Q&A | Susanne Meures on capturing the Iranian underground in Raving Iran

Every now and then a story gets under your skin. When Susanne Meures first heard about underground techno raves taking place in the Iranian desert, she had no idea her interest would spark a five-year film project that would enable the international careers of DJs Anoosh Raki and Arash Shadram, a.k.a. Blade & Beard. She explains to Sarah how Raving Iran came to be, and describes the challenges of filming in an authoritarian state.

How did you come to work as a director?
I studied the History of Art, and Photography in London and went on to work for a variety of magazines, like Dazed & Confused, Intersection, Sleaze. I later worked for The Times magazine in Germany, and a few publications in Switzerland. I did mainly print media, and then a few years ago I made a few short documentaries for television.

When I read about techno parties in the Iranian desert, I think it was in VICE magazine, I felt that there were a couple of very interesting topics coming together and I decided to make a feature length film about the Iranian underground music scene. I started about five years ago.

How easy was it to contact Anoosh and Arash?
It was very complicated. I started my research from London – I signed up on Facebook, and tried to infiltrate the whole scene through Facebook. Just to see who’s around, who’s doing what – I tried to get in touch with lots of different musicians. It didn’t get me very far. People are very polite, but of course – because it’s quite risky for them they weren’t very open to talk. So, maybe a month later, I booked a flight to Tehran and I just went there. I didn’t know anyone, I just went on my own.

Usually, that’s not a problem but to actually start a film somewhere in Iran, it was a little complicated. I couldn’t stay in a hotel for weeks on end, and I couldn’t take any equipment. I basically just went there, and I was relying on my Facebook contacts. I had people hiding me in their homes – they let me sleep there – basically for one and a half years, while I was filming. I just started meeting people. But, although everyone was really nice, no one was willing to participate in the film.

I think in the end it was just Anoosh and Arash who said, yeah ok let’s do it. Although, I have to say, I did promise them that their faces wouldn’t be shown. The film was actually planned in a completely different way than it turned out.

What changed that? Was it the fact they were able to leave Iran that made it possible to show their identity?
Yes, exactly.

Anoosh & Arash

At the start of making the doco, did you know that they were planning to try to leave?
Kind of, but everyone was talking about leaving – everyone’s talking about, we should try to get out, or try to go and study abroad. It’s very common. It wasn’t a big topic between us.

Are there any easy ways to get out of Iran, or is it typically quite difficult to leave?
I think it’s pretty hard. Unless you have a lot of money, you’re well-educated and you actually manage to get into a foreign university – apart from that it’s really hard to leave. It’s not difficult because the Iranian government doesn’t want you to leave, it is difficult because most countries aren’t very fond of issuing visas to Iranians. For the obvious reasons.

Did you have to wear a headscarf or hide your identity, being a woman? Could you quite freely walk around and film? There’s a lot of shooting from the hip.
Oh my god, no. Being a woman wasn’t a problem – I had to wear a headscarf, of course – but to just walk around and film, no. I never had a permit and I was always shooting illegally. After coming back to Switzerland from my first research trip, I tried to organise things so that they would fit the circumstances. I went back to Iran with a small tourist camera – a Canon 5D, which you can also film with. I tried to send some audio equipment by courier, but they confiscated it immediately. In the end, I managed to get equipment in Tehran – very old and often dysfunctional, but it worked.

“I had people hiding me in their homes – they let me sleep there – basically for one and a half years, while I was filming.”

That’s basically how I started filming – on a small camera. That’s the camera I used throughout the film. Then I had a second camera, my iPhone, which I used for all the hidden camera scenes. For that I got a shirt made at the bazaar, where I was hiding the iPhone. It was all very James Bond.

It was impressive! So much of the film is shot like that, but it’s relatively steady. I was expecting it to be difficult to watch, but it works really well.
Yes, I know. It’s really funny, because the iPhone footage is actually more steady than the other footage. Basically it was a lot of training, especially with the iPhone. It took me six weeks to train my protagonists to use the camera in all different situations. And it was so hot – I was using gaffa tape to stick the shirt to their skin, and it was completely melting. It was all a little difficult to say the least, not to mention the risky circumstances. A lot of the footage – we were shooting a lot, especially on the iPhone – wasn’t usable.

