No Land’s Song, the latest documentary from Iranian filmmaker Ayat Najafi (Football Under Cover), follows a charismatic central character as she struggles to produce an all-women concert in Iran. Composer Sara Najafi’s (Ayat’s sister) has two motivations: she wants to use the female voice to its fullest potential and in doing so protest Iran’s ban on female soloists performing in front of men. Najafi’s film, which manages many moments of levity in the service of exposing an absurd logic of artistic repression, won the Human Rights Watch (HRW) Film Festival’s Nestor Almendros Award, the only honor the festival bestows.
Sara’s vision is to stage a multinational concert of female voices — one that features both classic Iranian music and contemporary compositions, interpreted by Iranian and French singers. She succeeds in gathering an intergenerational group of incredibly talented Iranian women; the sounds of these women rehearsing informally are soundtrack-worthy. Sara also pulls together a group in Paris, consisting of female singers — two French, one Tunisian — and two male musicians. Her audacious plan is to have the two groups perform together in Tehran.
Sara’s goal is worthwhile and her cadres of singers and musicians, winningly charismatic, which makes the seemingly insurmountable obstacles she faces in producing just one performance all the more dismaying. Sara needs government approval to stage her event, but the central premise of the performance — female soloists — is illegal. Iran has had an Islamic government since 1979, when the Iranian Revolution overthrew Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and installed Ayatollah Ruhollah Moosavi Khomeini as Supreme Leader. The Western-backed Shah’s regime was repressive of perceived political opponents and notorious for the brutality of its secret police, but it was socially liberal: women singers performed freely. Since 1979 and the installment of an Islamic government, women soloists are only allowed to perform in front of other women — a gendered repression symptomatic of many others.
In the film, we see Sara travel often to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, where she encounters a frequently rotating cast of bureaucrats, each as blandly obedient of opaque rules as the next. The ministry’s general attitude reveals itself not as religious fervor, but as acceptance of the status quo. Sara also consults the expertise of a “religious scholar,” a man whose theories on musical performance are like Max Bialystock’s dream. He explains to Sara why women cannot solo by making an allegory to cheese: Cheese that is too rich is not good for you, he explains. Good men stick to moderate cheese. One wouldn’t want to enjoy the cheese too much. The moment is terribly funny, but also terrifying when you remember that he, and others like him, advise on social and artistic policy for the entire country.
Still, Najafi plays up the humor in the film. In the scenes with Sara and the “religious leader,” cuts to Sara’s expression at key moments in his absurd monologues betray both her upset and total befuddlement. Seeing her puzzlement gives the audience permission to laugh, to understand the scene not only as disturbing but also as displaying an almost Alice in Wonderland–esque silliness as well. While the movie is technically a very straightforward, fly-on-the-wall documentary, with the occasional archival photograph and footage mixed in, the production quality is high, and the editing moves it along at a riveting clip.
The Iranian singer group is tenacious, even as the Europeans flag in the face of embassy warnings and rejected visas. The European privilege in this attitude becomes clear. In private, the Iranians muse that Europeans are simply not used to having to fight for their freedoms; the Parisian group does not understand that being intimidated by bureaucracy and worn down by discouragement means inevitable defeat. To call a political documentary “inspiring” is facile and cheesy, but the attitudes of the film’s Iranian women are just that. They’re wise and serious about their goal, but never lose sight of the humor in the illogic of bureaucracy. And finally, after fraught travel plans and much touch-and-go suspense, the Iranian and Parisian groups perform one beautiful concert together.
At the film’s HRW Film Festival New York premiere, Ayat and Sara Najafi and singer/songwriter Emel Mathlouthi answered questions. An audience member asked about the impact of the concert: had it changed Iranian society? The director and his protagonist offered a depressing answer: not at all, they said; in fact, it’s increasingly difficult for Iranian artists of all types to live and work in their home country. The hard-won success portrayed in Najafi’s film is only a momentary victory, and should not belie the specter of narrow-mindedness in a socially repressive regime.
No Land’s Song screens at IFC Center (323 Sixth Avenue, West Village, Manhattan) on June 18, 9:30pm.