everything all at once
Prejudices, man, they really are at an all-time high these days, aren’t they? And they’re not only a vast indicator of why the human race sucked so bad in the last decade, they also imply that life ain’t treating all these precious advocates of hate as smoothly and kindly as they would’ve hoped - so obviously it’s an easy and much welcome task to create a world on the very periphery of facts that matches their expectations and wannabe-beliefs because the unreal most definitely is more powerful than the real, since absolutely nothing is as simple as you can imagine it. The good thing though is that all it needs to snap out of it is reminding ourselves that it’s actually quite simple to become bigger than we’ve been recently - greater in spirit and more courageous. And Berlin-based Mentrix could be just the right musical catalyst for bringing this endeavor into fruition.
At this point, multidisciplinary artist Samar Rad aka Mentrix is far from being exhausted from fighting the good fight, since she’s constantly challenging our views and beliefs on feminism, gender roles, preconceptions on her homeland Iran, and that thing we love to describe as “global music“ from our ignorant Western point of view. She basically spent the last four years working on the accurate transition to introduce her artistic vision to the world - and the result is nothing less than breathtaking. Her debut album attests that she actually started making music through her spiritual practice, as she’s combining Sufi melodies and rhythms with dark electronica to impressive results while telling tales about sisterhood, home, love, loss, and what it feels like to be caught between two worlds as an independent woman of Iranian background. The accompanying short films - the term “videos” wouldn’t really do its cinematic vigor justice - were realized with emerging French director Gilles Estève on site in Iran, fascinating visual statements that not only bow to the beauty this country has to offer, but to the complexity of Mentrix’s vision and the points she aims to get across. Lodown sat down for a quick chit-chat with one this year’s hottest tickets.
Samar, the short films that will soon be released to tease the release of your debut album are stunning. Was it one of those things that slightly got bigger than originally intended or was your original vision that epic right from the start?
Well, the main goal was to connect the music to where I come from - and to do so it was pretty clear from the beginning that it would come from a very strong aesthetic point of view. So I had to go there, I had to film there, show not only myself there but all the strong women who live in Iran. I wanted to show the country and the stuff I believe in, wanted to show my vision - and all the possibilities regarding people’s prejudices about this country. It needed to be a strong statement. It was a huge challenge though because filming in Iran is obviously automatically connected to a lot of limitations... but at this point people sure have learned to do great things within these limitations. I mean, the crew that director Gilles Estève and I put together were great professionals - from the choreographer to the make-up artist to the DoP. In the end, it took over two years to bring everything together, but everyone involved from the Western side was just too curious to travel to Iran to let this opportunity pass. Gilles usually works in the field of advertising for high-end fashion and luxury brands, so he has just the right sensibility for making a strong statement, for making things look big, you know.
Isn’t it super frustrating, especially as someone who’s dying to introduce her vision to the world, that sometimes things take an almost painful amount of time to realize?
Looking back, it took me over four years to work on the concept of doing a music video in Iran - it was just when Gilles came on board that things were slightly speeding up. It then took nearly a year to find the right locations, and he actually somehow convinced me that in order to get things done professionally, things will take - even more - time. He’s not scared to go to places, if you know what I mean - and this certainly helps when you’re planning to film in Iran.
After we found the right locations, it took another year to map it all out, find some money, find the right people to work with. (laughs) Things then obviously have the tendency to not go as planned, especially not in Iran - regardless of how well you’re prepared. The filming took around two weeks, which is a bit crazy for a music vid.
I traveled there earlier, together with choreographer Nelody, to do some workshops and organize castings, to try out different chadors and buy the right fabrics. We stopped filming around a year ago, but it’s just during the last weeks that the whole project got complete. It’s been a super long process.
That’s amazing because I know for a fact that patience isn’t necessarily your strong suit.
(laughs) Right? I’ve been like a saint, sooo patient. I mean, I finished the album last year, so obviously you want to put it out - but as you know, it depends on so many different elements that suddenly aren’t in your own control anymore. But I’m the label, the musician, the co-producer - so when you’re wearing all these hats, you somehow learn to be patient, I guess. (laughs) When all this is finally released to the public sometime very soon, I will have definitely earned the patience badge... you have to give it to me! So, yeah, if things go as they’re supposed to with the debut, things won’t take as long with future projects, I hope. As you can feel, it’s just really exciting when you’re almost there to finally being able to share the stuff you’ve been working on for many years.
You dance, you sing, you produce, you play several instruments, you film, you run a label and you occasionally sink your teeth into fashion things - is Mentrix now the platform where all these things finally flow together?
