Monash University (Australia)
Susanne Regina Meures’ multi-award-winning 2016 documentary Raving Iran shows a year in the lives of Anoosh and Arash, aka Blade & Beard. At the time of filming, from September 2013 to August 2014, Blade & Beard were Tehran-based DJs, producers and dance party organisers, specialising in “dark and melodic techno” (Blade&Beard), with Fideles and Mind Against among their influences. Raving Iran follows Anoosh and Arash as they appear to navigate Iran’s unique bureaucratic system, seeking to release and distribute their album, and as they organise the next dance party and consider their future.
The film opens with Anoosh and Arash being pulled over by police as they drive through Tehran at night. The camera focuses on the city’s old murals, showing portraits of Iran-Iraq War heroes and Iran’s revolutionary leaders—rather than the many, arguably equally interesting, artistic murals in Tehran (see The Guardian 2015), or the city’s broad range of street art—before briefly showing Anoosh and Arash DJing at a private party. The first daytime scene features the sound of the call to prayer: a recurrent sound in the film. Anoosh and Arash make several phone calls to organise a dance party in the desert. As with many dance parties around the world, they face financial and legal challenges. While it is not illegal to travel and camp in the desert, there will be illegal activities at the party (again, like most dance parties), so Anoosh and Arash take precautions to avoid disturbing nearby rural residents and to be prepared for unexpected visits from the authorities. Finally, with all preparations made, the DJs and their friends set out on a party bus for the desert.
Until this point of the film, the soundtrack mainly features Ghazal Shakeri (her “Nu-inspired” remix of “Man o to” (“Me and you”), with lyrics adapted from Rumi), but as the bus reaches the desert, it shifts to the more pensive “Whisper”, by the neo-mystical Californian fusion group Axiom of Choice, featuring singer Mamak Khadem. This choice of song—one with little connection to Blade & Beard’s techno world—suggests an atmospheric shift from what Meures presents as a generally threatening governmental sphere to an implied positive “spirituality” (a word often used in association with Khadem’s work) at the desert party. Like dance-party-goers around the world, Anoosh and Arash talk of the connections and sense of community felt by people at parties in Iran, but the film gives little sense of this with its central focus of the government-created obstacles faced by musicians and DJs.
When Anoosh and Arash return to Tehran after the desert party, they head to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which issues—or denies—permits for musicians to perform in official venues or record and release music within the official government system. This visit is presumably made solely for the purposes of the film, to show viewers what Iran’s “Islamic” regulations are, as it is clear that Anoosh and Arash know that their work does not meet the Ministry’s requirements. Since the advent of the internet, it has become customary for artists to release music outside Iran, and to distribute it primarily in digital form. However, for the purposes of the film’s narrative, Anoosh and Arash ask Ministry staff about permits for their album. Unsurprisingly, they are told that their work is unlikely to be approved, so they proceed to look for someone willing to print their unauthorised CD covers. After several rejections, they eventually find a late-night printer willing to do the job. With the album completed and packed in its cover, the next step is to distribute it: again, Anoosh and Arash go to shops that they would know are unlikely to be interested, so that the film can continue its depiction of the extent of governmental restrictions on music and cultural life in Iran.
Disheartened, Anoosh and Arash discuss emigration, acknowledging that it is not easy to make music outside Iran either, but hoping they could at least “have a future” elsewhere. They consider the possibilities for Iranian musicians to emigrate, one of the most effective being through the acquisition of visas for North America or Europe, obtained by securing an invitation to a festival. While getting advice about seeking asylum, Anoosh and Arash maintain their hope for this festival option, looking at online images of Zurich’s Street Parade as they agree that “this is where we belong”. At the next filmed dance party, police turn up and arrest Anoosh, who spends a night in jail. Things look up, though, when he receives a call from the Rote Fabrik cultural centre in Switzerland with the news that Blade & Beard’s application to Lethargy/Street Parade in Zurich has been successful. Finally things seem to be moving ahead fairly quickly. After one final call to prayer over Tehran, Anoosh and Arash are at the airport.
It is at this point in the film that viewers with their own experience of migration, from Iran or other countries, have reported feeling particularly upset. In a film that is quite slowly paced, the scene at the airport—in which Anoosh and Arash farewell their family and friends, not knowing when or if they will see them again—is presented casually, and less than a minute in length. Electronic musician Rojin Sharafi explains why this brevity is especially upsetting: “I cried, actually, at the scene when they say a very short goodbye to their friends and family, but it wasn’t actually that deep, the whole thing was [skimmed over]—because I know how it feels [that moment of farewell], it was very traumatic for me, but I think for someone who didn’t really experience that, it’s like a very normal scene—so goodbye, bye!”
Like many other viewers, Sharafi is critical of the film’s unnuanced narrative of Anoosh and Arash’s supposed move from a state of constant restriction in Iran to one of “freedom” in Europe. “I had problems with the scenes in Iran, but not that much,” she reflects. “My problem began when they get to Europe . . . because I have this feeling it has two parts: one in Iran, where they are very exhausted and everything, and the second part in Europe and they’re living their dream . . . I have the feeling they have a lot of problems now. The film stops one or two weeks after they arrive in Europe”. Indeed, with its final scenes of a decision to “say yes” to Switzerland, the film’s narrative structure is similar to that of a romance. A more balanced documentary might have followed Anoosh and Arash’s life for a year in Switzerland, as they lived in shared housing for asylum seekers, hearing cowbells at night, and faced different forms of restriction on their music and other aspects of their lives.
“Two DJs negotiate their possibilities in complex and unfair bureaucratic and capitalist systems” is not as catchy as “Two DJs defy the Islamic regime” (Raving Iran). Meures has defended the approach taken in Raving Iran, in part justifying it with the film’s commercial success. However, some see that success as a symptom of a widespread problem in the ways Iran and other “non-Western” countries are portrayed in popular media around the world. As Tehran-based Siavash Amini puts it: “Right now people in this region are going through the roughest periods of their history and this is being exploited for journalistic and artistic exoticist quests. People trying to sell it as extra flavor to what they do disgusts me . . . The only reason we mentioned things like that . . . in the past was to raise awareness to how dangerous narrow and often conveniently concise media-friendly narratives or exotic flavors can be to people actually trying to do something they love while living here . . . Both nationalistic pride and exoticism in any form are part of the same idiotic bipolar system” (in Hignell-Tully 2019; see also Breyley 2018). In Europe and elsewhere, filmmakers, journalists and academics who have wanted to present more nuanced narratives that complicate notions of freedom and assumptions about where freedom exists have reported pressure from funding bodies, producers, editors and academic supervisors to simplify their work or fetishise their subjects, in some cases resulting in inaccuracies (Nooshin 2017; Javdani 2019). One musician who objected to the “clichéd” way a German radio station represented her as a female artist from Iran was told it would “sell more tickets”. Meanwhile, in Iran, for musicians and DJs who choose to live and work there (see Haidari 2019; Deep House Tehran; SET; iDJ's IRANIAN TOP 10), one of the greatest current obstacles is the economic sanctions imposed on the country by the United States (Temp-Illusion), along with misconceptions spread internationally by various media. Unfortunately, Raving Iran contributes more to those misconceptions than it does to an understanding of EDM in Iran.
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The Guardian. 2015. “The Toast of Tehran: Iran’s Superstar Street Artist — In Pictures”. 26 February. <http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2015/feb/26/the-toast-of-tehran-irans-superstar-street-artist-in-pictures> (accessed 2 October 2019).
 Rojin Sharafi, personal communication with the Author (Berlin), 20 September 2019.
 Personal communication with the author (Berlin), 20 September 2019.