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The Iranian DJ duo who risked their lives to party

The documentary Raving Iran charts the story of Blade&Beard, two young house producers who fled to Switzerland from the repressive rule of their country’s morality police

While dance music denizens have every right to be outraged about a borough council shutting down London’s iconic Fabric (though ICYMI, it will reopen) and a draconian ban on synths and Kraftwerk(!) in Buenos Aires, they’re minor setbacks compared to what Iranian BPM buffs face every day for getting lost in the music. In a country where 30 college students were recently arrested and promptly administered 99 lashes each for “dancing and jubilating” and where six youths were sentenced to 91 lashes for the criminal offence of a YouTube sing-along to Pharrell’s “Happy” (thankfully suspended following the #FreeHappyIranians social media campaign), you can imagine throwing mixed-gender electronic parties in the Iranian desert is a bold act of political defiance. 

In the eye-opening Raving Iran, German documentary maker Susanne Regina Meures travels to Tehran and devises a number of seriously stealthy strategies to tell the story of Anoosh and Arash (aka Blade&Beard), an affable deep house duo who live under the constant threat of checkpoints, party snitches and jail time due to Iran’s repressive morality police. After Anoosh spends a few nights behind bars, they apply and are invited to Zurich’s Street Parade festival, where they play before European revelers for the first time while contemplating the possibility of political asylum. On the heels of the film’s recent screening at Montréal’s RIDM festival, we spoke to the director and protagonists about the young generation of Iranians torn between East and West, carrying on with their haram (i.e. forbidden by Islamic law) dancefloor emancipation while hoping their government eventually faces the music.

BEAT HEADS BOPPING IN THE SHADOWS

After reading a news brief about young Iranians throwing techno parties in the desert, Meures yearned to know more. Who were these middle-class kids circumventing government censors and internet filters to feast on the latest Western techno bangers supplied by Beatport? “I kind of infiltrated the scene via Facebook,” explains Meures. “I got in touch with loads of young people in Tehran. I flew there and met about 40 of them, including Anoosh and Arash. I wouldn’t call it a community; everyone’s just doing their own parties and inviting their circle of friends. A lot of them were really interested in the project, but for very obvious reasons, were scared to participate, which I completely understood.”

Luckily, she found willing research participants in Anoosh and Arash. “The first time we were exposed to electronic sounds was ten years ago, when an American friend of ours who always has interesting underground music tastes brought us a CD of Sasha and Digweed playing on Kiss FM radio,” Arash tells me via an interpreter when I reach them in Frankfurt. “That touched us tremendously and changed our way of listening to music. From then on, we wanted to throw parties in Tehran to share the music we loved with our friends.”

“The first time we were exposed to electronic sounds was ten years ago... From then on, we wanted to throw parties in Tehran to share the music we loved with our friends” – Arash, Blade&Beard

NO FREEDOM TO CHOOSE

On a superficial level, you might wonder how these young Iranians’ lives are any different from their Western peers. Raving Iran’s protagonists wear caps that bear the Red Bull logo, sport tattoos and soundtrack their underground, mixed-gender parties to the latest in thumping rhythms. But it all happens behind closed doors, shielded from those ready to blow the whistle on their haram antics.

“It’s easy to land in Tehran and wonder what the young people are complaining about, as they find ways to have fun as well,” says Meures. “But I came to understand it’s not just that we (in the West) don’t live under repressive regimes; I think our key freedom is that we always have the ability to compare lifestyles, which Iranians don’t because of the political situation. It is very hard for young people, unless they have loads of money, to obtain a visa. Even just to go to London for a week. By not being able to leave the country and compare realities, to experience daily life in the West, you start to glorify the ‘Other’. It becomes a blank canvas for a lot of projections, which is quite dangerous. Reality is always a touch more gritty and less pristine than what we make it out to be.”

THE CLANDESTINE SHOOT, AND WHAT IT SAYS ABOUT IRAN

Meures will be the first to say that a making-of doc about her experience shooting Raving Iran would have “definitely been the better film.” While her film makes for fascinating viewing in its own right, the many trials and tribulations she endured over the course of this project speak volumes about the everyday repression and fear Iranians must contend with. For Meures, that meant, amongst other things, hiding memory cards in her bra and getting students to smuggle hard drives full of footage to Europe and back. “Trying to get into the country on a tourist visa over and over again,” adds the filmmaker when I ask about production hurdles. “Trying to smuggle equipment into the country, developing very complex techniques to shoot with a hidden camera, getting a shirt made at a bazaar to fit my iPhone, training my protagonists to use it so I would be able to capture footage… Everything was really complicated.”

