Forgotten origins of Iraqi music celebrated in award-winning documentary

The Sidney Morning Herald
Fri, Oct 30, 2015

by Michael Dwyer

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.”

To read the full piece from The Sidney Morning Herald, click here.