Tehran, the megacity capital of Iran — one of the world’s most culturally oppressive regimes and one of its most misunderstood countries. Rather than sifting through the minutiae of geo-specific media coverage or the political agenda of your respective location, there are a few universally accepted truths about this culturally and historically rich nation. Or, at least, the incarnation of it over the last 50+ years. As a highly conservative, religiously run state, many daily activities, routines, and interests have been made illegal—singing, dancing, and public filming amongst them. With that known, Norwegian filmmaker Knutte Wester’s 23-minute short documentary, You Can’t Show My Face, is an all the more impressive project. Combining all three against the backdrop of a bustling metropolis and the daily sounds it produces, Wester constructs a sensory, and circular, chronology through the power of song, art, and expression.
The streets of Tehran transform into forbidden beats, rhythms, and rhymes, where everyone and everything, from the local mechanic removing a car tire to the scrap metal vendor pushing his cart, provides the soundtrack of resilience—providing the background to the politically conscious, highly personal lyrics filled in equal parts with despair and hope. These lyrics are spit by a group of nameless, faceless Iranian MCs trekking through Tehran with Wester in tow as they search for safe space to record their ambiance and perform for the camera. In modern Iran, this is no easy task. There are eyes everywhere, frequently not of the police but older neighbours or those living in fear of state retaliation. In its brief runtime, depicting a single day, Wester and company set up shop and are forced to break it down multiple times, each instance bringing an increasing air of fear and uncertainty.
Despite these troubles, the artists of You Can’t Show My Face exude authenticity. Drawing from the activist roots of hip hop, born from messages of social, political, and cultural oppression, these artists will stop at nothing to continue their craft, deliver their message, and maybe, just maybe, have a little fun doing it along the way. Both women and men rap about a society that rejects them («The fear deep inside me pressed my neck and stole my mind. It says. I’m a monster made of hatred.») particularly on its government-controlled streets (In Iran, the idea of the streets as public space is non-existent—hence the inability to film anywhere publicly), but also of a vision of utopia, where creativity and free expression reign («Open your eyes and eyes and see the protest on the walls. Don’t be quiet. Shout from your heart»).
Despite these troubles, the artists of You Can’t Show My Face exude authenticity.
A definitive strength of You Can’t Show My Face is right there in its name—there are no faces present (or, at least, very few). You never see the rappers, and even Wester himself chooses to blur his face whenever on camera. In doing this, the message of both the film and the songs emanates without distraction. There is no look-at-me element of the modern creativity industrial complex, where marketing teams and social media presence trump any iota of artistic defiance. There is no industry presence or brand partnerships, flashy clothes, or expensive cars. There is just the sound and the music. As people, these figures must be respected for what they do, but as artists, their anonymity greatly serves their broader purpose as it is only the art that ultimately matters. Anonymity is a vital aspect of art with political and social ambition in this writer’s opinion. In fact, following the film’s Nordisk Panorama Special Pre-Screening as part of the festival’s Malmö-spanning Cinema Walk (screened against the industrial facade of the city’s Moderna Museet, complete with rival urban sounds from all over the venue and its surroundings), the Q&A with Wester felt slightly awkward. Suddenly, the focus shifted from the film’s subject to entirely on the filmmaker (as is standard practice across the creative industry landscape). Not to say there is an inherent wrongness to this, but given the film and its subject matter, it felt somewhat out of place.
Furthermore, one must wonder: should any of these rappers «make it big,» or even leave their home country for refuge elsewhere and continue their hip hop aspirations, would their lyrics emanate so powerfully and so authentically? How would their own worldview alter in the consumer-driven markets of hip hop meccas like New York City, Los Angeles, or London? Modern rap music is far removed from its activist-driven, socially conscious early days. The angry defiance of Public Enemy or the existential torment of Tupac Shakur has since been replaced by the unabashed profit chasing, brand building, and faux socially conscious activism of Jay-Z (For more, I refer you to The New Yorker’s George Packer’s chapter on Jay-Z from his 2013 novel The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America), Kanye West (perhaps the seminal artist-as-brand example today), Travis Scott (holding the honor of the first rapper with their very own custom McDonald’s hamburger), et al., not to mention the prevalence of extreme misogyny and constant promotion of gun and drug culture that represents the bedrock of the Gen Z Soundcloud crowd of auto-tuned mumble rappers. Perhaps these questions live too far into theoretical territory. Still, I cannot help but wonder about the hip hop culture purity on display and, if/when encountering its true (profitable) face, how that would affect what makes these artists artists in the first place.
There is just the sound and the music.
Life and lifestyle
In the end, You Can’t Show My Face is an effectively limited snapshot of both overarching and underground culture. Its protagonists are breathes of fresh air for those of us inundated by the hypocrisy of so much contemporary activist art, its hierarchical profit-driven end goals, and the surface level messaging of its many prominent figures (whether this is modern hip hop or, yes, even the contemporary documentary industry). In Tehran, these young MCs create their art and both life and lifestyle, flipping the script on their oppressive surroundings, using them in the very productions that can take their lives away.
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