Arman T. Riahi’s first documentary film, Darkhead, captures the second generation of immigrants in Vienna through the main character, Nazar, a controversial rapper of Iranian descent. He's at once popular with young people, hated by the conservatives, and prey for the tabloids... The controversial figure became the target of a growing xenophobia and far-right parties rallying against radical Islamism. But the real topic here is not Nazar, but the lack of tolerance in a multicultural society.
At first glimpse, the film looks like a portrait of a controversial musician, but in the end, the film is not so much about him as it is about the second generation of immigrants in Austria and their search for identity. Was this your intention from the beginning?
I had this idea of starting the film with the adult protagonists and ending with real life kids and teenagers in the concept stage of the film, during scripting and pre-production. I imagined stories about the protagonists’ childhood and youth growing up in Vienna. But since I didn’t want to make a documentary film with re-enactment, I soon had the idea of filming kids and teenagers with a similar background in situations, real kids from the city with a similar cultural and social background that the adult protagonists could identify with from their own past. That’s where it began, and I think it was the right decision not to have actors replay the protagonists’ real experiences. This would have made a completely different film and also a different perception of the protagonists’ stories and anecdotes.
I am asking also because for your brother the question of immigration and identity is one of the main themes in his films Ein Augenblick Freiheit and Exile Family Movie. I assume it must be a very personal topic for you as well...
The question of immigration and identity is always a big question in the lives of the second generation, though technically speaking I’m still first generation because me and my siblings were born in Iran. But especially me and my sister were still very young so we don’t remember much from Iran. Today, I am based in Vienna, Austria, and although I miss seeing my home country, a country I only know from the stories of my parents and relatives and from the media, I have found myself a home. But this has nothing to do with a geographic space, but with the heart and the fact that I am accepted by society, or at least the part of society I am confronted with or I confronted myself with. This is what the protagonists of my film Darkhead are missing in their lives: having a sense of belonging, of being accepted. This is often due to the fact that many of these kids don’t have a single functioning relationship to any person in their social environment, and without these relationships, without people that love you and support you – which in most cases would be your parents – you’re country-less, without roots. So feeling ‘at home’ in a foreign country or rather: in a country that is foreign to your parents' culture, is mostly a social question rather than a cultural, especially for the second and third generations. It’s your social environment and the people around you that make you feel ‘at home’ in a country. This is to say that most of these kids were already born in Austria, so for them to still feel ‘foreign’ in the country is of course also related to the fact that the Austrian media, politicians and population sometimes give them the feeling that they’re not welcome, but this fact gets negligible with a solid social background, education and self-confidence.
It’s obvious, that Nazar serves as a role model for the kids. But he, same as you, came from Iran and grew up in Vienna. That may give you a different point of view on many things. What about the generation that grew up in the new country, are there differences, also in the question of identity?
Also, theoretically, the kids born in the countries foreign to their parents’ culture should feel even more ‘at home’ in the ‘new’ countries than kids that were born in their parents countries and had to leave. But in certain social settings in Europe, it is exactly the opposite! And that is a troubling fact. Kids with immigrant background feel more welcome with other immigrant kids, sometimes it’s even worse and the Turkish kids for example only have friends that are Turkish, too. That is how the so-called ‘parallel societies’ develop – at least with the younger generations. But opposite to the common thinking and how the tabloids and cheap media claim, the question of xenophobia is only the icing on the cake. It all begins with how these kids grow up, how their parents treat them, what the family structure looks like, what their education is. If your life is taking a good route, you can see past the xenophobia and hate of some of the people. But if your life goes wrong from the beginning or takes too many wrong turns, then you can’t see past people's resentment. It only makes you angrier. And additionally, it is of course a question of character – which again comes down to social background and upbringing.
The question of racism and xenophobia is still pressing in all of Europe. Also the nickname "Schwarzkopf" Nazar and his friends are using is an ironic reaction to it. How strong are xenophobic tendencies in Austria?
