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A documentary screening at the Sundance Film Festival explores the painful truths behind the song that put Sonita Alizadeh on the map

"Brides for sale"

How an Afghan teen used rap to resist a forced marriage

By Brigit Katz on January 28, 2016

In the music video for “Bride for Sale,” which has been viewed some 300,000 times on YouTube, an Afghani teenager named Sonita Alizadeh stands against a black backdrop, dressed in a wedding gown, her face battered and bruised. A bar code is etched onto the center of a forehead. Her verses are electric, searing: “I scream to make up for a woman’s lifetime silence/I scream on behalf of the deep wounds on my body/I scream for a body exhausted in its cage/A body that broke under the price tags you put on it.”

Sonita, a recent documentary by Iranian filmmaker Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami, uncovers the painful truths behind these lyrics. The film—currently screening at the Sundance Film Festival—chronicles the remarkable journey of its namesake, whose family sought to sell her as a child bride. Though she was raised to believe in marriage as the inevitable conclusion to her adolescence, Sonita had other plans for her future. As she tells her mother at one point in the film, “For me, only music and rapping are important.”

At the start of the documentary, Sonita is a student at an Iranian school for displaced youths. Her family had fled the Afghan Taliban some years before, and Sonita had no official documentation, little money, and few prospects. Between classes at the charitable organization that provided her with an education, Sonita spits her rhymes in front of younger schoolmates, clutching a silver serving spoon instead of a mic. When she finishes performing, the other girls jump and chant her name.

Moments like these—endearing, hopeful, poignant—ripple throughout the film. Sonita’s reality is marred by difficult circumstances: poverty, the trauma of violent past, tensions with her family. And yet, she is eternally optimistic, swept up in dreams of a career among the stars. Sonita tells her teachers that in an ideal world, her parents would be Michael Jackson and Rihanna. Her walls are papered with posters of Justin Bieber. In a spiral notebook, she pastes photos of famous performance artists posing on the red carpet, and over each celebrity, she tapes a picture of her own smiling face.

Ghaem Maghami was first introduced to Sonita by her social worker cousin, who hoped thatGhaem Maghami would be able to connect the teenager to some of her artist friends. I went and met her, and I decided to help her somehow, in the way that I could,”Ghaem Maghami said. “She wanted to learn about how to make a music video, how to shoot, and this kind of thing. Little by little, I just found that she is very ambitious, but in a nice way, in a good way, in a constructive way. She has a lot of dreams …[but] I couldn’t see any prospective for her dreams, because she didn’t have any kind of identification, not with the [Afghan] or Iranian government.”

Sonita Alizadeh
Sonita Alizadeh

When she decided to document Sonita’s journey,Ghaem Maghami thought she would be making an immigration story, a film about a talented teenager whose aspirations are tampered by life in a bureaucratic no man’s land. But halfway through the filming process, Sonita’s narrative arc took an unexpected turn.

In the film, we see Sonita’s mother, who had returned to Afghanistan after her husband died, come back to Iran to retrieve Sonita. She plans to sell her daughter to a suitor for $9,000—the sum needed to buy a wife for Sonita’s brother. Crouching outside the room where her mother and sister discuss her future, Sonita listens to her mother talk about exchanging her for cash. “I don’t think she’ll go,” Sonita’s sister says. “She doesn’t have a choice,” her mother replies.

Later, Sonita sits next to her mother in the back of a car, fixing her with a plaintive and probing stare. Her mother will not, or perhaps cannot, meet her gaze. The documentary makes it clear that Sonita’s family is impelled not by cruelty or greed, but by ingrained cultural processes that transform women into currency. In Afghanistan, brides facilitate the marriages of their male relatives. Brides feed families. And when Sonita appeared at the Women in the World Summit in London, she stressed that she places no blame on her mother for conforming to this long-standing, deeply entrenched system.

“My mum, she was 13 [when she got married,” Sonita said. “When she was a little girl … everyone told her, ‘You are a woman, you have no value,’ and she learned that from her family. When she tried to sell me, she didn’t know any [other] way.”

When it became clear toGhaem Maghami that Sonita was on the verge of being forced into a marriage, the filmmaker was thrown into silent turmoil. Should she intervene in the course of Sonita’s future, or maintain the critical distance demanded of a documentarian? In one scene of the film, Sonita sits on the floor and looks up atGhaem Maghami with her wide, chocolate eyes. “Would you buy me?” she asks, hoping that the filmmaker will supply her family with the funds they hoped to accrue from her bride price.

“We became like two sisters,”Ghaem Maghami said. “It was really hard not to get involved. It was very hard, after being so close to somebody. My problem was: How should I reflect this intervention? I was asking myself, “If I interfere in her life and change the circumstances, then what will happen to my movie’s authenticity? And [if not], what will happen to my feelings? … How could I look into her eyes?’”

Ultimately, concerns for Sonita’s well-being triumphed.Ghaem Maghami paid Sonita’s family two thousand dollars, a sum they accepted in exchange for letting Sonita remain in Iran for a few more months. The filmmaker also helped Sonita produce the music video for “Brides for Sale,” a lyrical expression of all the pain and fear that Sonita felt at this difficult juncture. The song attracted international attention and Soon after its release, Sonita was offered a scholarship to study at a music school in the United States.

For her mother, this news came as the realization of a “terrible dream,” as Sonita noted during the Women in the World London Summit. But things have since turned around. “Now she is one of my fans,” Sonita said.

The course of Sonita’s life has become somewhat exceptional, but her fight to lead a self-determined existence reflects the experiences of all too many women and girls. “I think that many young women really loved her song in Afghanistan,”Ghaem Maghami said. “I know a lot of her [classmates at school] were all struggling with that problem. One of them, I think, got married yesterday.”

Now that Sonita has hit the Sundance circuit,Ghaem Maghami hopes the film will bring awareness to the issue of forced and child marriages. She knows such unions are a “social mechanism” that cannot be easily reversed, but remains optimistic that the right to marital consent will one day be a universal truth. “I think that it can happen in time,” she said. “I hope.”

When it comes to Sonita’s impact on her own life,Ghaem Maghami can be more certain. “In a situation where no dream [was] possible, she kept on dreaming, and then all the dreams, they came to reality,” she said. “So I learned a lot about the power of dreams. In really, really hard situations—and many of them are not in the movie, because you can’t tell one hundred stories in one movie—she … kept hope and dreams. And she won in the end.”