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Still from Susanne Regina Meures’s Raving Iran (all images courtesy Susanne Regina Meures)

Since the late 1970s, the Iranian government has regulated many of life’s pleasures, including music. Imam Khomeini considered the art “no different than opium” — a sentiment that was echoed in a conservative Iranian newspaper: “Whoever acquired the habit [of music] can no longer devote himself to important activities. It changes people to the point of yielding to vice.” Live performances halted for a decade. Music schools shuttered.

The end of the Iran–Iraq war in 1988 and Khomeini’s death shortly after loosened the strictures, allowing for traditional folk and classical broadcasts on state-run television and radio stations. Today, however, popular music is still not free; listeners or creators of unsanctioned music face the threat of fines, imprisonment, or even the death penalty.

Despite these risks, DJs Anoosh and Arash — known as Blade & Beard — are defying government decree by producing underground electronic music and playing self-organized desert raves. German filmmaker Susanne Regina Meures chronicles the musicians’ struggle in Raving Iran, her first feature documentary, currently making the rounds at European festivals. The film captures the tense atmosphere the DJs face alongside their camaraderie and unwavering desire to succeed. Anoosh and Arash beg shopkeepers to carry their album without government approval, transport music equipment through police checkpoints, negotiate with unscrupulous vendors and unreliable security to coordinate parties, and consider leaving loved ones behind for European freedom. “It’s every DJ’s dream to play in Europe,” Anoosh says in the film. Arash agrees. “I’ll suffer a heart attack if it works out.”

DJs Anoosh and Arash, aka Blade & Beard, in Raving Iran

Meures’s camera is an inconspicuous observer, catching lucid moments. “I want to have festivals with foreign artists in Iran, too,” Anoosh says. “I want to meet new people. I want to see the whole world. But I can’t.” The duo testify to the fact that their straightforward, inoffensive house music has not exempted them from conflict. Anoosh says the police “caught me once and almost beat me to death. Do you see the scars? They’ll be there forever.”

Although it’s dangerous, club culture persists in Iran. “People party, but behind closed doors,” Meures tells Hyperallergic. “The country is economically weak, so when police arrive, often they accept bakhshesh [a bribe] to look the other way.” Police use checkpoints to monitor traffic between Tehran and the nearby mountain area where parties regularly occur. “The DJs regularly cancelled shoots because they feared it would be too dangerous. The whole experience wasn’t smooth for any of us.”

Susanne Regina Meures

In filming the documentary, Meures inherited the risks faced by her subjects. “When staying at a hotel, anyone on staff has access to your room, which wouldn’t have worked for this project,” she explains. “I needed a place where the equipment and I were safe, which was difficult because I didn’t know anyone. I couldn’t just couchsurf for months. I tried to rent a flat, but that wasn’t really possible as a foreigner. I even tried a church, telling them I was working on a student project. They agreed to let me stay, but asked me to leave after two days because they didn’t feel comfortable with the situation. I had to get creative.”

Meures traveled to Iran five times over the course of 14 months to shoot the film, relying on concealed cameras and smartphones to outsmart the regime. In Raving Iran‘s most riveting scene, the DJs visit the Ministry of Cultural Affairs to request state approval for their album, which ultimately gets rejected for featuring music with a lead female singer and cover art filled with Western influences and English text.

This sequence appears straightforward, but required six weeks to organize. “A lot of time was spent perfecting hiding an iPhone in Arash’s shirt for shooting. I also visited the Ministry’s building at least four or five times beforehand to see where everyone was sitting and how the whole place was organized. I researched the whole institution down to the last detail so nothing would go wrong.” Meures knew they had to get the scene right the first time. “It would be suspicious to go twice and ask the same questions. It was so difficult to shoot on an iPhone sewn into the shirt. It was 45 degrees Celsius. The gaffer tape was melting. It was a nightmare to get the right distance and angle, but it had to be perfect.”

During the shooting of the film, Meures employed two memory cards: one with the documentary footage and another holding decoy tourist pictures. After the project wrapped, the video was stored on several hard drives, concealing footage in encrypted compartments while keeping the tourist pictures in plain view. Encrypted or not, leaving the country with a stack of hard drives would also arouse suspicion, so she enlisted Iranian students to smuggle each one to a different country and then courier them to Zürich for post-production. “Just finding people who were willing to take the risk was a full-time job,” she says.

At the Swiss film premiere last August, strange people, potentially government officials, tried to get interviews with the film crew, presumably for information about the DJs’ whereabouts, Meures says. “It was really weird. You could write it off as paranoia, but since the premiere, the trailer has been on Persian Satellite Television, and BBC Persia has reported on it numerous times. The government definitely knows about the film.

The Making of Raving Iran might have made the better film,” Meures adds with a laugh. “It would have spoken volumes about the country.”

Raving Iran will screening at the Glasgow Film Festival and at the Berlinale on February 19.

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Tristan Kneschke

Tristan Kneschke has contributed to Decoder Magazine, The Wild Honey Pie, Echoes and Dust, and others. He enjoys traveling to places his mother warns him about.