As the title suggests, Till Schauder’s When God Sleeps is less about exiled Iranian musician Shahin Najafi than it is a portrait of a man grasping for faith, grasping for purpose in the midst of unthinkable persecution. In 2012, Iran declared a death fatwa and a $100,000 bounty on his head following the release of Shahin’s Naghi, a protest song addressed to Ali al-Naghi, one of the twelve imams venerated by Shia Muslims. Living as an exile in Berlin, the fatwa made him a minor celebrity and cause célèbre for journalists and proponents of free speech. But Schauder has very little interest in Shahin as a musician. We see the requisite footage of concerts, studio sessions, and informal jams. We even get a behind-the-scenes look at Shahin creating the music video for a new song that juxtaposes dancers with giant papier-mâché penises wearing Jewish kippahs, Catholic mitres, and Islamic taqiyahs. But these exist more to show Shahin in his musical element than as a means to explore the music itself. Schauder is interested solely with the man.
Born to a middle class family in a small northern Iranian town on the Caspian sea, music was an essential part of Shahin’s life from the very beginning. At a very young age Shahin’s love of singing inspired him to become an Islamic cleric. As he explains, singers in Iran could either “perform at weddings or sing the Quran.” But his mandatory military service soured his attitude towards God when he witnessed firsthand Iran’s theocratic oppression against protestors and activists. So he directed his energies towards becoming a singer/songwriter, striking back against societal ills like homophobia, censorship, and institutionalized misogyny. Predictably Iran struck back with the fatwa, casting him into exile. After changing his appearance and hiding for a time with Günter Wallraff, the undercover journalist who hid Salman Rushdie during his own fatwa, Shahin defiantly resumed his career as a musician.
But still Shahin lives in perpetual fear. Schauder shows us fractions of the meager life he’s cobbled together in Germany. At the center of this life is Leili Bazargan, an Iranian-American he met and fell in love with while on tour in 2012. In an incredible twist, Leili is the granddaughter of the first Prime Minister of Iran, a man chosen for the job by Ayatollah Khomeini—the same man who declared a death sentence against Shahin. But again, Schauder spends relatively little time with Leili, instead examining how she affects his life as a performer. Key here is the conflict between Leili’s deep religious beliefs and Shahin’s atheism. It’s not that he’s opposed to religion: “I don’t have a problem with Islam; Islam has a problem with me.” It’s just that he’s seen firsthand the evils that religion can bring upon the world.
Unfortunately, Schauder does very little to follow-up or explore these revelations. And this encapsulates much of the film. As a portrayal of an important public figure, it’s acceptable and occasionally engaging. But the film’s too obsessed with the surface of the man. It explains his dislike of religion, but not how that impacts his role as the unofficial voice of Iranian youth. This becomes especially apparent in the last third of the film when Schauder turns his gaze to the refugee crises in Europe. In the wake of Western fear-mongering against immigrants following the heavily publicized Charlie Hebdo attacks and the Bataclan concert hall massacre, Shahin becomes their advocate. But if he feels any angst that he represents a largely Islamic population while decrying the hypocrisies of said religion, we don’t see it. If he feels any apprehension about supporting an influx of overtly religious refugees into the largely secularized world of Western Europe—a world where protestors and atheists like him are protected under law—we don’t hear it. When Gods Sleeps left me with several questions about Shahin, both as a man and as a performer. But these aren’t the questions that usually accompany a great documentary; they’re questions that accompany a dissatisfying one.
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