Marsha Emerman, producer and director, On the Banks of the Tigris

That’s the power of cultural heritage. As one review of the film said, “songs don’t need suitcases to survive" ...

For most individuals, music is a near life-giving force – a unifying aspect of our culture that is almost integral to our daily life. It’s impossible to fathom the idea that the music we love could be censored, and its practitioners exiled, but that is exactly what happened in Iraq in the middle of the 20th century. In a period of post-World War Two fear, community tensions and a clash between Arab and Zionist nationalism caused a mass exodus and diaspora of Iraqi Jews, and during this period many famous composers and musicians were forced to give up the music that had grown and flourished unabated for three decades. On the Banks of the Tigris: The Hidden Story of Iraqi Music is a documentary that looks at this diaspora and its subsequent effects on Iraqi music, through the eyes of Iraqi ex-pat Majid Shokor. Majid linked up with documentary filmmaker Marsha Emerman to create the film, which follows Majid as he travels the globe, talking to the displaced composers and rediscovering the music of his childhood. On the Banks of the Tigris will premiere in Queensland on Sunday December 3. We caught up with Marsha Emerman to discuss the process of putting the film together and what she and Majid discovered about this forgotten part of history.

Take us back to the beginning of the conceptual process for On the Banks of the Tigris! What was it about this part of history and Majid’s story that engaged you personally?
The story of Iraqi music and its history was a new one for me, but the themes in the film have been part of my life for a long time. I’ve always been interested in music, cultural identity, and the role of music and culture in crossing boundaries to bring people together. Those interests are reflected in my previous films including “Children of the Crocodile” about East Timor.

As the history of the Iraqi diaspora and the fates of these musicians and their work were hidden, how did you first go about discovering the best avenues of investigation?
Majid and I were co-writers and researchers and we had complementary skills. Majid has Arabic language fluency and knowledge of Iraqi history and culture, and I had a lot of experience doing research for documentaries. So we worked together to find sources of archival footage and locate the people we wanted to interview in Australia, Israel, Iraq, the Netherlands and the UK.

How did the two of you go about tying together the separate conceptual threads of Majid’s own journey of discovery, the story of the exiled musicians and their works and the overall historical and cultural impact of the diaspora?
I think films are most interesting when they’re multi-layered, but it’s a challenge to bring different threads together. That happens in the editing process and I was lucky to work with the very talented editor Lucy Paplinska. Majid became the film’s central character and narrator, all of the interviewees had first-hand knowledge of Iraqi music, and most had been exiled, so we were able to tell the story in a very personal way.

For you personally, what was a discovery that impacted you most profoundly?
Majid and I were both very moved to meet the older Iraqi musicians in Australia and Israel who were still deeply attached to their culture and memories of Baghdad, despite being forced to leave more than 50 years earlier. Also, my appreciation of Iraqi music – especially the maqam style of singing that Farida performs so magnificently – has really developed through making the film.

What were some of the biggest challenges of putting together a project of this scope?
There were so many challenges, which is why it took ten years to complete. Filming in many different countries with different crews, changes to film technology, continuous instability and tensions in Iraq, finding funds, and maintaining our energy to keep going were just a few.

Through your time working on this documentary over the past decade, what are your observations on the cultural impact of these compositions and how they are appreciated in the Middle East today?
Despite Saddam’s attempt to suppress their origins, Iraqi songs composed in the 1930s-40s, including many by Iraqi-Jewish songwriter Saleh Al-Kuwaity, have endured and are still widely known and appreciated inside Iraq and in the diaspora. That’s the power of cultural heritage. As one review of the film said, “songs don’t need suitcases to survive.”

What do you hope Australian audiences take away from their viewing experience?
We hope audiences will be surprised, intrigued, and engaged by the people and stories in the film, that they’ll enjoy the music, and be emotionally moved. The film has a lot of humour and a lot of sadness, but overall it’s uplifting and optimistic. So we hope audiences will take away the sense that peace and reconciliation are always possible.

In your opinion, what is one of the most rewarding aspects of this project?
There were many rewards for me in making the film, especially developing a strong friendship with Majid and his family, and learning so much. The other big reward is seeing how audiences everywhere love the film, from Baghdad where it won the best documentary award to Australia. We hope it will win more hearts and minds when it screens at New Farm Cinema and encourage people to contact us through the film’s website or Facebook page.

On the Banks of the Tigris: The Hidden Story of Iraqi Music will have its Queensland premiere at New Farm Cinemas on Sunday December 3. The screening will also include a live music performance from Nawres Al-freh – a classical violin, joze and kamanche performer. To secure your spot, purchase your tickets here.


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