Tehran, late at night. A handheld camera films from inside a car which is being pulled over by the police. There are several moments of tension as the police ask to look in the car’s boot. Then they are waved on.
Welcome to the world of Anoosh and Arash, two young Iranians who organise illegal raves. They pay the appropriate bribes to play in the desert, where the biggest danger is attracting the local camel herder who may tip off the morality police. Women at the raves are encouraged to keep a headscarf on hand in case this happens.
Anoosh and Arash get invited to play a corporate street parade in Switzerland (about as far as an illegal rave you can get while playing the same music). They are on a limited visa and discuss seeking asylum. They ring their parents who tell them to get out when they can. But this is the Switzerland of minaret bans which doesn’t take too kindly to dark-skinned foreigners.
What sort of a film is Raving Iran? It takes the form of a documentary, but some of the scenes feel highly staged, and are unlike anything that would happen in real life. Anoosh and Arash visit a series of shops asking if they’ll print the sleeve of their CD or put the CD on their shelves. In each case, the shop owners say that they’d love to help but the problem is the dreaded culture police who would shut them down. Now I’m sure that individual shop owners would react in this way, but the relentlessness in which everyone answers with roughly the same words just defies credibility.
Sure enough, the end credits list Susanne Regina Meures not just as director but also as writer. This is all legitimate, but it means that the powerful stories of state repression lose some of their credibility. If some of the scenes are obviously made up, we can’t trust any of them.
Similarly, it is perfectly possible that Meures happened upon Anoosh and Arash when they were nobodies and just lucked out when they were invited to Switzerland. Equally, it may be all a set up. Our knowledge that some of the film is inauthentic leads us to question all of it.
It is perhaps not surprizing that one of the few trailers shown before the film was for “Just a Woman”, the orientalist and highly problematic recent film about honour killings. Now Raving Iran is not offensive in the same way as Just a Woman, but both are obviously the work of a Western director trying to explain the strange customs of these dark skinned people who are Not Like Us.
One particular unsubtle scene in Raving Iran segues from rave music to the call to prayer as if these were irredeemable opposites with no space for conciliation in between.
All of which is a great shame, because there is a lot here to like. Many of the scenes of the raves in Iran do have the sense of jeopardy that the police may come any moment and break things up. This is highlighted by the jerky hidden cameras and the blurring out of the faces of people who probably still live in Iran.
This is the genuine feeling of what its like to try to produce culture in the face of repression, which would be familiar to veterans of the fight against the Criminal Justice Bill in Britain in the 1990s. And the scenes of young people trying to enjoy themselves in defiance of the Old Ways are familiar to people from all sorts of cultures.
The failure to generalise leaves a sour taste in the throat, but if we can look beyond the insensitivities, there is something really worth watching here. But next time, maybe try and find an Iranian director to film it, or at least someone who is more sensitive to the people being depicted?