Sara Najafi (centre-right) organises a controversial concert in Iran.
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When singing is a revolutionary act: the women challenging Iran's fear of female creativity

No Land's Song, a new documentary by Ayat Najafi, follows her sister Sara's fight to put on a revolutionary concert. 

“How can we sing without the colour of the female voice?” This is the question at the heart of No Land’s Song, a new documentary by the Iranian director Ayat Najafi.

The film follows the director’s sister, Sara Najafi, a singer and composer who is attempting to host a concert of female singers in Tehran. Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, solo performances by women have been banned. Women can appear as backing singers but never on their own. In the hope of changing the law, Sara gathers a group of musicians from Paris and Tehran, only to be drawn into negotiations with Iran’s ministry of culture and Islamic guidance.

The sanctions on female creativity are so harsh that it is a wonder that Sara, a woman born after 1979, became a musician at all.

“Limitations can, in a way, be a source of creativity,” she says.  One is reminded of a shot in which Sara stuffs a Dictaphone into her hijab so that she can tape her conversation at the ministry. And yet, there is a long-standing culture of resistance in Iran. We see Sara singing and talking about music with friends, one of whom, Sayeh Sodeyfi, laughs at the absurdity of her position as a music teacher who must pretend that she teaches theoretically – without ever singing in front of pupils at her school. “If your uvula shakes like this, you’re singing correctly,” she jokes.

An older singer, Parvin Namazi, remembers when, as a child, she sang on Iranian television. The conversation returns again and again to the female singers who flourished in Iran before the revolution and one in particular, Qamar ol-Molouk Vaziri.

“Qamar was the person who first brought the female voice into the public arena,” Ayat explains.

When Sara and Parvin visit the site of Vaziri’s first public performance, which took place at the Tehran Grand Hotel in 1924, they are visibly moved by the experience.

Opposition to the ban isn’t exclusive to frustrated female singers in Iran. “My family always motivated and encouraged me,” Sara tells me.

At which point, her brother, Ayat, says, “There is something important that we need to address and that is that the majority of people in Iran do listen to the female voice. They don’t really care what the system says. They buy cassettes and albums on the black market, or watch [music videos] online or go to private concerts.” The film carefully unpicks the contradictions inherent in a society forced to denounce publicly the female creativity it privately consumes. Even the men interviewed in cafés and music shops in the film refer to “their system” – not “ours” – when speaking about the ban.

“Nothing changes when you host a private concert,” Ayat continues. “We wanted to use this to challenge that.”

An excerpt from the documentary, courtesy of the Gijon film festival.

When Sara meets Abdolnabi Jafarian, a religious scholar who attempts to offer her a theological explanation for the prohibition, she is told: “If you eat a simple cheese, that’s fine. But if you add more and more ingredients, the joy begins to harm you.”

“How is that connected to singing?” Sara replies.

“How can putting [the concert] on be considered a revolutionary act if you need to get permission from the government?” Sara is asked by Emel Mathlouthi, a Tunisian singer who agrees to take part. “When you get the government to agree with you [rather than staging it in secret], you are making a political statement: the regime has been publicly challenged,” Sara tells me.

As Sara makes her case at the ministry of culture, Ayat’s film shows nothing but a black screen. She comes close to failure, deciding to cancel the performance rather than proceed with the limitations imposed on it by the state. But the fear of criticism from abroad, amplified by the presence of French guests, forces the ministry’s hand and it ultimately gives her full control of the project.

When the long-awaited concert finally takes place, it is at once triumphant and a little sad. Earlier, Sodeyfi had complimented Sara’s music for its tonal depth, the qualities of “spring” and “winter” it contains: “Spring revives many things but it cannot make you forget everything.”

The performers in Tehran revel in the opportunity to sing but have been marked by the long silence. Asked if, after the concert, she is hopeful for the future of creative women in Iran, Sara replies: “No, not at all. There has been no positive change. In fact, things are getting worse.”

