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No Land’s Song

No Land’s Song is about an attempt to give a voice to women – both metaphorically and literally. Sara Najafi is an Iranian composer – the only woman in her University class – and she has a plan to stage a concert with female musicians and soloists. As women singing alone on stage is forbidden in Iran, this requires a series of meetings with clerics and government officials.

First the clerics. One explains to her that the pitch of a female singing voice would just inflame the attending men. A group of women singers could cancel themselves out, but the only way that a female soloist would be possible would be to play before an exclusively female audience. He then goes into an extended metaphor about cheese and vegetables that I don’t think even he follows.

Then the government officials, none of whom allowed themselves to be filmed. Fortunately, a hijab is useful to smuggle in a hidden microphone, so we hear their increasingly bureaucratic arguments against a black screen. The officials explain that what Sara wants is against the rules, but maybe if she had a male soloists with female backing singers, that would work.

Part of the reason for this inconsistency is the instability of the government – the culture minister seems to be changing on a daily basis – which leads to an erratic application of the law. But there are also social developments which the film acknowledges. These developments do not directly affect the decisions of the Iranian government, but they do create a space in which Sara and her musicians can push for change.

The film takes places in 2012 and 2013, only a couple of years after Iran’s so-called “Green Revolution”, and almost immediately following the Arab Spring. Indeed one of the people invited by Sara is the Tunisian singer Emel Mathlouthi, who became famous on the back of a song that she sang when interviewed by the tv news during the 2011 uprising.

Apart from the recorded interviews with government officials, much of the action is filmed in Paris. The French singers and musicians watch on as their visas are allowed, then cancelled, and then they are offered tourist visas, which would mean that they would be unable to perform. Although they state that they are determined to challenge the rules up to breaking point, you can see the frustration on their faces, which could lead them to give up any moment.

For most of the film, we’re not sure whether the concert will actually take place, and we are constantly engaged in the will-they-won’t-they dilemma of whether it will all end in disappointment. Even after they get to Tehran, Mathlouthi posts on facebook that women will be singing for the first time in post-revolutionary Iran to her millions of followers. Sara gets a call from government officials – everything is now off.

Not wanting to lose face, the officials offer a compromise – play a guests-only performance (where the guests would presumably be heavily vetted by the government) and not only would the concert happen, but the government will give them €3,000. If you don’t want to know how it all ends, look away now – here be plot spoilers.

The singers and musicians decide to call the Iranian government’s bluff, and say that they’ll only perform under their own terms. While they are doing this, there’s an election surprizingly won by Hassan Rouhani, an opponent of then-president Ahmadinijad. This creates the space needed for the officials to back down and the concert goes ahead.

The footage of the concert is magnificent. The women singers do sing solos – the “alibi” male singers just stop singing and let the women get on with it. One of the songs is from the 1979 revolution and talks eloquently and explictly about resisting tyranny. Then Mathlouthi sings her song from 2011, accompanying herself on the guitar. The audience is euphoric.

Tonight’s film showing was followed by a Q&A with director Ayat Najafi, Sara’s brother. He explains that the although the concert was important, it didn’t make the breakthrough that they were hoping. Government restrictions have tightened, and there have not been any further concerts. But the fight goes on – and this film is part of that fight.

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