Music and film in the Middle East

Santuri (Dariush Mehrjui)
By Leili S Mohammadi

A new film festival focusing on music in Middle Eastern cinema – from music documentaries and ethnographic film to soundtrack composition – launched in May with a week of screenings and discussions. Organiser Leili Sreberny-Mohammadi tells us about some of the highlights.

For one week in May 2011 the Festival of Music in Middle Eastern Cinema brought together an eclectic range of documentary and feature films for screenings in London. All of the films had music at their central core, either focusing on the rich musical heritage of the region or burgeoning new musical scenes. The project was conceived by Dr Laudan Nooshin, an ethnomusicologist based at City University, and was supported by the London Centre for Arts and Cultural Exchange. Together we programmed a fascinating week of events.

The festival kicked off with The Band's Visit at The Tricycle Theatre. The film, both comic and poignant in equal measure, is about an Egyptian police band travelling to Israel to play at an Arab arts centre. The band get into all kinds of trouble along the way and eventually find themselves lost in the wrong town.

The following day The Music Man/Santuri, directed by Dariush Mehrjui, enjoyed its UK premiere. The film highlights the social and political barriers musicians in Iran face today through the story of Ali and Hanieh, a young couple united by their love of music. Ali, who has already been disowned by his religious family because of this very love, slowly becomes embroiled in a desperate drug addiction. His marriage and musical career unravel around him, until eventually his wealthy father sponsors his stay in a rehabilitation centre, where Ali uses his expertise in the santour to engage with the other patients.

With twelve free screenings held at the School of Oriental and African Studies in central London, documentary films made up the bulk of the programme. Many of the films had not had prior outings in the UK, so throughout the two days a mixed audience streamed in, with many staying for the whole run of films. The films encapsulated a broad range of topics from various countries in the region including the story of Istanbul's contemporary music scene, dynamic young musicians in the gulf region, and the life story of legendary Egyptian singer Um Kulthum. One film that stood out was Breaking the Silence, a film which sees Songlines magazine editor Simon Broughton visit Afghanistan soon after the beginning of the war in 2001. He visits a variety of musicians to discover the ways in which music had slowly been reintroduced into public life since the fall of the Taliban.

In Back Vocal, highly acclaimed Iranian documentary maker Mojtaba Mirtahmas explores the rules and regulations that prevent women in Iran from singing solo in public. Mirtahmasb is introduced to a number of key-players in Iran’s contemporary music scene who explain the opportunities women have to perform and the dexterous ways in which they avoid censors. It is a bleak picture that ultimately reveals how a number of beautiful female voices are strangled by the current laws. You can read more about Mojtaba Mirtahmasb's most recent project here.

Slingshot Hip Hop is a powerful film which explores the growing rap music scene in Israel and Palestine. The film charts the successes of a variety of different performers, residing in the West Bank, the Gaza strip and in Arab enclaves inside Israel. While all of the artists are united by one goal – to use hip-hop as a form of resistance – they are unable to actually meet because of the travel restrictions placed on Palestinians.

Alongside the film screenings, a two-day conference held at the Institute for Musical Research united filmmakers, composers, academics and students all interested in film music in the Middle East. Professor Kamran Rastegar (Assistant Professor, Arabic Programme, Tufts University), discussed composition for Palestinian film while Professor John Baily (Emeritus Professor of Ethnomusicology, Goldsmiths), took a look back at his thirty years of ethnographic film production in Afghanistan. His catalogue of ethnographic films can be viewed here.

One audience member commented that the festival had been “one of the best windows into world cultures of any film festival in London today." Let's hope it returns.


Leili S Mohammadi is an independent writer and researcher based in London.


Sound and Music|3rd Floor, South Wing, Somerset House, London WC2R 1LA|Tel +44 (0)20 7759 1800||Registered Charity: 1124609|VAT Reg No: 937 5533 96 

Designed by Fitzroy & Finn|Built by Platform3|Copyright © Sound and Music 2016