German filmmaker Constanze Knoche follows three aspiring Palestinian schoolgirl singers preparing for singing competitions in Istanbul and beyond.
Most documentaries about Palestinian youth revolve around lives led in a state of frustrated confinement. Sad Songs of Happiness seems to defy that convention: the protagonists here are free to fly away (and back) to realize their ambitions, as they are filmed preparing for and participating in musical contests overseas. The film's paradoxical title, however, speaks volumes about the complex dynamics bubbling underneath the pre-adolescent singers' freedom of movement and will, as German director Constanze Knoche gently weaves the youngsters' (and their families') predicaments into the backdrop.
Knoche and his team are to be commended for subtlety in revealing the inherent gloom amid all the musical glee, thus providing the world with yet another dimension of the saga of generations of Palestinians living under threat. Its appearance in Hanoi marks the film's first festival stop after its October world premiere in Hamburg, and the film's (sadly) perennially topical theme and (happily) well-crafted storytelling should at least secure a run in the documentary-showcase circuit. Knoche's previous film, the fictional feature The Visitors, bowed at the Sao Paulo, Slamdance and Shanghai festivals.
For all her efforts, Knoche could count herself as fortunate in having centered her documentary around very engaging and vibrant individuals. Driving Sad Songs of Happiness is a group of Palestinian high-school students whose stunning voices have provided them with an opportunity to have a brief glimpse at the world out there, beyond their socially stifled lives at home in East Jerusalem. Defying media norms of always presenting Palestinians as one uniform, materially despondent mass, Knoche's subjects are part of a constrained Palestinian middle-class: they live comfortably, study well and have their musical talents nurtured by a kind, German teacher.
But the anguish is there, of hopes dashed and lives lost - in snippets of odd conversations, we learn of cases of the pessimism adults have with regards to their offspring's future, something stemming from very real instances of Palestinians being treated with brutality by the Israeli army. It's a kind of melancholy - soundtracked by whirring Israeli military helicopters above, and fuelled by glimpses of the wall cutting Jerusalem in half - which qualifies all the happiness erupting on screen, as Knoche follows her subjects in the run-up to, and then during their participation in, a musical competition in Istanbul.
Of the young contestants, Knoche's focus lies with seventh-graders Rita Tawil and Hiba Awad, budding sopranos whose vocal range defy their tender ages, and the slightly older Tamar Hadad, whose forte in smoky sounds of jazz reflects her doubts about life in adolescence. Under the aegis of their musical instructor Karl Kronthaler and their headmistress - who, in perhaps one of the film's more expositional segments, explain to the youngsters their citizenship status - the high-schoolers play, work, laugh and fret about their trip and their performances, their different personalities (and their relationship with the environment they are in). The proceedings are vividly captured by Kirsten Weingarten's camerawork and Kai Minierski's editing.
Just as all seems to be going well and their ventures to Turkey (and, later, beyond) are clicking into gear, dark clouds return. Politics do matter, it seems, and the trauma of life under occupation has left its mark on young minds. Sad Songs of Happiness provides yet another example - albeit from a different angle - of the tragedy unfolding in the Palestinian territories.