Yeah, it’s how you described it - Mentrix is a combination of many different things. I actually came up wit the term “Mentrix” because I was looking for the female word for mentor... and I couldn’t really find one. So that’s what I came up with then, because I believe that everybody needs to have that in their life - someone to refer to externally or internally, a guide. So I made up this person for myself, and every time I’m doing music, I sort of implore this higher being that’s inside me. I mean, the whole journey so far, it’s my own personal journey. Anyway, yeah, I like all these different things and they ultimately come together as Mentrix, it’s the outlet where I’m expressing all the things that feel important to me. As a woman, as an Iranian woman. As an immigrant. As a citizen of the world.
Did you actually ever have second thoughts about singing in English?
Yes, pretty much so. I mean, I’m basically singing in Farsi the whole time of the day because I’m actually basing my songwriting and my melodies on traditional Iranian singing. For me singing in English, well, it’s a bit like dreaming - you know, when you’re living in France for five years, at one point you start dreaming in French. I was living in the UK and a bit in LA when I started to write songs, so it just felt natural to sing in English.
And the pop culture we grew up with was heavy on the English-speaking side anyway.
Exactly. Plus it’s important to me that people actually understand what I am trying to get across. On the other hand, c’mon, English might be the universal language of pop culture but most of the time people still don’t understand the lyrics. In my case, it’s even more confusing because the melodies suggest that I’m singing in Farsi. There is also this phenomenon in Iran right now, that the youth which wants to connect to the world - and this is basically happening all over the world since quite some time - is making not only pop music in English, but in the English genre. Indie, pop, techno, rock-stuff Led Zeppelin style. It follows the same riffs and structures almost to the point of denying your own culture. What I do though is give you an idea about my culture, I use specific rhythms and melodies that are an integral part of traditional Iranian music.
How old were you when you left Iran?
I was nine years old the first time... that was at the end of the Iran-Iraq war. I remember the war very well. I remember bombs and schools being shut and families being on top of families. My auntie was already living in Paris, so we moved there. I was going to school in Paris - sort of going for the better life, so it seemed. Iran post-war was definitely not something that any parent would want for their child. I went back when I was 14, and at that time I was very upset because I had already forgotten about Farsi in a way. I was dreaming about graduating in Paris, so going back to Iran was incredibly hard for me. Going from complete freedom to an all girls school in a full-on hijab and studying chemistry and physics. In hindsight I am glad that happened... because even though it was fairly traumatizing, I picked up Farsi again. got to study Arabics, I had to rediscover my own language and reconnect with my very own roots.
But isn’t it super weird to be forced to rediscover your own culture again?
I mean, for me it was ok, but I know a lot of people that had to return and completely rejected it - almost like a super intense allergic reaction. My school was basically populated with kids that lived abroad for quite some time... and a lot were not able or interested in adapting to the new environment. The rules at school though were a little bit more relaxed, you were allowed to take off your scarf in classroom, for example. Still you got checked for nail polish or if you’ve plucked your eyebrows and stuff. Not necessarily a healthy environment for a teenager, and even though I liked a few aspects, I couldn’t wait to get out again. So after graduation, I applied for university in Paris. They accepted me and I was moving to Paris again.
Returning to Paris, did it feel like you hoped it would feel... or did your expectations no longer match the wonderland scenario you experienced as a kid?
There’s a huge difference between the innocence of your childhood, where you’re fed and cared for, compared to living an adult life in Paris where you have to work and pay the bills, and you don’t have any backup and somehow still have to study. So this is what real independence feels like, hm? Basically I was - to some extent - re-living my mom’s situation when I was a kid in Paris, while struggling to legalize her situation she was an illegal immigrant making ends meet. WIth my student visa, I was at least allowed to work a specific amount of hours - but that obviously didn’t pay my rent. So I was working in bars and restaurants, and the racism actually worked in my favor because my skin is fairly white and my hair is kinda light. So at least I was allowed to work as a waitress and didn’t have to work in the kitchen. So, yeah, before I knew it I was living the immigrant life, where you’re chasing that residency paper and you’re constantly frustrated and stuff. But on the other hand I at least had this freedom I could cherish... and over time I learned to value it more and more.
I continued going back to Iran, and it always felt good to go back... you know, to be reminded that there are so many things still there that the West wasn’t able to provide. I mean, even with citizenship, I continued to answer the question “where are you originally from?“, which is a constant reminder of the motherland versus adopted-land, the immigrant’s tale, really.
