Iranian Musicians Deserve Better than the 'Raving Iran' Documentary
It's unclear whether the film is a wilful misinterpretation or an unfortunate misunderstanding, but either way its message is problematic.
By now, you've probably seen or at least heard of film Raving Iran. If not, don't worry: that's what the rest of this article is for. As an Iranian who loves techno, I've had the trailer sent to me by at least 15 different friends. The documentary, directed by Susanne Regina Meures, follows two Iranian techno DJs – Arash Shadram and Anoosh Raki AKA Blade&Beard – as they try to follow their passion in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
As is probably obvious by now, this isn't easy. Iran's government is famously oppressive when it comes to public displays of 'western' music, with the nation's youth culture flourishing almost exclusively underground. To summarise: we are shown the young men DJing at private parties, throwing an illegal rave in the desert 1000 miles outside of Tehran, trying to get their music released via official channels and failing, being stopped by police, worrying about their future, and all the other stuff that comes with being a young person in Iran. Eventually, they are invited to play Street Parade – Europe's biggest techno festival with over a million attendees – in Switzerland, and must decide if they use this opportunity to seek asylum and leave Iran behind for a more "free" life in the West.
The hourlong documentary, filmed largely on mobile phones and in darkness for both safety and privacy reasons, has received rave reviews from the music press and, according to the director, from many Iranians themselves. In London alone, there have been screenings with panels and Q&A sessions at House of Vans, Rio Cinema and Village Underground, and it has been shown internationally at film festivals from Belgrade to Toronto. It is being lauded as a fascinating look at the electronic music scene in Iran, a country that for many is still shrouded in mystery and ignorance. Ultimately, that mystery and ignorance is what makes the documentary possible.
I had my misgivings about the documentary after seeing the trailer. "TWO DJS RISK SEVERE PUNISHMENT EVERY SINGLE DAY" we are told, "BECAUSE THEY FOLLOW THEIR PASSION". My eyes rolled back in my head. After years of complete silence and disinterest regarding Iran's music scene, it has recently become one of the music industry's favourite topics. It seems when it comes to discourse around Iran, the only thing that anyone wants to talk about is oppression and exile. I was wary of another piece of journalism about Iran with this angle, and my fears were justified upon watching the film itself. The documentary has been described as portraying "raving as resistance", a slogan that is not dissimilar to other annoying and often orientalist phrases that have been used to talk about Iran and its youth (ie: 'Behind the Veil'). At this point, it seems all press about Iran involves a portrayal of something as "resistance", whether that be dying your hair blonde or syncing up the transition between tracks in a thumping mix while keeping one fist-pumping arm up.
Meures decided to make the movie after happening upon a couple of lines describing techno parties in the Persian desert in an article. "I read it and I was like 'Wow – you have sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll under one of the most repressive regimes in the world'," she tells me, speaking over the phone from Germany. "I didn't want to make a film about techno parties, but I just knew that this aspect could or would probably lead me to something very interesting which hasn't been reported on."
A major criticism of mine upon seeing the film was that it was made by a white European woman, and employed a Western gaze throughout. To me it seemed there was little reason for a number of the scenarios we see in the film other than showing a Western viewer how weird and repressive Iran is. Mueres doesn't deny this when I put the point to her. "Absolutely, I think it was made for the Western gaze. I think it's very important that it's made for the Western gaze because otherwise people in the West wouldn't actually understand it. It wouldn't work if it was too cryptic or embedded in a culture and mentality which they don't really understand if they haven't been there. I don't think it's a wrong point of view, because this is how I've experienced Iran."
Although this is understandable, the end result appears to manipulate situations in order to make being a musician in Iran seem even harder than it already is. Although films like this might provide awareness for Western audiences with no experience or understanding of Iran, it leaves out the perspective of actual Iranians. A scene that stuck out for me was when Blade&Beard attempt to get a shopkeeper to stock their CD, an endeavour that is to absolutely no-one's surprise, unsuccessful. Mahdyar, an Iranian producer and pioneer in Iran's rap scene, remembers laughing as he watched the scene. "Who does that? There's internet in Iran, like most of the world – no one even buys legal CDs and going around trying to put out an illegal album called 'blade & beard' with English artwork in stores makes absolutely no sense for any Iranian with a bit of brains. You can't call this a documentary because no one in their right mind would take this approach in reality; the director is obviously faking this for the sake of an unaware Western audience". In this sense, although what the film portrays is 'real' on a basic level, it doesn't hold true on a wider level. Much like the rest of the world, most of Iran's music scene is on the internet and CDs are pretty much defunct. Even allowing for the fact that it was filmed in 2014, it is still unrealistic. The scene simply seems to reinforce the director's idea of Iran as a strange, oppressive place.