Racism is still rooted deeply within Austrian society, although Austria has always been a multicultural country. As to why it is like this, probably only Helmut Qualtinger or Thomas Bernhard can tell you. But I think that although Austria has always been an immigrant country, the contempt for what seems to be ‘foreign’ was always there. In the beginning of the 20th century it was the Jews, in the 1970s the Yugoslavian and Turkish guest workers, and now it is the Muslims. Leading right-wing figures like Haider and the conservative-right-wing government of Wolfgang Schüssel in 2000, together with the powerful right-wing tabloid Kronen Zeitung, have made xenophobia socially acceptable again. And since the Austrian politics are being dictated by right-wing policies since 20 years, the matters of immigration, integration and maintaining respect between the different cultures has been reduced to a mere election campaign subject – in a negative way. The only remaining areas where you can see people working for progression in these questions are the grassroots: social workers, teachers etc.
Nazar himself was also accused of xenophobia - the main problem were his lyrics, and he was accused of radical Islamism. Could you please describe this case a bit more?
In one of his songs, Nazar literally raps ‘I still celebrate 9/11’. It didn’t take the popular nationalist party FPÖ under Heinz-Christian Strache very long to declare a growing ‘radical Islamism’ in Vienna. But Nazar is not even very religious. Yes, he is a Muslim, but religion doesn’t play a huge role in his life. It is the same with most other immigrant kids in Vienna. But religion – or the identification with people who have the same religion – can be a powerful asylum for the kids. This has to be taken seriously. But the same way Nazar was exaggerating in delivering his opinion, which is that he believes the Muslims have suffered the most under the consequences of September 11 – something that he describes in the film because I confronted him with these accusations – the same way the far-right party has consciously ignored the fact that this is rap music and in this genre provocation is an essential element. So in doing what they can do best, which is exactly this kind of exaggeration that Nazar uses in his music, they exposed themselves. They said that radical Islamism is growing massively in Vienna, and the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) is helping in this matter because Nazar publicly supported them in the course of the last election in Vienna. Yes, maybe radical Islamism is growing in Vienna, but so is radical communism, radical anti-globalization etc. As long as the discourse between the people will have this character, radicalism will always grow. Thinking otherwise in this matter is just naïve.
How long did the preparations take? Did Nazar cooperate from the beginning or did you have problems to convince him, also due to his recent problems with the law and the controversy around him?
The film was financed quickly, because there was and still is a demand in Austria for films about this part of our society, which is relatively unknown to most people, except for negative headlines in tabloids. In the beginning, Nazar thought we would do a TV-like report and it took some time to convince him that we would like to make a serious documentary. Also, it took some time to gain the trust of the protagonists, to prove to them that I was interested in portraying them and their generation adequately. Nazar was interested from the beginning, but it was also clear for us that we wouldn’t do a promotional film for him. I wanted to do the portrait of a generation, rather than portrait a single person’s life. Since we were shooting over a long period of time, many things happened in Nazar's life, and sometimes we were there, as with his release from prison, and sometimes we weren’t. But we quickly agreed to do this film together.
For hip-hop and for Nazar, a certain stylization is usually a must. Did you have problem to get to the “real” Nazar? Wasn't he trying to keep his “bad, angry, shocking” media image while shooting?
Of course he had these tendencies, and you can also see it in the film. Everybody will act a little different to his real self as soon as a camera is in the room, especially a rapper like Nazar. But I respected this and I didn’t try to break through it, since this fact is an important part of the whole story, of understanding this genre of rap, and also, we were just observers. Several times you can see through the pose, and see a sensitive and hurt human being hiding behind it. In combination with the kids and teenagers I think it was enough to tell the story.
This interview was first published in October 2011 in IDF's paper Industry Reel #2.
Schwarzkopf , Austria, 2011, 90 min, 35 mm, Music, Portrait, Society
This is the story of two generations of neo-Austrians - „darkheads“, as they call themselves - born and raised in Europe, but misfits nonetheless. Nazar, our 25-year old protagonist, an armed robbery suspect, is released from prison and confronted with his troublesome financial situation. Jobless, he seeks sanctuary in a world where he is respected and well-known - in the world of German rap music. While confronted with this situation, Nazar and his two best friends look back at a life of disruption - shattered families, street life and delinquency. A past connecting them with the present life of a new generation of immigrant descendants...
Days of European Film: Docs on the List