But it works the other way around as well, right? Being back in Iran, I can imagine that you were always confronted with the question of why you did leave.
True, there definitely was a time when I felt like a stranger in both lands... but I made peace with that. Obviously the way I walk and talk, and the freedom I claim for myself, doesn’t make living in Iran as a woman necessarily easier. Without thinking, I’m shaking a man’s hand when I say hello... but these are not the codes in Iranian society. But I use that to my advantage as well, because it’s pretty healthy to question the rules every once in a while. Maybe we, the immigrants that leave and come back, maybe we’re a bit of a conduct to challenge the status quo. I’ve been influenced by the good and horrible things in Europe as much as I’m influenced by the good and horrible things in Iran... so maybe I’m now able to influence both worlds with my behavior and implicitness. I have the opportunity to make music in Europe, music that feels authentic to me and original, and which taps into my roots. So obviously by now, I have learned what respect for freedom of expression means. But let’s not forget that these are rights that people have fought for! And we experience over here right now that freedom is always threatened, regardless of where you live.
How does it feel for you, that Iran is basically targeted as this evil empire from all possible angles, even though it’s such a culturally rich country? The filmmaking scene is blooming, the art scene is super diverse... is it finally time to wake up and realize what we have missed over so many years?
You pointed something out that is very true - the media has totally demonized Iran for way too long. Things always get covered very one-dimensionally, if at all. On the other hand, the totalitarianism of the US is never questioned, even though they’re pretty much the #1 bully on this planet. They also have a very strict religious agenda - but it’s the right kind of religion, so it seems. There’s fake news and alternative realities... it’s pretty much all the same, just with a different faith. But faith differences aside, Iran has been constantly under attack nevertheless, so maybe it’s about time to be fair. It’s a bit different in Europe, luckily... at least the art and film scene is recognized over here, people are receptive to it. So many things in Iran certainly need improvement, but it’s definitely not as devastating as the media wants you to believe.
What about the Iranian women in your video? Was it hard to convince them to be a part of it?
It’s a bit hard to explain to anyone what you’re going to do before it’s done. So we had the vision, but obviously it’s always hard to explain rather abstract concepts. The majority were dancers or actors, but still they were very inquisitive about the message of the song. They didn’t want to be part of anything that was too political. So I told them that it’s about unity and womanhood and that we really should thrive a lot more on our sisterhood.
We chose the city of Yazd as a location because it’s not only an ancient city but an overall fascinating one in terms of culture. They really understood how to access water and fresh air in the middle of the desert by understanding their natural environment and using the laws of nature. In Yazd, basically every woman is wearing the chador, it’s like a part of the landscape - so I thought it would be weird to change that with the women we portray in the video just for the sake of projecting diversity and freedom. Also it’s aesthetically beautiful... it’s not about religious beliefs but about dealing with the environment that surrounds you. It is not a symbol of limited rights! The way you dress is more often a result of the necessity of the environment has shaped this in Iran, but women have found ways to play with their outfits in an effort to express themselves - and I wanted to show that in a proud and beautiful way.
Having these discussions and exchanges with all the women involved was wonderful. I think that I managed to respect the rules of what you’re allowed to film in Iran, all the while staying true to my creative vision and remaining respectful of everyone. Plus it was all legit, I actually had permits to film... and I worked really hard to get these!
While I was in Iran for location scouting, I connected with the Iranian Youth Cinema Association... and once people meet you in person, if you can earn their trust, then it’s a winner. I’m actually still in touch with them. When I was having discussions with them about permits and what we were allowed to show, I was already able to show them a bit of the material we shot. They thought that it’s really beautiful, but said that it’s probably tricky to release in Iran... I always responded that if they didn’t see anything negative about it, then let’s work with that - and that’s what I meant about having an influence in a direction that promotes more freedom. It’s a leap of faith kinda thing. And to my surprise, I imagined limitations in thoughts and perceptions that were not there... or that were not as rigid as I thought, at least. You know, I read somewhere that Mother Theresa was never involved in a single march against war... but she did take an active part in a lot of things that were pro-peace - and that’s a significant difference! It’s like promoting positivity! I hope that the women that took part in these videos, when they will see themselves, they will take pride to have been part of this project... I hope they will be satisfied with the images, the poetry, the direction - all that beauty that we wanted to share with the world.
Mentrix’s debut album will be released in early 2020 via !K7
Images courtesy of Kathy Le Sant and Samira Hodaei, captured in Iran while shooting Mentrix’s videos with director Gilles Estève in October 2018. words: Forty