughter.

This film will infuriate you with the sheer number of obstacles that its protagonist has had to face, most of them things that wouldn’t even occur to us here in America. Right at the start, Sonita’s sister commands her to find a place for them to live, as their landlord has evicted them. Sonita has an afternoon to figure out how to secure a roof over her, her sister, and her niece, without papers or a deposit. The process of recording any music at all seems to require jumping through a whole different Byzantine labyrinth of hoops. The most heart-wrenching moment comes when Sonita uses drama therapy to reenact the worst thing that ever happened to her: the day the Taliban intercepted her family as they tried to leave Afghanistan.

Every wall Sonita overcomes seems to cause a higher one to spring up. When she convinces record label staff to meet with her, they point out that she needs a government permit to make music. When she scrambles together money to bring her mother to Tehran, she learns that her family plans to sell her off because they need the $9000 that she would bring in. When she records a video, she loses the support of her sponsoring organization, because they can’t legally support a female musician. When she learns of the possibility of a full-ride scholarship to the Wasatch Academy, she learns that she can only get to America by returning to Afghanistan and convincing her family to give her own legal documents back to her.


Sonita’s struggles become so frustrating to watch that even the film crew intervenes. At several points, Rokhsareh takes it upon herself to help Sonita, even as she knows she risks her professional ethics as a documentarian. In this way, the film becomes almost as much about Rokhsareh as about Sonita. One sequence shows a frantic Rokhsareh combing the streets looking for the subject of her own documentary, terrified that Sonita already got sent back to Afghanistan… or worse.

I’ve never in my life met a teenager who deserves to view herself this way.

This brings us to the point: as much as Americans complain about the oppressive regimes of the Middle East, nobody understands the oppression of Iranian and Afghan women better than Iranian and Afghan women. There exist a whole lot of people working to change things for the better, but they have the deck stacked so high against them that they simply can’t do it without support. Spurning refugees won’t help them or us. Ostracizing Muslims or Middle Easterners won’t help. Going to war definitely won’t help. You can’t drone-strike an enemy into loving you. You can’t bomb a government into listening to its people. And we’ve had a long time to learn what happens when we try to force a docile regime into place.

But signal-boosting voices of Iranian and Afghan women? Bypassing Iran’s insane censorship laws however we can? Where bombs and bullets have failed, maybe that will work.

Read the original, unabridged review on Turban Decay.

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About Jordan Saïd


Jordan Saïd does mathematics by day and writes for Front Row Central and Turban Decay by night (and weekend). He specializes in American road films, kung fu cinema, and camp (the aesthetic, not the wilderness). He lives in Eastern Washington with five cats.

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