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Forbidden to See Us Scream in Tehran 2

This poignant short film makes noise of women musicians’ silencing in Iran

Farbod Ardebili’s Forbidden to See Us Scream in Tehran tells the story of a death metal musician, who hopes risking an underground concert will help her secure asylum in another country

Writer and graphic artist Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel Persepolis, adapted into a 2007 film of the same name, is perhaps the most well-known contemporary art piece recording the cultural effects of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. Satrapi documents her own childhood and adolescence in Iran, noting the shift from a relatively relaxed society open to Western business and culture, to one that became strictly Islamic. She describes suddenly having to wear a hijab and modest clothes in public, relives her uncle Anoosh being executed for his anti-government political beliefs, and recounts having to go underground for her tapes of Michael Jackson and heavy metal bands. 

After the Revolution, music was outlawed. In the 1990s, as revolutionary fervour dimmed slightly, authorities began to allow some forms of Western music and clothing again. However, in 2005, when Iran’s extremely conservative president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, came into power, he reinstituted the ban on Western music, forcing musicians underground. Some fled the country to form an Iranian music industry in California, where there is currently the highest population of Iranians outside of Iran – in music circles, LA is often dubbed ‘Tehrangeles’. 

For women musicians, there’s even stricter rules. Although Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance’s guidelines allow women to perform music on stage, solo female artists can’t record or perform publicly unless playing for all-women audiences (in Tehran and other cities). Musicians have routinely been targeted by Iranian authorities for using women vocalists; in September this year, composer Mehdi Rajabian was reportedly facing prison for his use of two American women solo vocalists, Lizzy O’Very and Aubrey Johnson, on his latest album Coup of Gods. It remains exceptionally difficult for women musicians to perform and record in Iran, with genres like heavy metal, rap, and rock still being heavily targeted by authorities. Musicians within these genres are forced to record in secret and hold underground concerts, at a huge risk to themselves and their fans.

This is the reality portrayed in director Farbod Ardebili’s new short film, Forbidden to See Us Scream in Tehran. In it, Shima (played by Mohadeseh Kharaman, who is brilliant in her film debut), the frontwoman of an Iranian death metal band, risks everything as she plans to call the police on her own underground concert. She hopes the raid will help her secure asylum in another country, but she faces the difficult choice of living her dreams away from Iran, or staying to look after her younger sister Sherin (played by Sarina Amiri), who is deaf. It’s based on Ardebili’s own experience of living in Iran and playing in an underground metal band. It’s also inspired by his decision to leave his father – to whom the film is dedicated – to follow his dream of becoming a filmmaker. Ardebili’s father, Sina, died in 2020 before he was able to see the final product. “He gave up everything so I could become free,” says Ardebili.

When Ardebili received funding for Forbidden to See Us Scream in Tehran back in 2019, he knew he wanted to film it in Iran to make it look authentic. However, he left for the US in 2014 and, at the time of filming, it was still unsafe for him to return, in part due to personal difficulties in Iran, as well as because of Donald Trump’s so-called ‘Muslim ban’, which may have prevented him from returning to the US after filming. So, Ardebili took the decision to direct his team on the ground in Iran through WhatsApp, while he remained in the US. “It was a very challenging process,” he tells Dazed. “At the beginning, I was on set through video all the time, unless the network wasn’t working. I would give directions to everyone individually, which slowed us down. So after the first day we decided that I would give all the directions to my producer in Iran, and he would then give them to the other team members. We did a lot of rehearsals and training, so everyone knew what they had to do if the connection was lost.”

The film includes scenes shot in the streets of Iran, and even depicts an underground concert performance, which carried huge risks for the cast and crew. “They were absolutely brave; it’s their story as much as it is mine, and they wanted to share it with the world, so they just soldiered on,” Ardebili says. They had to use some classic movie magic to reduce some of the risks associated with filming, particularly when it came to Shima singing at the concert – for the actor’s own safety, they had her lip sync to a recording done by a singer in the US, rather than sing for real in the shots. The scene is a homage of sorts to the female singers that Ardebili played with back in Iran. “We had a female singer (in our band) who was absolutely amazing, and it was always challenging for me to accept that she’s not allowed to sing or show her talent to the rest of the world,” Ardebili explains.

For Ardebili, metal music is as much about having a creative outlet as it is about actively opposing the government. “The government sees that kind of music as a language of frustration, a form of protest, and sometimes that is the case,” he explains. “But in a lot of cases, people are just being creative, making the music that they want to make. They’re not necessarily being political in any shape or form, but still the government goes after them because they deem this kind of music immoral, even satanic – an unacceptable form of art.”

“The government sees (metal music) as a language of frustration, a form of protest; they deem it immoral, even satanic” – Farbod Ardebili

Without putting his film in a box, Ardebili hopes to make this tension comprehensible to Western viewers, as well as showing solidarity for those currently in Iran living in this situation, particularly women. Since coming to the US, he’s heard a variety of stupid stereotypes about Iranian people, including that they all ride around on camels, the country is all desert, and nobody has a car. But he’s also met those who are genuinely surprised that people in Iran are interested in metal music, let alone making and performing it. “I wanted to show people that you can’t put all Iranian people in the same box,” says Ardebili. “I believe that the first step of change is awareness of the problem so you can then make a change. I’m pretty sure a change can happen if there’s enough moral support, and if there’s a will. I (also) want to show my fellow Iranians that we have to make a change. This is not the situation that we have to live in.”

Forbidden to See Us Scream in Tehran ends on a bittersweet note, with Sherin signing to Shima that she should leave Iran and pursue her artistic dreams. It leaves a knotted feeling in your stomach – the knowledge that any dream isn’t quite complete without being able to share it with the ones you love most. Ardebili is optimistic about the future of Iran, but admits it’s difficult to maintain that optimism in the face of such targeted persecution. If anything, Forbidden to See Us Scream in Tehran is a reminder of the strength it takes to fight for more, and that ambition is inextricable from sacrifice in one form or another. 

Watch Forbidden to See Us Scream in Tehran above.