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 covdders 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.

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.

While cogently outlining the obstacles the project faced and the political repercussions, the pic also excels in depicting all of its subjects’ passion for music — a passion that is remarkably similar across cultures. Aces in all respects, “No Land’s Song” benefits from the determined yet gentle onscreen presence of Sara, as well as her curious and talented collaborators, who are unafraid to express thoughts that many Westerners might be having.

The clean, sharp, atmospheric HD camerawork leads a strong production package. The energetic editing keeps things dynamic, as do the stirring songs and outstanding sound design. Sara, who has recently moved to L.A., told Vancouver audiences that her next project is to release a CD of music from the film.

Film Review: ‘No Land’s Song’

Reviewed at Vancouver Film Festival (Nonfiction Films), Oct. 3, 2015. (In Doc NYC.) Running time: <strong>91 MIN.</strong>  

  • Production: (Documentary — Germany-France) A Torero Film, Hanfgarn & Ufer, Chaz Prods. production, in association with Al Jazeera, with the support of Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg, MFG Filmforderung Baden-Wurttemberg, Kuratorium Junger Deutscher Film, CNC, SACEM, Institut Francais — Ministere des Affaires Etrangeres, TV5 Monde. (International sales: Illumina Films, Amsterdam.) Produced by Gunter Hanfgarn, Rouven Rech, Teresa Renn, Patrick Merkle, Anne Grange.
  • Crew: Directed, written by Ayat Najafi. Camera (color, HD), Kooyhar Kalari, Sarah Blum; editors, Julia Wiedwald, Schokofeh Kamiz; music, Sara Najafi, Parvin Namazi, Sebastien Hoog, Edward Perraud, Hossein Alizadeh, Elise Caron, Emel Mathlouthi; sound designer, Oliver Stahn.
  • With: Sara Najafi, Parvin Namazi, Sayeh Sodeyfi, Elise Caron, Jeanne Cherhal, Emel Mathlouthi, Edward Perraud, Maryam Tajhdeh, Ali Rahimi, Sebastien Hoog, Imed Alibi, Ali Kazemian, Chakad Fesharaki. (Farsi, French, English dialogue)
  • Music By: