No Land’s Song
Written by Ayat Najafi
Directed by Ayat Najafi
Germany, France, Iran, 2014
Before 1979, Iran had a history of iconic female singers. Qamar al-Molouk Vaziri was in 1924 the first woman to sing in front of a male audience and still to “retain her good reputation”. It was a time when “women wore burkas and men were on opium”, sighs one of the protagonists of the documentary from the Iranian Ayat Najafi. Singers such as Delkash and Googoosh, as well as Sayeh Sodeyfi, performing in the film, were widely listened to, but have since then been made illegal. After the revolution, female solo-singing in public was banned on the grounds of »exceeding a certain vocal range« and »sexually arousing men in the audience«, and thereby breaking the rule of decency and of not deviating from their normal condition.
Premiering at the Montréal World Film Festival last August, Ayat Najafi’s No Land’s Song documents the struggle of his sister, the singer and composer Sara Najafi, to organise an official concert for solo female singers. She records her countless visits to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance to apply for a permit with a voice recorder hidden under her clothes. On one occasion, besides the voices of the Ministry officials, her heart can be clearly heard beating loudly with fear. She also visits the religious authority who offers his guidance, following a kind of surreally twisted logic, and a traditional teashop, where an older man nostalgically recalls the pre-Revolution cabarets and music clubs, where women sung freely. Archival footage of the singer Qamar confirms it, as wearing a knee-length skirt, a shirt and short hair, she sings about drinking, partying and even lust.
To support the fight to hear women’s voices once again, Sara and her friends invite two French and one Tunisian female singer, Elise Caron, Jeanne Cherhal and Emel Mathlouthi, to join them in Tehran and collaborate on their musical project. As they communicate over Skype and rehearse, first in Paris and then in Tehran, their efforts constantly undermined by further complications that are constantly arising in their battle with the Iranian red tape, it becomes increasingly clear how powerful both a voice and a song can be, and perhaps the fear of Iranian authorities of the subversive power of music increasingly well understood.
Najafi, who lives and works in Berlin, won’t be screening the film, a German-French co-production, in his home country. It was never meant to be presented there publicly, and the credits in Latin letters and the inter-titles in English signify that unequivocally. When the time comes for the film’s final part, the much awaited concert, we hold our breath together with the music group, nervously watching the audience take their seats. The sound of the first female singer’s voice is exhilarating, and the following ones equally as powerful. The rebellious, strongly political lyrics, written to be sung by women decades and decades ago, sound in the concert hall once again, a climax that of all the struggles and aspirations of the singers have been building toward. It’s a perfect ending to a truly powerful movie, that deserves to be seen as much as possible.