Despite being brought up and educated in London, Iranian filmmaker Babak Jalali shot his sophomore feature Radio Dreams in the Bay Area of San Francisco. His stylistic preferences and personal signature aesthetics began to take bolder shape in his debut Frontier Blues (2009), shot in his hometown of Gorgan in northern Iran.
"My favourite director, considering the whole body of work, is Aki Kaurismäki, and I like the kind of deadpan humour you can find in Beckett stories", Jalali states, referencing Scandinavian cinema and absurdist literature.
Radio Dreams tells the story of several individuals, members of a displaced Iranian and Afghan collective. In the director's words, it is "an observation film about a group that happened to be a minority" on "existing in a kind of alien landscape."
The lead character, Mister Royani -- played by U.S.-based Iranian musician Mohsen Namjoo, known as 'the Bob Dylan of Iran' and recognizable by his distinctive mane -- is a respected author in Iran and manages a San Francisco-based Persian radio station with the unprecedented zeal of an intellectual, occasionally pretentious and arrogant.
El Salvadorian poetry and the history of apes in space are definitely not subjects calculated to send ratings sky-high and please local advertisers, but Mister Royani does have one ultimate coup in the making - a jam session between Afghanistan's first (real-life) rock band Kabul Dreams (the members basically playing themselves) and the equally authentic and iconic metal band Metallica.
Jalali loosely sketches connected vignettes framed by the big date with radio destiny: egos clash between Mister Royani's high-brow stab at programming and the pragmatic managerial style of the station owner's daughter. It's also a big moment for Kabul Dreams, eagerly awaited in front of the documentary camera. Other vignettes include one about falling in love, as well as even more surreal digressions -- for example, a homoerotic surprise in the usually indifferent radio owner -- all courtesy of the filmmaker's incidental humour dipped in a subtle medley of absurd and melancholy.
"I wanted to show the whole absurd mood of that place," the director states. The set design of what appears to be an amateurishly hammered-up studio is both the epitome of Mister Royani's unrealized ambitious and a monument to unpopular compromises, brushing up against the myth of the American dream. But the fish out of water or foreigner-in-exile scenario is only a fraction of Jalali's wider sweep, squeezing many more elements into this puzzle of a film.
Among these, Radio Dreams is "also about doing something which is not ideal; you have other dreams, other aspirations, but you have to compromise."
The director drew inspiration from real-life Iranian and Afghan society in the U.S. and the proliferation of lo-fi and low-quality television and radio stations within Iranian communities in Los Angeles, but his sophomore feature also addresses universal issues whilst avoiding jaded clichés and running platitudes.
The combination of individual fate and personal struggle in Mister Royani and the life of the community does not create tension but variety; a minimalistic tapestry of motifs not stereotyping or generalizing a minority.
"It is also a story of how you adjust, how you adapt, how you exist in a place you do not know, centred around individuals within a minority," the director says of how the context for Radio Dreams is meant to be interpreted.
Disillusion and aspiration mingle in this slightly melancholic drama, which is less a caricature and more an attempt to grasp a medley of aspects of immigrant life. By the end of the day, Lars Ulrich may even show up.
Radio Dreams won the main award - Hivos Tiger Award - in the festival´s official competition.