Meures includes a caption in the film to thank all the strangers who graciously welcomed her into their homes, offering her safe shelter on their living room floors and putting themselves at considerable risk in the process. She understood just how much of a liability she was to potential hosts when she reached out to a Protestant church in Tehran. “After two nights sleeping there, they felt quite uncomfortable and asked me to leave, because they said the secret service was always at their front door. I could see that everyone was frightened and suspicious, almost to the point of paranoia.”

“(Dancing) becomes a way for all these groups to create their own utopias – a way of escaping to a place where everything is possible” – Susanne Regina Meures, director of Raving Iran

WHY PARTYING THERE IS POLITICAL

In speaking with Anoosh and Arash, they make it clear that they don’t quite regard their predicament to be political, but rather cultural in nature. “To them, there’s nothing political about throwing parties,” explains Meures. “It’s not an act of rebellion. They just do it because it’s their idea of freedom – they want to live like everyone else in the world. But of course, if you do it in this kind of context, it becomes political.” When the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance inspects packages you mail out for “illegal content”, when you’re routinely stopped by police at checkpoints (as speakers and crates of vinyl remain tucked away in the trunk of your car) and when no shop accepts to print your party flyers because you spin indecent electronic sounds, your plight becomes de facto political.

Electronic music has a long history of empowering the oppressed and the disenfranchised (African-Americans and LGBT people’s embrace of house comes to mind) as well as making people come together (think of techno building bridges in a newly reunified Berlin). So I ask Meures whether she believes this latest Iranian electronic iteration also fits into the paradigm. “Not exactly. But if you compare all these dance-related emancipation movements to how Iranian teens embrace dance, one thing that’s definitely similar is that it becomes a way for all these groups to create their own utopias – a way of escaping to a place where everything is possible. Inherently, that’s political rebellion. It’s escapism from the constraints and limitations of everyday life.”

UPDATING THE MEDIA NARRATIVE ABOUT IRAN

In making the documentary, Meures’ main motivation was to give a voice to a young generation we know so little about. “The media always portrays Iranians the same way – as a country dominated by bearded Mullahs and very traditional, chador-clad women,” she argues. “We’re fed a very one-sided perspective in the West. We already know it’s a very repressive regime. But by bringing to light that Iranian society is actually quite diverse, that the population is actually doing what it can to live a free life, we can begin to weaken this carefully manufactured image of the totalitarian regime. Because that’s exactly how it wants us to perceive them – that only gives them more power and generates more fear within the population.” 

Arash and Anoosh embody something slightly shocking and subversive in the eyes of their country’s ruling regime: a new generation of educated, middle-class Iranian youths who are torn between West and East, unable to experience what the world has to offer and yet seeking out alternative avenues to live out their personal and creative freedoms. About their Blade&Beard moniker, Anoosh tells me: “Most Iranian men who work for the government have a beard. When you don’t have one and you apply at a company, some employers will assume you have a Western attitude. It can be quite complicated. So the name was our way of being explicit that we do things differently, that our attitude is not the same as our government’s.”

“By bringing to light that Iranian society is actually quite diverse, that the population is actually doing what it can to live a free life, we can begin to weaken this carefully manufactured image of the totalitarian regime” – Susanne Regina Meures, director of Raving Iran

FROM REFUGEES TO RECORDING ARTISTS

Raving Iran finds Blade&Beard torn between staying in Switzerland or returning home. Hearing a mother utter the words “we don’t want you to come back – live your life, son” really drives home just how unbearable the rule of Iran’s morality police must be. So how are Arash and Anoosh doing, nearly two years after landing on European soil? For one, they recently obtained their work permits after more than a year spent in a refugee camp high up in the Swiss mountains.

“That was a difficult time,” recalls Arash. “We just left Iran because we wanted to make music. There was no war going on in our country, we didn’t have any money or work problems. But we learned a lot from people we met in the camp – people from Eritrea, Syria, Somalia, and Afghanistan. Now, we’re happy because we can do what we’ve always wanted. We’re learning German in Zurich, we’re playing gigs, we have a booker in Berlin, and we have projects for the future, like starting our own label. It’s just much easier here. There’s freedom, and we can play what we want without fear.”

Blade&Beard’s European tour continues on December 14 at Rashomon, Rome