Free speech is not free.  Iranian hip-hop artist and activist Shahin Najafi can attest to this after being accused of apostasy by Iranian clerics following the release of his song, “Ay Naghi.”

Shahin Najafi
(Photograph contributed by the Mary B. Martin School of the Arts)

Apostasy is defined as the abandonment or renunciation of a religious or political belief.

“When God Sleeps” is a documentary titled after Najafi’s book “Wenn Gott Schläft,” and features nine of his songs. The film aims to start an important conversation about free speech, artistic integrity and religious and political extremism by providing viewers with a look into the courageous artist’s journey from crippling fear to a life that hints at freedom.

Najafi’s song dared to tackle some of the issues facing women’s and other human’s rights and ironically cost Najafi his freedom, forcing him to flee his home and immigrate to Germany in efforts to escape the death sentence edict that was issued and a $100,000 bounty on his head.

Till Schauder, writer, director and co-producer of the film, recalls first encountering and using Najafi’s music while making his previous film, “The Iran Job.” After attempting to invite him to attend the film’s premiere, Schauder discovered that Najafi was deep in hiding due to the fatwa and became inspired to tell his story.

“I feel honored that Shahin gave me the exclusive right and access to tell his extraordinary story,” Shauder said. “A prerequisite for trying to represent all facets of his personality, which can be provocative, courageous, restless, maddening, contradictory and endearing.”

On speaking of the film and Najafi’s story, Director of the Mary B. Martin School of the Arts Anita DeAngelis, who sponsors the film series, said, “I think there are times when artists have such deep-seated convictions that they literally will risk their lives for those convictions and he’s one of those artists. It’s an interesting and powerful story.”

“When God Sleeps” will be screened as part of the South Arts Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers on Monday, Sept. 25, at 7 p.m. in ETSU’s Martha Street Culp Auditorium. The screening, which is free and open to the community, will be followed by a Q&A session and reception with the filmmaker, Till Schauder.  For more information about the film or ETSU Mary B. Martin School of the Arts, call 423-439-TKTS (8587) or visit Watch the trailer here.