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Preserving Cultural Identity Under Stress at The Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2015

By Nora Lee Mandel

The New York stop of The Human Rights Watch Film Festival, June 11 to 21, 2015, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the IFC Center, provided intense, close-up views of some of the worst problems people inflict on people in the United States and around the world. Four films this year documented cultural identity under stress and made a strong case that peoples’ survival must include cultural preservation: for women singers in Iran, storytellers in the Middle East, minority tribes in Sudan, and Palestinian nationalism.

No Land's Song
The Dream Of Shahrazad
Beats of the Antonov
This Is My Land

No Land's Song

Bahman Ghobadi’s Half Moon (2006) featured a striking scene of magic realism protest that imagined a village of women exiles banned from singing in Iran since the 1979 revolution who gather at dusk on the roofs to join their voices in song. Musician Sara Najafi was determined to bring the long tradition of women singing back to Iran in real life. For three years, her brother, director Ayat Najafi, followed her gutsy, patient, and clever path, as creative politically as artistically, to produce a concert, garnering the festival’s annual Nestor Almendros Award for courage in filmmaking.

As the first woman to get a diploma of composition in Iran who now teaches at the Music Conservatory of Teheran, Sara provides the historical background of a flowering of women singing there in the first half of the 20th century, with rare archival footage of the popular, groundbreaking singer Qamar ol-Molouk Vaziri. She first enlists Parvin Namazi, who tells of her solo singing career before the revolution, her exile with a European world music ensemble in the 1980’s, then return to study Kurdish folk music in the 1990’s—where her recordings are banned. Sara also wants to break the isolation of Iranian women singers, and a considerable time in the film is given over to rehearsals in France with three female singers from Paris and their male band mates working on her pieces. She also dares to include Emel Mathlouthi, a Tunisian singer whose song for freedom during the first protests of the Arab Spring she found on YouTube.

The fascinating heart of the film is back in Teheran where she finds a lovely concert hall that can only be used with the permission of the Ministry of Culture. Then she embarks on Orwellian negotiations with the Minister of Culture, who changes just about every month, with each religious bureaucrat demanding different conditions -- yes and no on males and females on stage and in the audience, yes and no on men singing louder than the women; yes and no on accompanists. Each argues contradictory theological explanations -- whether men or women would get more sexually aroused or what the Koran does or does not say. (They sound a lot like Orthodox rabbis on the same issue of women’s voices in prayer and song.). But unbeknownst to these petty censors is that she’s wired for sound, so even though no cameras are allowed at their meetings, and the screen goes blank, we can hear their conversations, like listening to gangsters’ wiretaps at a trial. (The film has not been shown in Iran and the director does not expect it will be.) Then there’s the last minute wrangling over the international musicians’ visas – whether tourist or working, whether they can perform or not, and they saw Mathlouthi’s controversial Facebook postings. The ever-wily Sara boxes the gatekeepers into a corner by claiming this will insult the French government. By the climax, the standing ovations at the marvelous SRO concert September 19, 2013 is not just for the 13 performers sharing their cultures on the stage that evening, with traditional Persian and Western instruments and vocalizations, but the victory for completing the maze.

The Dream Of Shahrazad

Music and stories can unite themes of hope and empathy across the Middle East, here through the shared heritage of 1,001 Arabian Nights, where the princess’s nightly tales to the sultan saved lives. Organized around (pompous but politically concerned) Turkish conductor Cem Mansur’s educational rehearsals with a youth orchestra and their performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade (1888), montages of centuries of multi-media images of the classic (from paintings and drawings to shadow puppets and silent film clips) flow by with each of the suite’s movements. South African director Francois Verster then follows other artists inspired by the legend. An older muralist has painted the storyteller for years, but is now concerned how Islamic fundamentalists will censor his large-scale work. In an updated version, a young Lebanese actress feels empowered by posting accounts of the Arab Spring on social media to a growing audience.

