Dubfire Talks 'Above Ground Level' Film & Importance of Immigrant Stories in the Trump Era

Nil Calvarons


When Dubfire decided to make Above Ground Level, a new documentary on his life that screens on Wednesday at Miami Music Week, he was not interested in appealing only to techno-heads. The Iranian-born DJ tells Billboard Dance that the goal with the film was to "steer clear of typical dance music documentary cliches and tell more of a human story about me being an immigrant, coming to America and pursuing the American dream."

Following President Trump's latest travel ban, Above Ground Level takes on a new importance that Dubfire could not have predicted when he started the project several years ago. "It's a positive story that needs to be told," he says of the movie. "It shows me, an Iranian immigrant, in a positive light. It's a glimmer of hope for a lot of Persians in America or Persians that want to come to America to not feel so marginalized by the policies of the current administration." 

The new film is just one of many releases from Dubfire coming out this year: he has a Gaiser remix due out through Minus, a retrospective album, A Decade of Dubfire, slated for June, a live concert DVD and live album prepped for the fall, and shows planned to mark the 10th anniversary of his label, SCI-TEC. "This is a big year of looking back at my achievements and what I accomplished," he says. After that, it'll be time to "focus on the next chapter of my career: a new sound, a new visual look." 

Billboard Dance spoke with Dubfire about Above Ground Level and dance music's continued commitment to inclusivity in the face of rising xenophobia around the world. Read excerpts from the conversation below.

When did you first decide you were going to make a documentary about your career?

I was actually approached by the filmmakers, who were -- and still are -- working for Native Instruments. At the time they were product designers for Native Instruments, and I have a good relationship with them in that I use their hardware and software both in the studio and in my DJ setup. They approached me to follow me around when I was playing the Time Warp festival in Mannheim. I didn't realize they'd done these little mini-documenatires, and when I saw these little things they'd done for other artists, I was really intrigued. Then when I saw footage of what they shot and edited together from Time Warp, I said, "hey, why don't you guys turn this into a feature-length documentary?" I'd never had anything done like that before. They thought that was a great idea. 

The only other thing I told them was: I want you to steer clear of typical dance music documentary cliches and try to tell more of a human story about me being an immigrant, coming to America and pursuing the American dream, achieving success and maybe realizing that it wasn't what I thought it was going to be -- or wasn't necessarily what I signed up for. And then basically walking away from that, taking a different approach, and starting from the ground up again, more on my terms. 

Do you watch a lot of documentaries?

I watch them all the time. There wasn't anything that served as a reference point for this. I just love watching documentaries that have emotional subject matter, emotional content. I tend to connect with those a lot more -- just last night I watched The White Helmets, which I think won the Academy Award for Best Documentary. It's really, really good. 

I just wanted to do something that people outside of dance music, people from all walks of life can connect with and enjoy. The filmmakers achieved a good balance of not only portraying me and my story but talking a little bit about the sacrifices that people in my industry have to make with family and friends and also the physical demands on the body and everything in between. 

How long did you spend working on it?

They pretty much filmed me off and on over the course of two years. It's a bit weird having people follow you around with the camera. Especially times where I'd want to sleep in and they'd be like, alright, we need the keys to your room; we're going to come in, set up, and film you waking up. That's a bit odd knowing that someone's going to sneak into your room at some point and be there when you're waking up. That took getting used to. But whatever they needed to make the film that they wanted to make, I basically gave them carte blanche. 

Initially you weren't going to be on camera in the film?

Basically they finished a cut of the film that they were really happy with, and that initial cut didn't have me interviewed on camera. I thought that was a really cool way of including me. It's about me, but it's so much more than just about me. I didn't want to necessarily be on camera all the time, and they didn't think that was a good approach either, based on wanting to avoid those dance documentary cliches. So they had me, in the initial cut, just doing the voiceover at the beginning of the film, which was really effective, I thought. 

But when they presented it to the film consultant that was helping them try to land it in film festivals and shopping it for distribution, they felt like it needed to have some footage of me being interviewed to reinforce certain points. So they shot interviews with me in Paris and Berlin and found a way to include it. I basically cracked open a bottle of sake and we had a conversation. 

Their interview style was really comfortable -- for not just me, but also for all the other artists like David Guetta and Richie Hawtin and everyone. They made it easy for everyone interviewed to open up and be really honest about what it's like to do what we do. What it takes and how it affects your mind, your body, and your career. 

How did you choose the guests in the movie?

The filmmakers asked me -- they obviously knew me and who my friends are in the industry. They approached those people first, and then they asked for a list of other people that I'm friends with and just kind of went off and approached different people. Even people as diverse as Nervo and David Guetta and Paul Oakenfold, who I'm friends with but we don't really share anything musically in common with each other. They thought that would also give more of an insight, more of a well-rounded perspective than just interviewing people within my specific genre. They were able to get great, candid interviews with David and Paul and others.

Basically the only conversation I had with the filmmakers was after I saw the footage they did at Time Warp. The rest they set about taking the lead on themselves. I didn't want to compromise the documentary at all. I wanted it to be their film, how they see me, so I steered clear of meddling. 

