There are dramatic moments in Babak Jalali’s comedy Radio Dreams where the humor is as dry as the deserts around Kabul. Jalali weaves stories in and around a small Persian language radio station and the real Afghani band Kabul Dreams in San Francisco. One particular day the crew has had word that Metallica are coming in to chat and the station takes on the air of an Iranian version of Waiting for Godot.
The look and sound of the movie is raw. It might take you a few minutes to figure out that it’s actually scripted despite feeling like a documentary and including non-fictional bands and a few real people.
“Absurd humor swirls around Hamid and the crew of the station. For this particular day it encompasses Kabul Dreams as they and everyone else await the arrival of Metallica.“
Actor and composer Mohsen Namjoo with his wonderful, extravagant hair plays program director Hamid and his frustration at trying to bring quality diverse material to the small listening audience of the station serves as foundation for much of the wry humor of the film. A celebrated novelist in Iran busted down to this humble place, Hamid doubles as antagonist and sympathetic character: You understand why he lashes out when poignant stories are loudly interrupted by crass commercials. He rages boisterously, looking like Frank Zappa on a mission.
The clash and mesh of cultures give Radio Dreams its unique flavor. Hamid brings on Russian songs and Assyrian language stories, much to the consternation of the station owner’s daughter, Maral, played by the unearthly beautiful Boshra Dastournezhad. Maral is serious about keeping the station solvent with those crass commercials. Her father seems to have resigned himself to staying out of it and focuses on his own obsession with wrestling. Absurd humor swirls around Hamid and the crew of the station. For this particular day it encompasses Kabul Dreams as they and everyone else await the arrival of Metallica.
“These uncomfortable moments lead us to a better understanding of people with whom we have no common cultural lexicon.”
I’m a fan of Metallica and they are a dominant force in the metal genre, but let’s face it, in the context of Middle Eastern culture intersecting with American culture, they are not as important as the people at the radio station seem to believe they are. This is a crucial misunderstanding highlighting the small potentially deal-breaking cultural missteps made when people come from such different backgrounds. In trying to understand one another, some ridiculous assumptions have to be dealt with and glossed over to get to the important commonalities. This moving past discomfort of Radio Dreams calls to mind the 2005 film Everything is Illuminated in which a very finicky American must go to Ukraine to unearth his family history.
Jalali has created something beautiful from not much in this low budget, sometimes whimsical, sometimes moving day in the life. These uncomfortable moments lead us to a better understanding of people with whom we have no common cultural lexicon. Sometimes all we can share is sitting around wondering when Metallica will show up. Sometimes that’s enough.
Radio Dreams (2016) Directed by Babak Jalali. Written by Babak Jalali, Aida Ahadiany. Starring Mohsen Namjoo, Boshra Dastournezhad, with an appearance by Lars Ulrich.
7 out of 10