In the most moving extension of the metaphor, the power of storytelling demonstrates how to cross barriers of class, religion, and politics. As footage of the thwarted Egyptian revolution plays out, Hassan el Geretly, director of the El Warsha Theatre Troupe, comes from Alexandria to explore with secular musical and theater artists in Cairo how to grapple with what to do next. After sharing songs and poems of peace, they suggest she pay a condolence call on a grieving mother of a young Muslim Brotherhood member killed by police. Hesitant at first with an anguished woman swathed in a hijab, she gradually bonds by their same age, and she absorbs her accent, manner, biography, and tears. By the time she embodies the mother on stage (in the style of Anna Deavere Smith’s pieces), the beaming mother is thrilled at this memorial to her son that will keep alive his memory and the injustice he suffered. The legacy of Shahrazad lives on.

Beats of the Antonov

Songs are an essential building block of culture, as oral history, for peers, as lifecycle ritual passed on from parents to children, and, shared experiences separate from other groups. In war-torn Sudan, the many documentaries, such as Annie Sundberg & Ricki Stern’s The Devil Came On Horseback (2007) and Theodore Braun’s Darfur Now (2007), have focused on the genocide and brutality the refugees have suffered. While the opening of this hour-long documentary sets the same context, with bombers (Antonovs are Soviet planes) strafing a bare displaced persons camp, Sudanese director hajooj kuka, familiar with the different tribes from reporting in this region between the Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains since 2003, listens to their songs.

Sudanese-American musician/musicologist guide Sarah “Alsarah” Mohamed helps differentiate between elders’ traditional tunes and “girls’ music” - pop songs adapted by teenagers about universal adolescent concerns. They closely watch as the music takes the refugees’ spirits far from their barren environs and moves them to rhythmically clap and dance to traditional instruments adapted from objects they could scrounge around the camps, like the stringed rababa and a variety of percussion. Music certainly helps to break up the boredom, and weddings are opportunities for joyous singing and dancing here, too. In an epilogue, a guerrilla leader of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), in fatigues, interprets the political context of how the continuing civil war is driven to divide four-year-old South Sudan even further by ethnicity and race, Arab Muslims vs. those “pagans” following tribal religions. Despite disjointed editing and frustratingly minimal subtitled lyrics, the pride of culture to bolster people’s sense of humanity and identity comes through loud and clear. (Winner of the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival Grolsch People's Choice Award for Best Documentary) (Airing on PBS in August 2015.)

This Is My Land

French-Israeli director Tamara Erde set an ambitious agenda for her (uneven and sometimes confusing) documentary feature debut: to follow history classes over the full academic year in six diverse schools in Israel, the disputed occupied territories in the West Bank, and in Palestine, to see how the future generation are taught to perceive their same patch of land. The Orthodox school in an occupied West Bank settlement is always the clearest to pick out, with the students’ and teachers’ distinctive dress and religious perspective. In Palestine are a boys’ school in a refugee camp in Nablus and an elementary school in Ramallah, whose teacher puts on anti-Israel and pro-martyr propaganda displays for the camera.

In addition to a stuck-in supplement of a Galilee intercultural learning high school’s Zionist-oriented trip to Auschwitz, within Israel proper what can be seen distinguishing an independent secular school in Haifa from an integrated elementary school, between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, is that the latter is team-taught by a quiet Israeli Jewish man and a charismatic Israeli Arab woman whose increasing frustration with the Education Ministry’s required Zionist curriculum takes up more and more screen time. (A lot of her discomfort at being a Muslim within a calendar marked by Jewish and Israeli holidays was already seen in a similar profile, Dove’s Cry, shown at the 2013 Other Israel Film Festival, and in Sayed Kashua’s semi-autobiographical script in the new A Borrowed Identity (Dancing Arabs).) The climax is a showing of American animator Nina Paley’s short film This Land Is Mine that amusingly illustrates millennia of Middle East military confrontations, and the bitter Israeli-Arab teacher lets loose with an unchallenged anti-Israel conclusion. The documentary effectively demonstrates the impact of such a passionate teacher on young students’ formative attitudes.

June 18, 2015

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Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:

Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

Since August 2006, edited versions of most of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward and, since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

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