A movie about the coming together of an Iranian radio DJ, an Afghan indie rock band and Lars Ulrich of Metallica is easy to cast off as an unrealistic premise.
However, Radio Dreams, directed by Iranian film-maker, Babak Jalali, is an offbeat comedy about love for Metallica in the time of conservative religion that last month picked up the €40,000 Tiger Award at the Rotterdam International Film Festival.
Although it might seem unlikely, the movie is based on a nugget of truth – that in a deeply religious pocket of the world, where Metallica’s machine-gun-like drum work, growling vocals and penchant for Satanism might seem out of place, exists a solid base of their fans.
While Metallica fans can be stereotypically described as angry, socially awkward and sweaty, in Jilali’s home country, Iran, they exist as something similar to a secret society.
The group of fans, who have named themselves Persian Magnetic, not only defy the public perception that heavy-metal fandom is akin to devil-worshipping but have also found a way to circumvent government bans on social media to create a community dedicated to their favourite band.
Babak Alipour, 29, is a firefighter with a nervous grin and love of brightly coloured polo shirts. While it isn’t possible to tell by looking at him, he is a self-confessed metalhead and online administrator for Persian Magnetic.
The group’s website and Facebook page, created in 2014, serves a community of 17,000 Iranian Metallica fans by translating the band’s lyrics to Farsi and providing typical fanzine-style updates on their metal heroes.
“We try to help Iranians understand Metallica. A lot of people think Metallica are some Satanists trying to promote their views,” said Alipour, referring to the anti-heavy metal campaign pursued by the government-run media under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that saw the genre portrayed as Satanism.
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Members keep their love of Metallica secret. “You might not want your girlfriend to know you are a Metallica fan so you can continue your relationship,” says Alipour.
Since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, successive Shia Muslim governments have denounced, and actively dissuaded, the creation and enjoyment of Western music.
Mohammad Khatami, the reformist Prime Minister of the late Nineties, relaxed such government efforts to prevent ‘culture attacks’ from Western music, only to see these measures aggressively ramped up under the Ahmadinejad government in 2005.
It is for this reason that Iranian musician, Saleh Zarei, 35, describes the heavy-metal scene as “proper underground” – meaning subterranean. Z
arei was a member of the Iranian progressive rock and heavy-metal band, Public Voice, from Karaj, north-west of Tehran. During the mid-2000s, Public Voice had to play their gigs “totally underground and nobody but close friends was invited”.
Despite this caution, Zarei recalls several occasions between 2004 and 2006 when he, and his bandmates, were arrested on stage for playing heavy metal. In 2006 he was imprisoned for three months and charged with more than 20 offences, ranging from noise pollution to offending the heroes of the revolution.
Zarei spent the first two weeks of his 2006 stint in jail held without charge in a solitary cell, absent of light and without regular food. Upon his release, Zarei immigrated to the UK and the other members of Public Voice left Iran to continue playing music in Malaysia.
“The closed society pushes people to heavier music. Whether it is hip-hop or heavy metal music, it is how they get out their frustration at the world around them,” says Zarei, who now plays bass in a London jazz-fusion band.
Since Zarei left Iran and Ahmadinejad left office, more metalhead-friendly zones have sprung up in relatively more liberal Tehran. One of these is Arman Najimi’s small rock-themed café in north Tehran.
It is a place where similarly minded music fans can listen to classic rock staples like ACDC, Motörhead and KISS, while enjoying a Led Zeppelin non-alcoholic cocktail, made up of “strawberry, black mulberry, cream, vanilla ice cream, sour cherry juice”.
“Metallica is forbidden,” said Najimi, 30, but he stressed that “Metallica is not like vodka”, for “alcoholic drink is forbidden”. So, while Najimi classes both as outlawed, he does highlight a key difference between the two: “serving vodka is impossible, but playing Metallica is OK, with a little fear”.
But he is aware of how the public perception of the band leaves him vulnerable to sudden closure.
With only instrumental music allowed to be played in public, Najimi runsthe risk of the police closing his cafe for disturbing the peace and while he can get away with subtly playing non-demonic rock, visitors tohis establishment are more likely to hearMetallica and Led Zeppelin played on quiet,midweek days.
Najimi was part of the touring party who saw Metallica’s 2015 gig in St Petersburg, which he described as “very awesome”. “Russian people were so aggressive during the concert – push, push and push, but who cares, I was there in the first row in front of my hero James Hetfield for the band I love – fucking Metallica!” he added.
Pictures from the night show other Persian Magnetic members standing in the crowd with Iranian flags draped over their shoulders.
These tours, to countries that afford easy access to Iranians, are organised through the Persian Magnetic’s network because, according to Alipour, meeting in person in Iran wouldbe “problematic”.
More importantly, thesetrips have allowed the Iranian Metallica fans to meet up with other fan clubs from across the world, including: Japan, Norway, France and the UK.
The most popular destinations for Iranian Metallica tourists have been Istanbul and Dubai.
However, Alipour’s dream is to see Metallica play in Iran: “James Hetfield said in an interview a couple of years ago that Iran is one of the places Metallica would like to play, since then we are all living in that dream” while he also thinks it is “impossible, at least for the time being,” even if America and Iran can negotiate a trade deal.
This is because such a gig can only occur once it is socially acceptable, in Alipour’s deeply religious country, for all metalheads to publicly give the devil horn salute to their heroes of thrash, death and classic metal.
‘Radio Dreams’ is out now. Metallica will reissue their first two albums ‘Kill ‘Em All’ and ‘Ride the Lightning’ on 15 April.