'No Land's Song': Film Review

No Land's Song Still - H 2015

No Land's Song Still - H 2015

A moving doc fusing music with human rights

Ayat Najafi's documentary is about the fight for a woman's right to sing in Iran

Much more than a mere "let's put on a show!" doc, Ayat Najafi's No Land's Song stands out among other recent fest-circuit films about attempts to revive forgotten or suppressed music. In following the efforts of composer Sara Najafi (the director's sister) to overcome religious prohibitions on female singing and mount a cross-cultural concert in Tehran, the film offers not only rich musical content, but a unique look at persistent repression and bureaucracy in Iran. Assured of warm responses at fests, the film merits an arthouse run before moving to video.

When Sara Najafi starts envisioning a public concert showcasing female singers in 2009 and 2010, the local Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance tells her it's out of the question. Women could be on stage as backup singers, they suggest, or the concert's audience could be limited to other women. Sara records a succession of meetings with officials surreptitiously, and we hear the audio against a blank screen; some are matter-of-fact about the rules. "Does anything have a clear answer in this country?," one sighs. "A lot of things have no reason." Seeking explanations for this policy from a religious scholar, she is fed nonsense about how, while it is acceptable for a woman to speak in public, a woman's voice raised in song would be too sexually arousing to the men who hear it. The scholar compares this to the sin of making food too enjoyable by adding more than the necessary ingredients.

While pursuing loopholes and leniency with officials, Sara moves forward in collaboration with some French musicians and a Tunisian woman, Emel Mathlouthi, whose YouTube video of a song sung at 2011 Tunis protests inspired her. They hope to fly to Tehran to join a singer friend of Sara's, Sayeh Sodeyfi, and another, Parvin Namazi, who is old enough to have performed in public before the revolution. (With Namazi and Sara, the film explores the ruined lots where music venues once stood, and shows clips of pre-1979 stars like Delkash.)

The fact that we know from the outset that the concert did take place (and see wonderful performance clips from it sprinkled into the narrative) doesn't diminish the drama of the setbacks the musicians face, or dampen our indignation. By the time the musicians are actually able to rehearse together, there's so much emotion in the room that a guitarist accompanying Namazi breaks down in tears mid-song at the sadness in her voice. Viewers are likely to do the same — if not here, then when Mathlouthi revisits her defiant song in front of a packed audience.

Production companies: Chaz Productions, Hanfgarn & Ufer, Torero Film

Director-Screenwriter: Ayat Najafi

Producers: Anne Grange, Gunter Hanfgarn, Rouven Rech, Teresa Renn

Executive producer: Patrick Merkle

Directors of photography: Sarah Blum, Koohyar Kalari

Editors: Kamiz Schokofeh, Julia Wiedwald

No rating, 90 minutes