Filming Raving Iran

The one scene in the Ministry, we were only able to go once – there would have been no way we could have gone back. What you see in the film is all I got. We were shooting for 10 minutes, and I think we’ve used 8.5 minutes in the film.

For the tourist camera I had different memory cards. I had memory cards with tourist pictures, I had memory cards for the film footage – and as soon as I stopped filming, wherever I was, I always took out the footage and hid it in my bra. I put the tourist pictures in instead, which was really good, because we did actually get stopped by the police many times. And that’s what they always do, they just take your camera and the first thing they do is check what you’ve been photographing.

So there were a few close calls.
Hard to say. The police were friendly, but they’re suspicious. I guess because we were well-prepared nothing ever happened.

What could the consequences have been if you were caught?
I really don’t know. Prison, maybe? I mean, like I said before, I had so many print media attached to my name, it would have definitely felt like, ok she’s here to spy on things or something.

Where are Anoosh and Arash now?
They’re both in Switzerland, but they travel around a lot. They do have refugee passports now, which means they have to live in Switzerland. But because they’re doing really well as DJs they’re moving around all the time, mainly in Europe.

After watching the film I was shown a story about them recently being denied a visa to attend a London screening. What was the situation with that?
I have no idea, they didn’t get a visa from the British Embassy in Bern. Normal procedure, they just said no – probably fearing that they would stay.

What’s happening with the film at the moment? Is it still doing the festival circuit?
We premiered one and a half years ago, which is quite a long time now, but it’s still travelling a lot. It’s now done over 130 festivals worldwide. I am very grateful as it is doing really well, it’s also won quite a few awards. In 2016 it was also one of the most successful documentaries in German and Swiss cinemas. We are very happy.

Germany was such a centrepoint for the migrant crisis. How are things feeling there at the moment?
To be honest I don’t really know, because I don’t live in Germany. Of course, I read the newspaper and speak to my friends but it has become quiet around the whole crisis, especially in the media. When the film came out, it was just in the middle of it all happening. The film definitely touched the zeitgeist.

Filming Raving Iran

But that was unintentional, as far as you were concerned?
Yes, very much so. And of course, I didn’t know the film was turning into a migration story, right until the end. I had no idea what was happening.

There are some really personal moments in the film, including Anoosh talking to his girlfriend about his plans to leave Iran. Were people aware of you filming during those sorts of moments, or were they just really willing to share their story?
They were aware that I was filming but I was very surprised myself about what was happening in front of the camera. There are quite a few other scenes where it’s getting very close and intimate, especially when the DJs are having arguments. I assume, it is because I spent so much time with them that they started forgetting about me. I was basically just a pot plant in the corner after a while.

“I didn’t know the film was turning into a migration story, right until the end. I had no idea what was happening.”

I think another advantage was that I didn’t speak the language. I guess it can happen when you’re with someone who doesn’t speak your language, that you speak more openly. In this case they knew that everything was going to be translated afterwards, but I think when emotions are cooking up you might start to forget about things.

As long as you couldn’t understand them in the moment, it was easy for them to switch off.
Exactly, so really, for them it was just like, oh yeah there is this foreigner who doesn’t understand a word. They really just forgot about me, I guess. Luckily!

Did not being able to speak the language make it difficult for you as a director, in terms of missing verbal cues while filming?
I think not understanding the language lets you work much more intuitively, and more on an emotional level. One reacts to the tone of voice, body language, and the energy in the room – which is not necessarily less precise. I felt, for this film, it was an advantage. I also think that I would have intervened much more often if I had understood what they were saying. But in this case, I just had to go with the flow.

For more on Raving Iran, including details of forthcoming screenings, visit www.ravingiran.com. Find Anoosh and Arash on Facebook.

Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.