“What you need is hope,” says Ayat. “Unfortunately, there is little hope. With this movie, what I wanted to show was just, let’s say, the dream
of hope. The power of music is stronger than the power of their stupid systems.”

“No Land’s Song” screens at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London, 20-22 March

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, British politics is broken

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Man alive! Why the flaws of Inside No 9 only emphasise its brilliance

A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking.​ ​Even as my brain raced, I was grinning.

At the risk of sounding like some awful, jargon-bound media studies lecturer – precisely the kind of person those I’m writing about might devote themselves to sending up – it seems to me that even the dissatisfactions of Inside No 9 (Tuesdays, 10pm) are, well, deeply satisfying. What I mean is that the occasional flaws in Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s cultish series, those unlooked-for moments when nothing quite makes sense, only serve to emphasise its surpassing brilliance.

At the end of the final episode of series three, for instance, there came a discombobulating twist. A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking. How had this happened? Were the preceding 28 minutes only a dream? Even as my brain raced, I was grinning. That line about Ron Mueck! In a piece that seemed mostly to be paying topsy-turvy homage to the camp 1973 horror flick Theatre of Blood.

Pemberton and Shearsmith are all about homage: a bit of Doctor Who here, a touch of Seventies B-movie there. Inside No 9’s format of twisty one-offs is a direct descendant of ITV’s Tales of the Unexpected. And yet it is so absolutely its own thing. Only they could have written it; only they could ever do this much (stretch your arms as wide as they’ll go) in so little time (half an hour).

In the episode Private View, guests were invited to the Nine Gallery in somewhere Hoxtonish. This motley crew, handpicked to represent several of the more unedifying aspects of 21st-century Britain, comprised Carrie (Morgana Robinson), a reality-TV star; Patricia (Felicity Kendal), a smutty novelist; Kenneth (Pemberton), a health and safety nut; and Maurice (Shearsmith), an art critic. Hard on their heels came Jean (Fiona Shaw), a wittering Irishwoman with gimlet eyes. However, given that they were about to be bloodily picked off one by one, at least one of them was not what she seemed. “I’m due at Edwina Currie’s perfume launch later,” Carrie yelped, as it dawned on her that the pages of Grazia might soon be devoting a sidebar to what Towie’s Mark Wright wore to her funeral.

Private View satirised a certain kind of contemporary art, all bashed up mannequins and blindingly obvious metaphors. Admittedly, this isn’t hard to do. But at least Pemberton and Shearsmith take for granted the sophistication of their audience. “A bit derivative of Ron Mueck,” said Maurice, gazing coolly at one of the installations. “But I like the idea of a blood mirror.” The duo’s determination to transform themselves from episode to episode – new accent, new hair, new crazy mannerisms – calls Dick Emery to mind. They’re better actors than he was, of course; they’re fantastic actors. But in the context of Inside No 9, even as they disappear, they stick out like sore thumbs, just as he used to. They’re the suns around which their impressive guest stars orbit. They may not always have the biggest parts, but they nearly always get the best lines. You need to watch them. For clues. For signs. For the beady, unsettling way they reflect the world back at you.

What astonishes about this series, as with the two before it, is its ability to manage dramatic shifts in tone. Plotting is one thing, and they do that as beautifully as Roald Dahl (the third episode, The Riddle of the Sphinx, which revolved around a crossword setter, was a masterclass in structure). But to move from funny to plangent and back again is some trick, given the limitations of time and the confined spaces in which they set the stories. In Diddle Diddle Dumpling, Shearsmith’s character found a size-nine shoe in the street and became obsessed with finding its owner, which was very droll. But the real engine of the piece, slowly revealed, was grief, not madness (“Diddle-diddle-dumpling, my son John”). You felt, in the end, bad for having sniggered at him.

If you missed it, proceed immediately to iPlayer, offering a thousand thanks for the usually lumbering and risk-averse BBC, which has commissioned a fourth series. One day people will write learned papers about these shows, at which point, jargon permitting, I might discover just how Maurice managed to live to fight another day.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution