A hauntingly beautiful Iranian melody broke the silence in the International Film Center theater in New York on June 12, as director Ayat Najafi’s No Land’s Song opened. It soon became clear why it had won the Nestor Almendros award for courage in filmmaking: candid in its views about the Iranian government’s attitudes toward women, it sears its protagonist’s story into the hearts of viewers with a narrative of artistic resistance, humor, friendship, and, ultimately, triumph in a country notorious for denying women’s rights.
This is not the first of Ayat Najafi’s challenges to the regime in Tehran; while still in Iran, he released a film called Football Under Cover, documenting the struggle to hold a women’s match in the country. Najafi himself no longer lives in Iran, saying that he “had to give up and leave,” while he praises artists like his sister, Sara Najafi, and others who continue the struggle within Iran’s borders.
No Land’s Song follows Sara Najafi, an Iranian composer, based in Tehran, attempting to organize a collaborative musical project with a group of foreign female soloists: three French and one Tunisian. This idea came to her as early as 2009, when she, family members and friends were out on the street during the Green Revolution. Despite getting permission to march in silent protest, the government killed, tortured, and arrested as many as 17 high-profile participants, according to Human Rights Watch. Other reports put the total of detentions by the regime at almost 4,000. Ever since, Najafi wanted to stage an initiative that would use music “to fight back against the violence of the regime.”
Since the Revolution in 1979, women in Iran have been prohibited from singing in solo performances for the general public; according to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Affairs, whose officials Sara is filmed meeting a dozen times to get clearance for her event, female singers may appear only in a group and only as background performers with male soloists. This rule departs sharply from Iran’s rich history of provocative and talented female musicians, including Qamar of the 1920s, Delkesh of the 1960s, and Googoosh of the 1970s. In particular, Najafi pays homage to Qamar, the first female Iranian singer to take the stage in the history of the country’s music, and one who made it her mission to drive out stereotypes associated with women singing in public.
The tension in the film centers on the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Affairs, depicted as a paradoxical entity: While adamantly telling Ms. Najafi that her project is “not possible,” they admit that their hands are tied, with one official noting, “there is nothing straightforward in this country.” When Najafi uses Qamar’s performances as justification for her project, the head of music at the Ministry of Culture asks Sara how old Qamar is — she died in 1959 — illustrating the extent of the disconnect between the history of Iranian music and the present efforts to suppress expression. Indeed, Najafi and a fellow singer, Parvin Namazi, who remembers singing in a time before the Revolution, are overcome with emotion upon visiting the theater at which Qamar gave her first performance, now dilapidated and converted into an industrial storage area.
Sara formed a deep connection with French musicians in working toward her goal—a show of solidarity that was met with immense resistance not only by officials from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Affairs but also by the religious scholar Abdolnabi Jafarian. In an infuriating scene, the former Mullah, explains why, according to Islam, it is dangerous for women to sing in public, suggesting that “no man sitting in public and listening to music should get sexually aroused.” When questioned about what would happen if a man’s singing voice should arouse a woman, Jafarian responds that such a scenario would not occur, since women are “nine times more tender than men.” In highlighting such moments, Ayat Najafi conveys the complexities of Iranian society and Islam’s role in it.
The film also uses humor to expose the artistic contrasts between the French and Iranian musicians.
The French group struggles to follow the romanized Persian lyrics, becoming overwhelmed by the effort. They successfully secure work visas to enter Iran, but when they begin to practice with their Iranian counterparts, they have trouble getting their beat together with the more “improvisational” Iranian musicians.
The women ultimately power through, inspired by Iran’s female musical legends, to deliver pieces about freedom, humanity, perseverance, and faith.
What started off as an artistic project for Najafi and her French counterparts evolved into a broader political one: an opportunity to restore the role of the female voice in Iranian culture.