Finding a Voice: ‘No Land’s Song’ protests repression of female singers in Iran


Iranian clerics believe the solo voice of a female singer is so seductive that it should never be heard in public performance. In an unusual scene in Ayat Najafi’s documentary No Land’s Song, screening at this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York City, a religious scholar explains that the unaccompanied female vocalist would cause men to become sexually aroused. A musical crescendo soon muffles the cleric’s longueur—a sublime cinematic allegory for the quest that Ayat’s subject is embarked upon. No Land’s Song is about Sara Najafi, the filmmaker’s sister and an Iranian composer, who sets out to free the female voice.

The documentary opens, appropriately, with a song that is also an allegory, “Bird of Dawn,” about the plight of a caged nightingale. “I watched my sister as she fought her way through music school,” Najafi says, “because she wanted to do what no other woman had done.” Sara, who lives in Tehran (Najafi is based in Berlin), was the first woman in Iran to get a degree in musical composition. “When she decided to stage a concert with female soloists,” the filmmaker remarks, “I thought it would be a good subject for a documentary, especially because she first seeks permission from the Ministry.” That government agency, which Sara visits several times in the course of the film, and the one whose permit she needs for a public concert, is the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. All of her petitions are rejected.

Najafi is this year’s Nestor Almendros Award winner; a cash prize named for a founder of HRWFF, it honors filmmakers for their exceptional commitment to human rights. No Land’s Song is Najafi’s second feature-length documentary; his first, Football Under Cover (2008), co-directed with David Assmann, is about a historic soccer match between Iran’s national women’s team and an amateur German team. That documentary, like No Land’s Song, depicts the challenges of seeking permission from Iran’s government authorities. The two films also share another quality, that of overcoming cultural and linguistic differences. Sara invites traditional and modern-style female Iranian singers to participate in her concert, along with French and Tunisian vocalists. “This was also a strategy,” Najafi explains. “If we had all Iranian singers, and an Iranian band, the government could cancel at the last moment.”

Sara’s journey lasted for five years, right up to the last half of the documentary when the Ministry issues a permit with one non-negotiable caveat—that the women vocalists will be accompanied by one male singer. Just before rehearsals are to begin in Tehran, the French singers, Jeanne Cherhal and Elise Caron, and their musicians are denied Iranian work visas. Despite this, and warnings from their embassy, they decide to travel to the city on tourist visas. Then, during the final rehearsal, Sara gets called to the Ministry because Tunisian singer-songwriter Emel Mathlouthi—famous for her protest songs, popularized during the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia—posts a comment about the upcoming concert on her Facebook page. The authorities want to cancel the performance. “That is when Sara plays her card,” Najafi says. “As you point out, she uses the hospitality argument—that the French are our guests—but if you remember this is also right after President Hassan Rouhani took office. So, there is a political argument as well.”

No Land’s Song is a tribute to Qamar, an Iranian female vocalist from the 1920s who defied that era’s ban against solo performances. In archival footage, she sings a surprisingly risqué song. “Qamar would be arrested,” Najafi explains, “but then she would go right back to singing again when she was released.” At one point in the film, Sara finds inspiration in a visit to the abandoned theatre where Qamar performed. “I think we cannot wait for permission from the government for anything,” Najafi says. “What reason would they have to grant permits for events that are not allowed by the clerics? They want to keep things as they are.” The filmmaker says of his sister, who is 35 years old: “Sara represents a group of women of her generation who feel that nothing will change if they keep asking permission of the authorities.”

Najafi points to Jafar Panahi who continues to defy the ban imposed upon him, having made This Is Not a Film in 2011, Closed Curtain in 2013, and Taxi, which won the Golden Bear in Berlin this year. “He is making more films, in fact, every two years,” Najafi points out, “when before the ban it took him far more time to get script approvals and there was sometimes five years between movies.” While the filmmaker expresses optimism about the possibility of political change in Iran, No Land’s Song ends on an ambiguous note. “The government does not know what to do with this younger generation,” Najafi says, “and I mean that in a good way. But what will happen now? I’m not sure and Sara is not either. I want the audience to feel what you did at the end—uncertain.”

As the documentary unfolds, Sara makes several “costume” changes, and Najafi records each of them. She wears secular dress at home, and a head scarf outdoors, but changes into more conservative garb for her meetings with the cleric, and her visits to the ministry. She stores her hijab and dark cloak in her car. “I was trying to show the oppression of women by filming these changes,” Najafi says. “Filmmakers must find ways to express these things without being obvious.” The documentary ends as it began, with the popular, early-20th-century ballad “Bird of Dawn.”

Like the nightingale in the song, encumbered “with tied-up wings,” Sara Najafi nevertheless unleashes “the song of humanity’s freedom” through her work as a composer and an activist. Her quiet grace inspires the singers to stay the course through the bureaucratic machinations to which they are subject by Iranian authorities. Her indomitable spirit has profoundly affected her brother, too, an ex-pat who wavers between skepticism and hope when he speaks of the plight of Iranian women. “The female voice travels the world,” Ayat Najafi says, “but it has no home.”