Iran film gives voice to Song – Ups … downs

Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga attend the Americans for the Arts 2015 National Arts Awards at Cipriani 42nd Street on Oct 19, in New York. (AP)
Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga attend the Americans for the Arts 2015 National Arts Awards at Cipriani 42nd Street on Oct 19, in New York. (AP)

LOS ANGELES, Oct 20, (RTRS): Composer Sara Najafi’s quest to hold a public concert in Tehran featuring the solo female voice, something prohibited in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, provides the backdrop for “No Land’s Song,” a finely tooled, multi-layered documentary directed by her brother, helmer Ayat Najafi. His gripping chronicle of her efforts covers a nearly three-year period and is as full of ups and downs as a roller coaster, and bursting with beautiful music. The inspiring, enlightening, audience-friendly pic has been making the festival rounds for more than a year, and should profitably segue into small-screen outlets and classrooms.

The intrepid, vivacious Sara Najafi, the first woman to receive an advanced degree in composition in Iran, knows about the prohibitions against her project but is determined to counter them. Her vocalist friends, mezzo-soprano Sayeh Sodeyfi and Parvin Namazi, one of the great traditional Persian voices of the present age, are eager to participate. Namazi amusingly recounts how, when performing in ensembles, she seizes every chance she gets to sneak in a small solo, while Sodeyfi, who teaches at an art academy, marvels that most of her students are female.

To give viewers have a better idea of what his sister is up against, the director cleverly includes commentary from a religious scholar and Iranian bureaucrats. As the scholar drones on about how the solo female voice could cause sexual arousal, the look on Sara’s face is priceless.

Records

Sara also secretly records her meetings with the ever-changing officials at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance by slipping a tape recorder under her layers of hijab. After telling her that the concert could never happen the way she wants, some officials suggest that the women could sing as backup to male performers, or that the audience could be limited to other women. But as Sara continues to argue her case, we hear a clearly exasperated bureaucrat say, “Does anything have a clear answer in this country? A lot of things have no reason.”

The helmer also provides another layer with a short history of women vocalists in Iran. We hear recordings of “Bird of Dawn” (“Morq-e Sahar”), performed by Qamar, a legendary female artist who broke taboos in Iranian society during the 1920s by singing in front of a mixed public. We see archival photos of Qamar, as well as film footage from a 1960 film in which Delkash, another famous femme thrush, sings about drunkenness and lust. Sara also visits the Lalehzhar Street area of Tehran, which was home to the pre-revolutionary nightclubs, and interviews old men in a coffeehouse about their memories of the music of that time.

As her project is continually rejected by the authorities, the savvy Sara decides to add a cultural bridge component to the concert: three female vocalists based in France — Elise Caron, Jeanne Cherhal and fiery Tunisian Emel Mathlouthi — as well as avant-garde French male instrumentalists Sebastien Hoog and Edward Perraud will play traditional Persian songs. As the foreigners learn the complicated rules regulating women’s appearance in public in Iran (headscarves as well as loose-fitting, long-sleeved shirts and long pants required), they express support for the project, but also some doubts and fears. Hearing the French artists practice together and with their Iranian counterparts reps one of the most moving and beautiful parts of the film.

Also:

LOS ANGELES: The American Film Institute has set two more Centerpiece Galas for its AFI Fest — Michael Moore’s “Where to Invade Next” and Patricia Riggen’s “The 33.” “Where to Invade Next,” which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, will screen Nov 7 at the Lloyd E. Rigler Theatre at the Egyptian. “The 33,” starring Antonio Banderas, Rodrigo Santoro and Juliette Binoche, will screen Nov 9 at the TCL Chinese Theatre.

“Where to Invade Next” is being released by a new distribution company run by Tom Quinn, Jason Janego and Tim League. “The 33” began its South American run in August. Warner Bros. will open it on Nov 13 in the US.

The festival also unveiled its Special Screenings section, which will include Andrew Haigh’s “45 Years,” Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s “Anomalisa,” Todd Haynes’ “Carol,” Rodrigo Garcia’s “Last Days in the Desert,” Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Lobster,” Justin Kurzel’s “Macbeth” and Werner Herzog’s “Queen of the Desert.” Johnson and Garcia are AFI graduates.

AFI has already announced a trio of world premieres for the Chinese — the opening night film, Angelina Pitt Jolie’s “By the Sea,” on Nov 5; the Will Smith drama “Concussion” on Nov. 10; and closing night film, Adam McKay’s “The Big Short” on Nov 12.

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