By Julie Ershadi

In the Iranian poetic tradition, the desert is the symbol of a soul-searching spiritual journey, or a refuge from the eyes of the world. In Raving Iran, filmmaker Susanne Regina Meures’ 2016 documentary, the desert is the hiding place for a pair of modern revelers keen to express themselves away from the government’s reach.

The film follows Arash and Anoosh, two Iranian DJs living in Tehran who organize house parties and the occasional desert-bound rave, replete with pulsating techno beats, atmospheric lighting – and even scantily clad women. It’s a view of Iran that rarely, if ever, appears in Western portrayals of the country. When Meures set out to make the film, her goal was to break away from those clichéd portrayals.

Photograph: Christian Frei Film Productions

“I wanted to give a face to a generation that the rest of the world knows so little about,” says Meures in an interview with Kayhan London. “Iranians have come to me after screenings and told me how grateful they are for finally seeing another view of Iran in the media, which is normally so focused on the politics and the government.”

Raves are, of course, illegal in the Islamic Republic of Iran. When putting on these events, Anoosh and Arash are under immense pressure to avoid the morality police. If they are caught, they and everyone at their parties will be arrested and flogged. So throughout the film, the DJs are constantly worried about safe locations, bribe money, and clandestine promotional materials.

The film shows the great lengths to which Arash and Anoosh have to go to be countercultural in Iranian society. Illuminated scenes of young Iranians dancing to blaring house music cut to images of the ominously moonlit desert landscape. In place of electro beat, melancholic vocals ring out over the wistful twangs of a setar. The revelers haven’t taken their party to the desert for the sake of adventure; they are there because it is the only place where they might be safe from a repressive political system.

Meures says that when she first came to Iran to make a film about the underground rave scene in Tehran, she met with about 50 youths who were active in throwing parties. “Most were obviously not too keen on being filmed by me,” she says. “Anoosh and Arash were the only ones who wanted to be in the movie.”

She follows the two young men with her camera as they try to pursue a musical career despite the obstacles. After hosting their secret desert rave, they pay a visit to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which holds the power to approve or disapprove of all media that comes in or out of Iran. The two young men have brought with them a proof of the album art and promotional poster for their music, which they hope to sell in stores around Tehran. They show the materials to the clerk and tell her that they operate under the band name Blade and Beard.

“Blade and Beard!” she exclaims.

“Is there a problem with that name?” they ask. She rolls her eyes in exasperation, as a hidden camera in the front pocket of Arash’s shirt secretly films her.

“The gentlemen in the examination office will take it personally,” she answers dryly.

When their application at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance is rejected, the DJs seek and eventually find a shop that will sell their album illegally, without a government permit. The shopkeeper recommends that Arash and Anoosh come back with a nondescript album cover in place of the design which was rejected by the authorities. This way, it will look like a nonthreatening collection of classical music instead of the subversive contemporary expression that it is.

“The Islamic Republic has taught us to take detours and to lie,” says the shopkeeper, whose wry smile is visible even through the pixellation to protect his identity. “They love being lied to.”

Photograph: Christian Frei Film Productions

Arash and Anoosh’s music is not directly subversive or political. It has no lyrics or obvious message. Yet it is enough to get them arrested and beaten after one of their parties. After Anoosh is bailed out of jail, they begin to make plans for a trip to Switzerland for a music festival. They weigh the options of coming back to Iran after the festival or staying in Europe and applying for refugee status.

“I’ve never experienced anything like this,” Arash says during a radio interview while in Zurich. “In our country, it’s all underground. I am fed up with doing things secretly.” The radio host asks if they see their future in Iran. Arash only looks at him, looks away, and then looks at him again, saying nothing.

Meures says Arash and Anoosh have refugee status now, and that their musical career is flourishing outside of their home country. Blade and Beard may never be able to return to Iran, or to their escapades in the desert.