Monday, July 25, 2011

Iranian Idol? "Not an Illusion"!

Little have I found inspiring to blog about, until providence put me in contact with Torang Abedian and reminded me of her documentary film that I never got a chance to watch: Not An Illusion.

In recent years, the Iranian Underground Music has got some overground attention, as at least four films shot in Iran have made it to the international ecran; very succesfully too:

  • Not an Illusion (2009), by Torang Abedian, the only true documentary of the four and important to neo-resistance for reasons I will shortly count. (You can watch the film on the Culture Unplugged website for free.)

Not an Illusion (نه یک توهم), is the story of the director's encounter with a (then) 21 year old vocalist, Sara Naini [persian interview], a gymnastics ex-champion who is today walking with sticks--the result of surviving a life threatening spinal injury that deprived the shining star from pursuing her sportive dreams. The single child of a gymnast couple, she picked music to 'stay active'. Her voice strong and versatile (try a sample of her singing pop in English and jazz in Persian), provides vocal background to Kaveh Ramezanzadeh, the lead singer of the rock band Piccolo-- one of the few bands featuring female vocalists, that after Ahmadinejad's reign was forced to change name to an Iranian name, Kook (tune) and eventually was forced out of stage.

The film portrays, on the one hand, Sarah's determination, positive attitude, realism, love for life and all that cool strength of the character that makes 'champions'; and on the other hand, the unjust and the suffocating restraining order in which she must operate; restrictions dictated from above but enforced by the very people with whom she collaborates:
  • Her voice was too strong, the sound engineers dampened it out in concerts and recordings ...
  • The lead singer would be happy to cut her part out, if that would help him get his album a permit from the Islamic culture and guidance ministry ...
  • Her drummer quit on her at the pivotal moment that she was given an international spotlight in Rotterdam ...
Sara runs, not only against a religious system that frowns upon music, let alone music for women (as Abedian nicely documented by interviewing a cleric), but against a masculine tyranny who owns and operates bands, concert halls, recording studios, sound engineering tables.

The only time that she could be free was when she sang at the Pakistani consulate party. (Isn't it ironic that the muslim Pakistani diplomats would hire an Iranian female singer to perform Western pop rock at their private parties, but she is banned to sing the Iranian traditional music in public--unless accompanied by 4 male and three other female vocalists?)

Even in London, she would learn that freedom was a mere illusion, for unless one is a street performer, the artistic production and distribution is a function of the market economy.

Besides the central character of the film, what distinguishes Not an Illusion, is the trajectory of the 'rise and fall' of pop-rock production in the course of 6 years, between the end of Khatami's presidency (2003) and the beginning of Ahmadinejad's second term (2009).

The 30 year old (at the time of starting the film) director, was drawn to the Iranian alternative music scene as upon return to Iran she was confronted with a new generation (e.g. Sarah's, born in the early 80s) with the 'choice' and eagerness to make and play music, in contrast to her generation (and mine) who grew up in those dark years of war and revolution, when music was totally forbidden. A music lover, the director goes to Iran to make the story of this transformation (2001-2003), but as time goes by, and the situation regresses back (with conservatives winning/stealing all political power), she finds herself increasingly incapable of continuing the project in a meaningful way (and thus returns to London). Therefore, the film chronicles, from a personal narrative, the gradual decline of the pop-rock stage in Tehran: from Sara's performance with Piccolo in Sa'd Abad palace before 2000 spectators, to her being cut out of the band and the band being prevented from playing in public all together. In the process, we also learn much about the reality of making and distributing music in Iran. For instance, we learn that the censorship office has no quarrel with love-songs; as long as they are not sexual; that there are concerts performed by women and strictly for women, so much so that all the behind-the-scene technical details are managed by female engineers; or how much it costs to rent a recording studio, and how more profitable it is to build and rent studios than to make and sell music, and a lot more information like that. (The director has spoken in detail about her impressions and research about the alternative music scene in Iran in a couple of interviews in English and in Persian (here, and here).

Overall, Not an Illusion does not belong to the Iranian cinema's 'victim-genre'. Every single musician has dreams, has hurdles to overcome, and has a realistic approach to his or her career. The pragmatism of the individuals who appear before the camera is refreshing. Unlike the dramatic Tehran-Tehran or No One Knows about Persian Cats (both ending in death of a protagonist), this documentary doesn't end on a desperate tune. The Iranian musicians pledge that they will keep playing: the restrictions may slow them down, but cannot turn back the clock, and will not prevent them from creativity. Yes, Iran has got idols too, and that is not an illusion.