In music, escape: Palestinian schoolgirl singers seek acclaim in ‘Sad Songs of Happiness’

April 12, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
April 12, 2015

Constanze Knoche’s 2014 documentary, Sad Songs of Happiness, chronicles the journey of a handful of Palestinian girls and their singing instructor as they participate in a European music competition.

The story here is told simply and clearly. A few interviews with the three most prominent girls, Rita, Hiba and Tamar, are sprinkled throughout, but mostly we see the youngsters working with their teacher, attending school, talking with their families and, over the last third or so, taking part in the contest.

Nearly all of the dialogue is spoken in Arabic or German: Music teacher Karl Kronthaler is (presumably) German, his students are earning German high school diplomas at Schmidt’s Girls College in Jerusalem, and the international competition involves a network of German-language schools that mostly seem to be located in Europe. Some of the movie’s contestants advance to the final round of the competition in an unnamed German city. (I assume that city was Munich, where the institute that sponsors the Jugend Musiziert or Youth Makes Music competition is based, but I’m not sure.)

The movie is essentially apolitical, but the tension inherent in the Palestinian identity is impossible to avoid. Hiba’s father discusses the death of a friend who was evidently shot without cause and then casually predicts that Israelis will eventually arrest everyone in the neighborhood: “There’ll be no one left in Isawaia when they’re done.”

Before the trip, a school chaperone firmly reminds the contestants, who hold Jordanian passports, that they’re Palestinian, but says that they don’t want to have to answer too many questions while abroad. When one of the girls accompanies her father to his workplace, he says that during her infancy, the massive wall that now divides Jerusalem, separating their home from his carpentry workshop, did not yet exist. In another scene, Hiba calls to say that she can’t come to a lesson because of fighting near her house. An alarmed Kronthaler instructs her to go back home and stay safe.

Still, for the most part, the kids mostly seem like normal kids — they’re playful, proud, shy, bored and anxious as the situation dictates. And yet, at the movie’s start, when one of the girls says that singing takes her away from all her problems, the statement has an added poignancy.

Gender issues appear in Sad Songs of Happiness much as issues of politics, systemic oppression and national identity do: inevitably. Tamar’s mother notes that male Palestinian singers are extremely rare; female Palestinian singers, as common as unicorns. Tamar’s father gently chides his wife, saying that the teenager can accomplish anything she works toward, but concludes by saying that it’s also important for his daughter to study something practical.

Tamar, who’s about 15, hopes to be a successful professional singer by the time she turns 25 but acknowledges that this may be a pipe dream. After saying that it’s impossible to balance career and family, she states that she doesn’t want to have children — and then immediately reverses herself. (An added layer of irony here is that Tamar’s featured song, “Bring on the Men” from the Jekyll & Hyde musical, is a libertine’s anthem.)

The real stars of the film are 12-year-old best friends Hiba and Rita, who frequently hold hands. It’s nearly impossible not to smile when, as they perform in competition, each girl’s hand stretches toward the other’s without quite touching. Rita in particular draws the eye because of her inner glow and mannerisms, which resemble a diva’s.

One reason I enjoyed Sad Songs of Happiness is that while it’s not overly pessimistic about the circumstances of the singers, neither is it naïvely optimistic about their chances of persevering. One key sequence involves the meltdown of one Schmidt’s singer, who believes that other competitors received more generous scoring despite inferior performances; she vows never to sing again. Whether or not her allegation is correct — it’s impossible to say for sure — the anger passes, and laughter and smiles return. Without diminishing the child’s sense of grievance, Sad Songs of Happiness assures us that she’ll bounce back.

It’s an inspiring lesson, and yet not at all a mawkish one, because the movie never suggests that Rita, Hiba and Tamar can ever completely escape the specter of violence and death. In this way, Sad Songs of Happiness seems to be a strikingly authentic movie.

Author’s note: Please see the latter part of this post for details about my attendance at the 2015 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, which is due to a generous gift from a friend. Also, although I always strive for accuracy, I did not take notes during 2015 festival screenings. I apologize in advance if I’ve muffed any dialogue, names or other details in my write-ups. MEM

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