A handful of children in a courtyard pose like statues.
One on the ground covers his head, mouth stretched into a silent scream. One stands over him, fingers pointed at his head.
One pleads on her knees at the feet of another whose arm is raised, fingers pointed to the sky.
Two more huddle together on the steps.
A teenage girl is directing them. Her name is Sonita, and she’s one of many Afghan refugees living in Iran. The children are acting out scenes from their worst memories as part of a therapeutic exercise, and Sonita begins to cry as she directs the reconstruction of her family’s flight from Afghanistan.
These kids are real. Sonita is real, her story captured play by play in the documentary Sonita, directed by female filmmaker Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami.
I was covered in goosebumps at the rawness of this scene and the real-life nightmares these children have endured. Strangely enough, the film isn’t about these kids and their refugee status. It’s about Sonita and her dream of becoming a rapper.
Which is actually rather funny in a hopelessly ironic sort of way. It’s not like we have a long history of female rappers. Much less teenage female rappers. Much, much less teenage, female, Muslim, refugee rappers from Afghanistan.
It’s so unexpected that the audience titters at the opening of the film as Sonita sticks pictures of her face over the pictures of famous singers and tapes them in a notebook filled with even more pictures of beach houses and fancy cars that will all be hers once she’s rich and famous.
In other words, she’s a typical, daydreaming teenager.
Except it’s funny because she’s also an undocumented immigrant. And she’s poor. And she’s a woman, an unfortunate fact in Iran and Afghanistan where the law forbids women from singing solo in public.
If anyone had any right to admit defeat and give up on their impossible dreams it would be her.
But no matter. Sonita writes songs in her notebook anyway and tries them out on her friends. One of them has a black eye.
The friends hang out like groups of teenagers do, perched on the edges of tables, one leg swinging over the side.
But they’re not Snapchatting or talking about boys. They’re talking about who their parents are finding for them to marry and how old these men are and if they already have a wife and how much money their parents are asking in exchange for them.
Sonita’s mother wants $9,000 for her so that her brother can afford to buy his own wife. Sonita sits quietly, staring at the floor, as her family discusses their plans for her. The only voice she has is tied up in the lyrics of pain and outrage scrawled in her notebook.
And then, she disappears.
Without Hollywood writers scheming up a happy ending, the filmmakers, and the audience, begin to fear the worst, that Sonita’s family has shipped her back to Afghanistan and married her off to a man twice her age for less than the price of a new car.
Her hopeless dreams stifled forever, the fate of countless other girls must be swallowing her up as well. I was getting ready to be really depressed.
But then (*spoiler alert*) Sonita resurfaces, and the filmmakers decide it’s time to intervene. In exchange for $2,000, the mother agrees to give her daughter a few more months before arranging her marriage, valuable time that Sonita uses to get down to work.
And this is what she makes…
After posting this video online and publicizing herself (a woman) as a singer, she loses her sponsorship at the non-profit children’s center for breaking the law.
Which begs the question, how far would you go to follow your dream? Would you risk your education, your relationships, your reputation? Would you break an unjust law?
Do you even have a dream worth risking all of that for?
Miraculously, the documentary has a happy ending. When a music school in the U.S. discovers Sonita’s video and offers her a scholarship, her dreams begin to come true.
Sonita may not be rich and famous yet, but they call her the youngest female rapper to come out of Afghanistan. And most of all, she’s finding a new role as social activist, speaking out against inhumane cultural traditions like the selling of brides.
And in the meantime, her insane, dream-chasing story is teaching me a lesson or two. Or five. Like these:
One. Find something worth fighting for.
Two. Fight for it, even when your ship feels like it’s sinking. Especially when it’s sinking.
Three. Don’t think you can do it all on your own. Sonita has made it as far as she has because of the encouragement of her friends, the support of her mentor at the children’s center, and a whole lot of help from the film crew documenting her progress. Oh, and a little luck.
Four. But it’s not all luck. The scholarship to study music would never have fallen into her lap if she hadn’t written songs from her heart, hunted down a recording studio, and filmed that video. Action, action, action.
And five. Don’t let your obstacles become excuses. And don’t make your excuses into obstacles. You’re not fighting against the sale of your own body and you’re not being forced to flee your own country. So get to work.