Perhaps the most glaring inaccuracy however was in the subtitles, which were often misleading at best and incorrect at worst. Mahdyar points to a scene in which the DJs are on a Skype call with an advisor for asylum seekers, looking to get some extra information about what kind of asylum they should be seeking and what their chances are. The advisor tells them: "it's not enough to say that you've been in demonstrations, you have to have serious fundamental issues with the regime" but the translation says "you don't have to participate in the demonstrations, it's enough to reject the regime". Those … don't mean the same thing. The original quote focuses more on the red tape that asylum seekers have to fight through to find safety while the translation leans more on "the regime". So Meures' approach actually distorts the image of many genuine asylum seekers, in a way that's gross. It might seem small, but the translations represent two entirely different realities.
These subtitles also leave little room for sarcasm, humour or nuance. Much of Iranian speech is rife with exaggerations that, while understood by a native speaker, do not translate well literally. Everything is taken at face value in the doc, painting an image of Iran that's far more dystopian than the reality. Again, Iran has problems; there is really no need to exaggerate them to create an interesting story. The reality for musicians is hard enough without this added layer of drama. This is most evident in a scene where a shopkeeper tells Blade&Beard that "they will be killed" if their music is political. This scene is presented as a shocking insight into Iran's authoritarian regime, whereas it is simply hyperbole. No-one has ever been killed in Iran for making music. Last year, rumours spread online about an Iranian metal band facing execution for "insulting Islamic sanctities". That turned out not to be true, though they were arrested.
Raving Iran, while presenting itself as a documentary, depicts a narrow narrative of life in Iran that's rooted in truth but seems to get lost in the director's own vision. A more realistic portrayal can actually be found in 2009's No-one Knows About Persian Cats, a semi-fictional film about the difficulty faced by musicians in Iran. The film – directed by Kurdish-Iranian Bahman Ghobadi – follows two young rock musicians as they form a band and prepare to leave Iran shortly after being released from prison, a plot not too far away from that of Raving Iran. But where the gaze in Raving Iran is othering, NOKAPC is more intimate and nuanced in its depiction of life as an Iranian musician. There are realistic scenes depicting busts for alcohol and foreign DVDs, illegal parties that are raided with fatal consequences, and heavy metal sessions in cattle barns, proving again that when the reality is so bizarre there is really no need for sensationalism when covering this topic.
Ash Koosha, an Iranian musician who starred in the film and now lives in London, also takes issue with Mueres's story. "To me Raving Iran is about either an uninformed or intentionally exploitative European director who is outsourcing her socio-political field to two DJs from the 'developing nation' of Iran," he tells me. "There is no doubt Iran is one of the most problematic and confused states in terms of civil rights and intellectual/political freedom, but to me it seems that she has used these DJs to project her European perspective. Cherry-picking a variety of caricatured clichés based on extant social and political failures in post-revolution Iran is exploitative and straight up meaningless to the narrative of this movie".
It's unclear whether the film is a wilful misinterpretation or an unfortunate misunderstanding, but either way the message it presents is problematic. When I ask whether Meures has any regrets about it now, she says no, "especially now that the film has been doing really well, which I'm very grateful about. Of course it could have been a different film but back then this is what I could do with what I had. I think the 'making of' of the film would have been even better, because it would have shown in a very humorous way the difficulties and would have maybe told even more about the circumstances of actually living in Iran and making a film in Iran." In my view, a documentary it definitely is not. Scenes showing illegal parties soundtracked by ~oriental house music~ fading into the call to prayer are trite.
For their part, Arash and Anoosh, the two DJs whose story Raving Iran follows, have spent the two years following the film's release in a refugee camp in Switzerland, and were recently denied entry into the UK. Enough about their story demonstrates the difficulties faced by Iranian youth with dreams at odds with the regime to remove the need for a sensationalist coating of hysteria. Showing, and not telling, is one of the major components of a music documentary that pulls its weight. And with Raving Iran, that's just not what you're left with.