When God Sleeps (2017), director Till Schauder, 1h 28m
A LOVE STORY IN THE AGE OF TERROR
PASSION FOR FREEDOM FILM AWARDS NOMINEES
The story of the Iranian musician who challenges the Iranian social, political, and religious system with his music and risks his life in order to defend freedom of expression.
In 2012 Iranian singer Shahin Najafi, 37, released a satirical rap song that triggered thousands to rally in a campaign for his assassination. Hardline clerics issued a death fatwa against him and placed a $100,000 bounty on his head. The song makes irreverent remarks
about Ali al-Naghi, one of twelve imams revered by Shia Muslims. From the New York Times, to the Guardian to SPIEGEL, Shahin’s case drew international attention. German journalist Günter Wallraff, who gave refuge to Salman Rushdie after his death fatwa, now offers shelter to Shahin too. But refusing to go the way of Rushdie who spent a decade in hiding, Shahin says, “Rushdie could sit at home and write. I’m a musician. I have to perform.”
What follows is a frantic escape across sharp religious lines. Shahin’s getaway leads to an impossible romance when he falls in love with Leili Bazargan. She is the granddaughter of Mehdi Bazargan, the first Prime Minister of post-revolutionary Iran – a man who was
handpicked for the job by none other than Ayatollah Khomeini. Shahin now faces a personal dilemma: how does an apostate deemed worthy of execution establish a life with a woman whose family is deeply religious?
The film follows the twists and turns of this dramatic situation, which coincides with Europe’s growing refugee crisis. Though Shahin no longer shares the refugees’ faith, he feels connected to them culturally and has renewed energy to be a voice for the countless
victims of war flooding into Germany. Frustrated with the increasingly xenophobic and anti- Muslim sentiment throughout Europe and with the rise of Trumpism, Shahin is determined to push back.
As Shahin puts his life on the line each time he steps on a stage, the anxiety surrounding his death fatwa never stops. “Fear is a part of me.” Shahin could live to be a father, like his friend Majid, or pay for his convictions with his life any day.
“Shahin Najafi contributed two rap songs to the soundtrack of my previous film, The Iran Job. When that film opened I wanted to invite Shahin to the premiere party. But I couldn’t reach him. Not by phone, not by E-mail or social media, not even through mutual acquaintances. He had disappeared. Finally my wife Sara, who is also the producer of the film, told me to check the news. That’s when I learned that Shahin was hiding. The Times labeled him “Rushdie of Rap” after hardline clerics had issued a death fatwa against him for
publishing a rap song deemed blasphemous. When I finally reached Shahin he was exhausted: “I fear for my life.” My father-in-law, Nicky Nodjoumi, is a painter known for his political and often satirical
work. He had to abruptly escape from his home country, Iran, in 1980 – the year Shahin was born. In the days before Nicky’s escape religious extremists burned down a restrospective of his satirical paintings at Tehran’s Museum of Modern Art. Since then Nicky has lived in exile. He had to endure the death of his mother from afar – a fate that Shahin shares with him. They have other similarities. Both are refugee artists who had to adopt to their respective host countries while struggling to maintain a sense of identity. And like my
father-in-law, who was once the hope of his local clergy but became an artist unflinchingly critical of Iran’s religious regime, Shahin once considered pursuing the path of a devout cleric before choosing art over religion. Such biographies fascinate me. They require
courage and conviction while shedding light on the religious, cultural and political fissures between the West and the Muslim world.
When God Sleeps aims to understand a controversial artist and his journey from paralyzing fear to a remnance of freedom. In doing so it hopes to raise questions about free speech, religious and political extremism and artistic integrity. Beneath these global issues lies a
very personal story of religious exploration. Asked if God exists Shahin says: ”If he exists he’s sleeping.” In light of the worldwide conflicts over religion, political oppression, refugees and integration this seems to be the right time to tell Shahin’s story. I feel honored that Shahin gave me the exclusive right and access to tell his extraordinary story – a prerequisite for trying to represent all facets of his personality, which can be provocative, courageous, restless, maddening, contradictory and endearing.”
— Till Schauder