Raving Iran starts with a nighttime drive through the streets of Tehran. Walls and billboards everywhere are festooned with images of religious and political leaders. Our protagonists, Anoosh and Arash, are stopped by police, who search their car but find nothing. The two young men then laugh at having fooled the cops by concealing their gear. A title card then tells us that, due to dangerous situations much of the film has been shot on cellphones.
Welcome to Iran’s underground Electronic Dance Music scene. Anoosh and Arash are struggling twentysomething Deep House DJs who are living under a theocracy that has outlawed Western pop music. Their every action is illegal and carries the risk of arrest and imprisonment. To make music they have to deal with two equally dysfunctional layers of bullshit: the byzantine bureaucracy of the Islamic Republic and the labyrinthine network of the many citizens who flaunt its laws.
Director Susanne Regina Mueres presents us with a vision of a schizophrenic city. Anoosh and Arash make their music on a MacBook Pro. They organize raves on Facebook and communicate via facetime. Everyone has iPhones and selfie sticks. A music store sells Jackson guitars and Marshall amps for metalheads, despite the fact that all rock music is illegal. Fundamentalism meets high tech. Young people pay lip service Allah but their hearts and souls belong to Apple.
We navigate this Orwellian landscape as Anoosh and Arash scheme to realize their musical dreams but are stymied time after time. The young men plan a rave in the desert, seek out a printer for their CD cover, apply for permission to release their disk, and eventually seek a way out of Iran.
Their existence is an obstacle course. Anoosh has been beaten and arrested for his music and tries to avoid a repeat offence while pursuing their dreams. The pair has to bribe officials to look the other way as they take a caravan of youth to the middle of nowhere for a four day dance party. They visit one print shop after another looking for someone willing to risk creating packaging for music that has not been approved by the government, and talk to shop owners about selling their disc. No matter whom they encounter, the specter of government interference looms large.
The duo dreams big. The young men trawl the Web, looking for potential foreign music festivals and venues that will invite them to perform. They ponder submitting to SXSW, and consider an event in Switzerland. But when they read that 53% of Swiss citizens are against immigration, they joke it may not be the right place for them.
The most surreal moment of the film comes when the Anoosh and Arash visit the Office of Culture and Islamic Guidance to request permission to release their CD. As they submit to officials a raft of paperwork, the nonplussed employees outline the dos and don’ts of Iranian music. “Classical piano and traditional only,” quips a male worker. A young woman in a hijab outlines the various rules for packaging and performances: No English on covers or posters; no nudity; no female lead singers. These are only some of the rules. She explains that women are only permitted to sing on stage if wearing burqas and accompanied by males. Her deadpan delivery of rules is almost comedic. “Is your music political?” she asks. “If it is, they’ll hang you.”
Mailing a package out of Iran is also a potential landmine. A clerk at the post office explains the many ways that authorities can prevent mail from ever reaching its destination.
Ultimately, Anoosh and Arash’s desire to make music leads them question their capacity to stay rooted while continuing to playing cat and mouse with authorities. Their desire to escape Iran creates more complications and introduces them to more skullduggery and shady characters, but an opportunity from abroad provides a vector to possible personal and artistic freedom.
At 85 minutes, Raving Iran is as lean and tight as the dance music created by its protagonists. Like Deep House, it starts off simply by revealing the backbone of the story, and then building upon that foundation. We meet Anoosh and Arash right away, but we don’t know what they’re doing that could get them in trouble. We watch them wheel and deal and are charmed by them. We root for the duo because, despite their weariness and cleverness, they are not as worldly as they seem. They’re just a couple of kids who want to have fun despite an oppressive regime.
Perhaps the film can be summarized with the words of resignation expressed by one of the many stoic Iranians we meet in the film: “We are laughing at the Islamic Republic, but maybe it wants us to laugh at it.” Despite the very real struggle of its protagonists, Raving Iran is in many ways a black comedy of errors.
Raving Iran has its international premiere on Sunday May 1st at the Hotdocs Festival (4:15 PM at the Scotiabank Theatre 4) and plays again at TIFF Bell Lightbox on Tuesday, May 3rd and Saturday, May 7th). Full details at the HOTDOCS website.