Yair Dalal and Majid Shokor, who is the subject of the documentary by Marsha Emerman. Marsha Emerman and Majid Shokor. Photo: Andrew Harris
Farida Mohammed Ali performs at London’s Barbican Centre at a concert celebrating Iraqi music.
It’s hard to say what’s most remarkable about an Australian film winning best documentary at the 2015 Baghdad Film Festival.
Yes, the revelations in Melbourne filmmaker Marsha Emerman’s On the Banks of the Tigris are profound – for Iraqis at home and in diaspora, for the Jewish songwriters it reinstates in the nation’s cultural history, and for an anxious world looking always for signs of unity and reconciliation.
But from this distance, the casual TV victim might be forgiven for being amazed that such a thing as the Baghdad Film Festival exists in the first place. It claims to aspire to “a cinema for multiculturalism,” of all things, “with a focus on the values of freedom, democracy, human rights and justice.”
The third surprise, in turn, is that we should be surprised. Marsha Emerman is inclined to attribute that to our media’s relentless fascination with political division when the default position of humanity has, for centuries, been harmony.
“Surely people want peace,” says the American-born filmmaker, whose past work has documented triumphs of shared cultural identity in Australia, East Timor and the Philippines. “Throughout history, people have wanted to live in peace with each other and people are perfectly capable of living in peace with each other.
“I’m very excited that our film won the Best Documentary award in Baghdad. We think that’s a really helpful sign. People in Iraq came to see this film and appreciated the message in the film; appreciated the story, appreciated the themes that we’re addressing.”
On the Banks of the Tigris tells the story of a Melbourne Iraqi man, Majid Shokor, who discovers that the popular music of his childhood was largely written by Jewish musicians, long since banished physically and erased from the national consciousness.
Songs like the one that gives the film its title, all intoxicating Arabic swirls and passionate ululations, still bring a sparkle to eyes that have seen too much pain since his forced decade in the Iraqi army and subsequent escape from his homeland. The forgotten origins of these songs, often recorded by musicians of many faiths performing side by side, is “really very important,” Shokor decides in the film. “That should be told.”
His decision to follow the threads to Israel “was a challenge for him,” says Emerman, “mainly because he wasn’t sure what other people would think of that; people in his own community, people in other Arab communities.”
It’s sobering to see several faces pixilated in the film, not only in the Middle East but here in Melbourne. “We live in very tense times,” Emerman concedes. “But that’s all going on in the background. The film doesn’t want to focus on the politics because … that’s really all we ever see.”
Instead we see a story of shared joy and unification, as Shokor travels from Israel back to Baghdad and eventually to London to help stage a reunion concert for a packed house of Iraqis dispersed by various regimes over generations.
One senses that he speaks for many when he says, “Saddam’s brutal regime shattered my hopes in Iraq and forced me to flee, but my culture and love of Iraqi music have always stayed with me.
“For Iraqis living in exile, these songs express our loss and longing for our homeland.”
The story has obvious parallels. Buena Vista Social Club launched a renaissance for Cuban music in the late 1990s. At this year’s Melbourne Film Festival, New York filmmaker Andy Schocken’s Song of Lahore trod a similar path, as great Pakistani musicians emerged from cultural oblivion to reclaim their legacy.
The connections are not lost on Marsha Emerman. “I think music is absolutely one of the strongest expressions for people in resisting oppression, in expressing their emotions and in understanding through a common language,” she says.
“I mean, that’s what musicians all say: this is a language all people can speak to each other. People can unite through music. The divisions can drop away.”
The proof is in the places and audiences that have welcomed On the Banks of the Tigris, from the Montreal World Film Festival to the Global Film Festival in Florida to Arab Film Festivals in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Next week, the film will screen at the Jewish Film Festival in Sydney and Melbourne.
“That’s exactly what we wanted it to do,” the director says. “We wanted it to reach a lot of different audiences. [Violinist] Yair Dalal expresses that most clearly in our film when he says it doesn’t matter if you’re a Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Sunni, Shia… the music is the connection.”
On the Banks of the Tigris screens in Sydney on November 8 at 4.15pm with a Q&A hosted by author Joseph Wakim at Event Cinemas; in Melbourne on November 12 at 7pm with a Q&A hosted by author Arnold Zable, and November 15 at 3.45 pm at the Classic Cinema, Elsternwick.
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