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If Kafka had been transposed to 21st-century Iran, he would have recognised several elements in Sara Najafi’s story. The real-life protagonist of the documentary No Land’s Song, she deals with increasingly surreal impositions of authority as she strives to put on a concert featuring only female singers.
Since the revolution of 1979, it has been forbidden for women to sing solo in public in Iran, in case men listening to them become sexually aroused. Early in the film, an Islamic scholar tries to compare the dangers of listening to women singing to eating cheese: “If you eat simple cheese, that’s fine. But if you add more and more ingredients, the joy from this harms you.”
The analogy may be risible, yet it conveys how dangerously nebulous are the restrictions on women’s behaviour in Iran. No Land’s Song tracks Najafi’s vigorous challenge to such rules as she works to bring French and Iranian female singers on stage together in Tehran. Like many films from the Middle East in recent years — Rafea: Solar Mama, Camera/Woman, In the Shadow of a Man — this work reveals an increasingly assertive, articulate generation of women in Islamic countries. Just as Athol Fugard’s theatre gave a voice to South Africans without rights, so film is allowing a vivid, nuanced perspective on how women tackle oppression in the Middle East today.
The documentary is directed by Najafi’s brother Ayat, whose previous film, Football Under Cover, followed women trying to organise the first female soccer match in Iran. Overtly it celebrates the — benign — power of song at the same time as it shows Najafi and her collaborators trying to evade the tentacles of government bureaucracy. Najafi, a trained composer, is inspired by Qamar-ol-Moluk Vaziri, a legendary mezzo-soprano who, in 1924, became the first female performer in Iran to sing in front of men without a veil. At a public concert at Tehran’s Grand Hotel in 1924 she sang the famous Iranian political song “Morq e Sahar” (Morning Bird), which used the image of a nightingale in its cage to urge escape from oppression.
Najafi herself, a petite dynamic figure, is in little doubt that what she is attempting is “at this point . . . the most revolutionary act you can dare in Iran”. The film shows her starting to campaign to put the concert together in 2011, when Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad was still in power. She decides to collaborate with French performers, partly because of historic cultural ties linking the two countries, partly because foreign involvement will make it harder for the authorities to cancel the event. Provocatively, she also approaches Emel Mathlouthi, the female Tunisian singer-songwriter whose song “Kelmti Horra” became a revolutionary anthem at the start of the Arab Spring.
Visually, the film gives a strong sense of the contrast between the active bustle of daily life in Tehran and the sterile conditions imposed by the authorities. When she’s out and about with her friends and collaborators, Najafi wears bright headscarves or nothing on her head at all. When she visits the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, she wears a black hijab — which means she can smuggle in a microphone that records every authoritarian absurdity.
“Rewrite the application and add some male singers,” she is told. “One man would be enough if you introduce him as the soloist and your female singers as the background singers.”
In a separate filmed encounter with an Islamic scholar, he explains with disconcerting mathematical precision why it’s all right for men to sing: essentially because men fight, and women look after babies. “So a woman is more tender than a man. And when she speaks she is nine times more tender than a man. You see, that’s why a man [singing] isn’t stimulating but a woman is.”
For those looking for clues as to whether Hassan Rouhani’s Iran has become genuinely different from Ahmadi-Nejad’s, the signs are not encouraging. In the run-up to the election in 2013, the concert was banned and the French performers — including singers Elise Caron, Jeanne Cherhal, and drummer Edward Perraud — were denied visas to travel to Tehran. A breakthrough seemed to have occurred once Rouhani was in power: the visas were granted. Yet although it looked as if the concert would finally take place, the agents of the absurd were waiting to swoop again.
The conflict on this occasion epitomises the clash between Iran’s modern and medieval sensibilities. Mathlouthi, the Tunisian singer, posted about the concert on her Facebook fan page. Desperate to avoid a scandal, the Iranian authorities tried first threats then bribery to stop it from happening.
Najafi may eventually win her battle, yet we are left in little doubt of the longer struggle she still faces.
‘No Land’s Song’ is being shown Saturday at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival at the Barbican, London, and Sunday at the Ritzy, Brixton, ff.hrw.org/london