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Radio Dreams’ Delivers Interesting Programming

Credit: promotional still

"Radio Dreams," the new film from Babak Jalali now playing at the Digital Gym, is an unexpectedly charming peek into life at Pars Radio, an Iranian-American radio station in the Bay Area, says guest blogger Rebecca Romani

Hamid Royani is sitting in his office, having one of those days where you think, in the words of the musical group Talking Heads, “How did I get here?”

"Here" is Pars Radio, a San Francisco-based Iranian-American radio station in “Radio Dreams,” the new feature from British-Iranian director Babak Jalali, which takes a quirky, sometimes disconcerting look at a day in the life of one of those little ethnic niche stations that dot the American FM radio landscape.

For Pars Radio, the Bay Area’s No. 1 Farsi-language station, it’s just not any day, but the day programming director Hamid brings together Metallica and Afghanistan’s first rock band, Kabul Dreams. Except the Afghani band has just got in and Metallica has yet to show up.

The magnificently-maned Mohsen Namjoo (known in some circles as Iran’s Bob Dylan) plays Hamid, a famous Iranian émigré novelist turned programming director trying to infuse a bit of culture and artistic innovation into Pars Radio, one of those small, deeply sincere, by the seat of your pants outfits that serves up sounds of home along with home-made commercials for cars, lawyers, and restaurants.

Despite Hamid’s efforts, the station owner is more interested in wrestling than rhythm and his daughter Maral (elegantly turned out Boshra Dastournezhad, a former model turned actor), is desperately trying to keep the station relevant and relatively solvent.

By the time evening has rolled around, even Miss Iran USA is wondering where Metallica is and Kabul Dreams is running out of repertoire.

“Radio Dreams” is a bit of a scruffy film; much like the station, which looks like its egg carton acoustic tiles are about to come unglued any minute. But the film also has gemlike shots and moments of deeply touching reminders of what it is like to be in conflict with your own culture (“Metallica was the voice of my generation … they screamed when I couldn’t") and trying to acculturate in exile in another.

Jalali has taken a small idea, using an even smaller budget and a relatively inexperienced cast and turned it into something quite striking. Namjoo shows surprising range as the writer famous in his homeland, marooned in an Iranian-American radio station catering to the nostalgic and the struggling.

The band, Kabul Dreams, (Sulyman Qardash, Siddique Ahmed, Raby Adib as themselves) is real, playing a charming version of a rule-defying, rock-loving band hoping to live their American dream. And Pars Radio? That, Jalali has said in interviews, is the stand-in for the little community-run ethnic stations that pop up on the FM dial, the length and breadth of California

In its endearing quirkiness, “Radio Dreams” sometimes feels like a surreal mockumentary. There’s a documentary/news crew (led by Larry Laverty of “Judging Amy” and “The Practice”) interviewing both Kabul Dreams and Hamid — but to what end it’s not clear. Kabul Dreams really is a real rock band of Afghanis, playing a charming version of themselves dreaming of really meeting Metallica. And then there’s an ethereal delivery of “Ave Maria” as Hamid looks down on San Francisco, sung, we see later, by someone (the incomparable Litz Plummer, “The Opera Lady”) who looks like she stepped out of a San Francisco Opera production of “Les Miserables.” It’s beautiful, but is Hamid seeing or imagining this?

While not a lot happens in this film, the story is more like a suspension bridge between being oneself and figuring out who you are in another land. And maybe that’s the point.

Known for slice-of-life films (“Frontier Blues,” for example, about life on the border between Iran and Turkmenistan), done in run and gun style, Jalali is not hunting for big stories or out to make a grand statement. It’s more about exploring the eternal question for many immigrants — will I become here? For Kabul Dreams, perhaps it’s being the opening act for Metallica. For Hamid, it may be to find his voice in a new language.

By the time someone shows up from Metallica (the unspoken joke being that amazingly all the Persians are on time, but Metallica is practicing PDF — Persian Delay Factor, things don’t start or end on time), “Radio Dreams” has grown on you, turning into a funny, quiet pool of dark comedy.

“Radio Dreams” is playing through June 15 at the Digital Gym.

In English, Farsi, Assyrian, and Dari (subtitled).

Goes well with:

No One Knows About Persian Cats” (Bahman Ghobadi, 2009)

Afghan Star” (Havana Marking, 2009)

Shirin In Love” (Ramin Niami, 2014)

And something to read:

"The Sheikh’s Batmobile: In Pursuit of American Pop Culture in the Middle East" (Richard Poplak, 2010)

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