5 incredible new films about women

Sonita
Dir: Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami, 90 mins

Sonita is a remarkable Afghani teenager who wishes her parents were Michael Jackson and Rihanna and whose passion is rapping.

The Tehran teenager’s rap dreams are against Iranian law, which forbids women performing solo, and also cause a problem for her desperate parents who want to arrange their teenage daughter’s marriage in order to receive a bride price to make ends meet.

The resourceful Sonita responds with a hard-hitting track and video, How Can You Sell Your Daughter?

Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami’s doc grapples with some tough questions, not least about the choices that are available to young women like Sonita.

At the same time it also confronts the age-old, documentary-maker dilemma head-on: are you an objective observer or active participant?

Stuffy documentary traditions and ethics didn’t bother judges or audiences at the Sundance Film Festival where Sonita scooped the 2015 World Cinema Grand Jury Prize and World Cinema Award for Best Documentary.

Mustang
Dir: Deniz Gamze Ergüven, 97 mins

Turkish-French director Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Oscar-nominated feature film follows five high-school age sisters raised by an uncle and aunt in Northern Turkey. Their typical teenage lives are turned upside down when an afternoon of messing about with boys from school scandalises the community.

The price of this transgression and bringing shame upon the family is severe as the sisters are kept under virtual house arrest, lustrous hair is hacked off, clothes are proscribed and school is replaced with learning housewife duties as arranged marriages are hastily sought.

Mustang highlights deep-rooted, conservative attitudes that result in patriarchal policing of women but amid the crushing oppression are powerful moments of rebellion, humour, camaraderie, unexpected solidarity and, ultimately, hope that springs eternal thanks to the indomitable human spirit.

Hooligan Sparrow
Dir: Nanfu Wang, 83 mins

Nanfu Wang came across activist Hooligan Sparrow (real name Ye Haiyan) as a result of the campaigner’s tireless work championing the rights of sex workers – against the wishes of the Chinese state.

Wang began shooting a documentary on Hooligan Sparrow and her campaign to highlight the case of six primary school girls who were allegedly sexually abused by the school principal.

Wang soon became part of the story, as state officials and secret police tried to shut down the activists through surveillance, detention, questioning, harassment and intimidation.

As a result the documentary, which opens the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London, grips like a thriller, particularly with realisation that Hooligan Sparrow, her fellow activists the production crew face consequences that are all too real.

PS Jerusalem
Dir: Danae Elon, 87 mins

This heartbreaking documentary cuts through the complexities by glimpsing the lives of a young family in the capital of Israel where every living moment is shaped by war.

Jerusalem-born, New York-settled director Danae Elon decides to relocate her young family to Jerusalem, following her father’s death – she’s the daughter of esteemed Israeli intellectual Amos Elon. Elon’s two boys are enrolled at the only remaining Arab and Jewish school and through their innocent eyes and inquisitiveness, unpick the realities and horrors of the Arab-Israeli divide.

The camera is trained on the brothers as one furtively explains to the other he must speak Hebrew and not Arabic in this part of Jerusalem; we see the blind panic caused by an air-raid siren sounding in school; Elon’s partner trying to explain the behaviour of Jewish settlers to their children; and one of the boy’s violent reaction, as he plays on a swing, to being asked if he’s Jewish.

P.S. Jerusalem provides a rare insight into the impact of daily life on children in a region it’s all too easy to dismiss as conflict-ridden and unsolvable. And even if you don’t subscribe to the ‘them’ and ‘us’ narrative, by virtue of your immediate surroundings, sides are picked for you.

Trials of spring
Dir: Various, 90 mins

The Trials of Spring began life as a six-part series of short docs focusing on young women involved in 2011’s Arab Spring across Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen.

These shorts were premiered by the New York Times last summer and are being screened together as feature length doc at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. The journey and experiences of 24-year-old Egyptian Hend Naefa are instructive: she joins the protestors in Tahrir Sqaure, Cairo calling for democracy and is filled with optimism and excitement as she meets fellow Egyptians and women activists. As she makes Tahrir Square her home, Hend feels the full force of the state and its agents – she’s beaten, charged with terrorism and sexually assaulted, which only seems to strengthen Hend’s and her fellow activists’ resolve to fight for the rights of women as equal citizens in Egypt.

All these films are featured in the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, which marks its 20th anniversary in London March 9th-18th, before touring to Toronto, New York and Nairobi