The first time they screened it for me, when I saw the completed film, it was really bizarre. It's one thing seeing yourself on Youtube or being interviewed. It's another thing seeing a whole film of just you. Your life. That took some time getting used to. I had to convince myself that that's something that I want people to see. We did a small screening for friends during ADE a few years ago, and the reaction was positive -- that's when we felt like we have something special here. There were some people crying during certain scenes. We felt like we had something new to offer to people used to the typical dance music documentaries. 

Do you feel like the current political moment heightens the importance of a movie like this?

We didn't plan this obviously, but with the Trump administration, the travel ban, and everything else that's going on politically in America, it's taken on a more timely weight. It's a positive story that needs to be told. It shows me, an Iranian immigrant, in a positive light. It's a glimmer of hope for a lot of Persians in America or Persians that want to come to America to not feel so marginalized by the policies of the current administration. 

You're seeing this right-wing nationalist movement rise not just in America but in Europe and around the world. I don't know what the end result will be. I live between DC, Barcelona, and L.A.; I think everyone feels it, this undercurrent of negative xenophobia. 

Do you think that will be reflected in the new music that's being made?

It's bound to impact music. Musicians, artists, we reflect the times. The times right now are very dark and negative. The music that's going to ultimately come out is either going to be just that, reflecting that darkness, or it's going to be really beautiful and hopeful. I don't think there's going to be much in between. Everyone's going to have a strong statement that they want to make musically. 

I went to the Women's March in D.C. -- I happened to be in town, though most of the time I'm on the road. That was beautiful to see. So many people galvanized together for a common cause. There's definitely something wrong in America when you have these kinds of protests that no one has seen since the Vietnam War. There's something going on, something really sinister and negative. What our goal is with the documentary and for me personally as someone who represents the immigrant story is we're trying to portray who we really are. We're people at the end of the day. People who migrate elsewhere in pursuit of a better life. 

Do you know any DJs or families directly impacted by the travel ban?

I don't know of any DJs that are personally affected by the travel ban as many of the Persian DJs I know have American or European citizenship. But families? Sure. Let's start with mine as they now cannot get a visa to come visit us in the United Sates. So we would need to visit each other in other countries like Canada, Turkey or the UAE.

What impact do you think the ban has on perception of America around the world?

It's not just the travel ban but the circus leading up to the election and disappointing victory of the current President and his subsequent policies. I don't think we know the extent yet of the damage it has caused to the USA's image worldwide but it can certainly be felt today. Having said that, and at the risk of oversimplifying the matter, I've yet to see Muslim nations or the Muslim community come together to root out this evil that has given them this negative perception. Instead you get radio silence and some sporadic military action from them.

How does this moment compare to other moments of heightened American xenophobia like the one that followed 9/11?

When I first came to the USA in 1979, I felt marginalized immediately by hostage crisis which labeled all Iranians as enemy #1. I felt it again after 9/11 even though Iran had nothing to do with that tragedy yet anyone of Middle Eastern decent was lumped into one category. Then there was the "Axis of Evil" which President George W. Bush coined and now this travel ban. 

How did you feel about Asghar Farhadi's refusal to attend the Oscars a protest of Trump's unjust policies?

The funny thing is I'm actually friends with Anousheh Ansari as she is married to the brother of a close friend of mine and Sharam's so I was pleasantly surprised when I saw that she was accepting the award on his behalf. He has a right to use the spotlight that he's been given to make a political statement about the ban and specifically the way it has unfairly singled out Iran. He is a creative, like myself, far removed from the corrupt and complex political climate that exists in the world today and now in the current administration here in the USA. We make art and we want to share that art with as many people as possible; that includes traveling freely across borders if it accomplishes those objectives. I'm sure that Mr. Farhadi is being courted by Hollywood or actors in the USA who want to work with him. This travel ban prevents him from doing that.

Zedd recently threw a benefit concert for the ACLU, do you think more electronic musicians will be engaging in that sort of musical activism?

Yes and I've already had conversations with some of my colleagues about coordinating our efforts and doing something to support the ACLU and other organizations who are on the front lines of this fight for justice and equality.

Dance music in particular is often portrayed as a haven for inclusivity; do you think it can continue to maintain that role in the present political moment?

What's happened politically has not changed or deterred people in our industry in how they embrace others and how open they are and how inclusive the message of electronic music is. If anything, it's made us believe that more strongly than ever before. I look at myself as a global citizen. I don't look myself as belonging to a particular facet of society. Obviously I'm Persian, and I have a lot of pride in that. There's a lot of rich history in Persian culture that I carry with me that my parents instilled in me. But I look at myself as a global citizen. We have global problems, and hopefully we'll have global solutions that will include everyone. 

What are the next steps with the documentary following the Miami screening?

Basically we're trying to get distribution so that more people can see it. It's still being submitted to a lot of film festivals. Hopefully we'll get distribution; if not, we'll self-release, perhaps through Amazon Prime or Netflix. One way or another, it'll get out there.


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