J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Independent Lens: When God Sleeps


For this song, a fatwa issued against Iranian musician Shahin Najafi and a $100,000 bounty was placed on his head. You would almost think the Islamist Ayatollahs have no sense of humor whatsoever. Frankly, after five years of living with death threats, his is also running a little thin. Till Schauder documents Najafi as he lives life under extreme circumstances in When God Sleeps (trailer here), which airs this Monday as part of the current season of Independent Lens on PBS.

In “Ay Neghi!,” Najafi pointedly asks the 10th Imam why his brethren are so preoccupied with trivial puritanical concerns, yet they tolerate conspicuous public corruption of the highest order. To most Westerners, this would be a rather mild and reasonable protest song, but it led to multiple fatwas calling for his execution, as punishment for his alleged apostasy. At this point, Najalfi’s international fame exploded.

Without question, the best sequences of the doc chronicle Najafi’s early response to the fatwas. Rightfully concerned for his safety, Najafi sought the protection of the woefully under-prepared German police, who had him file a farcical complaint against the ninety-year-old cleric who issued the initial death sentence. Much more helpful is muckraking German journalist Günter Wallraff, who initially sheltered Najafi in his fortified compound, as he had previously done for Salman Rushdie.

Without question, the best parts of the doc show how Najafi lives day-to-day as a target of fatwas. Somewhat understandably, Schauder seems even more interested in Najafi’s long-distance romance with Leili Bazargan, the granddaughter of Mehdi Bazargan, the interim Prime Minister of the Revolutionary Islamic government. However, to play up the star-crossed nature of their relationship, Schauder casts Bazargan as a theocratic hardliner, when he was arguably somewhat more nuanced than that. For instance, he resigned his post in protest when the American embassy was seized by students loyal to Khomeini.

However, the third act really get awkward when Najafi tries to become an advocate and humanitarian patron for the waves of immigrants washing into Germany, only to find his band-members are alarmed by the increasingly aggressive behavior of ostensive asylum-seekers receiving comp tickets to their shows. Reality can be so inconvenient.

Najafi is a worthy subject, whose experiences have much to say about the state of Iran and the wider Islamic world. Yet, the doc’s lack of urgency seems very much at odds with its subject matter. Frankly, When God Sleeps should have been less observational and more chronologically-driven. Schauder does not go out of his way to showcase Najafi’s music either, which might frustrate his fans. Nevertheless, it is important to get his story out there—and this is currently the only documentary about him. Recommended (especially the first half) for general audiences, When God Sleeps premieres on PBS’s Independent Lens this coming Monday (4/2).

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