Shahin Najafi in When God Sleeps (Khelghat)

From the start, director Till Schauder gets viewers into the mind of a man living with a bounty on his head. The first sequence of this engrossing, suspenseful documentary follows its subject, Iranian musician Shahin Najafi, coming home to his empty apartment. As his silhouette moves from room to room, the films cut to images that make his priorities clear: first, making sure the metal bolt of his front door is in place; and secondly, checking that his handgun is loaded.

Such is the existence of Najafi, who before the film is over will perform throughout Europe. But through it all, the threat of violence hangs over him and his associates. Najafi cannot return to Iran due to a fatwa, which hardline Muslim clerics issued in retaliation for songs that were critical of Islam. Now an exile, the closest family he has are his bandmates, most of whom are from Europe; his managers; and his long-distance girlfriend Leili, who constantly worries about his safety.

It soon becomes clear that Najafi is not the sort to be silenced. Schauder follows him as he promotes his music—which takes on sexism, human rights violations, and other topics considered taboo in his homeland—with no shortage of provocative gestures. During an interview, he proclaims that he doesn’t have a problem with Islam; rather, “Islam has a problem with me.” He drops a single, “Mammad Nobari,” and takes a certain amount of satisfaction explaining that it’s about a penis, but that “Mammad” could also refer to the prophet Mohammad.

As one might expect in a documentary about a musician, there is much footage of Najafi on stage, initially performing politically-themed folk songs, although these gradually give way to heavy metal and rap. Najafi’s a charismatic performer, with the tendency for his whole body to be seemingly taken over by the emotions he’s feeling. His audiences, who appear to consist mostly of Middle Eastern youth, seemingly feed on that energy, which on more than one occasion leads to a tense encounter during or after the show.

While Najafi seems fine with adoring fans rushing his car as he’s trying to leave, his handlers and bandmates become increasingly concerned about safety—they don’t know if one of them could turn out to be an extremist looking to cash in on the fatwa. The film never loses sight of how danger lurks everywhere. Indeed, one of the most riveting scenes involves Najafi and his manager getting into their car in a parking lot, sensing something is amiss, and then quickly exiting the vehicle as they believe there is a bomb inside it. Yet while those around him push Najafi to call off shows, he presses on undeterred.

Through interviews with the subject, in which Schauder digs into the larger forces that drive the musician, he turns up an episode of compulsory military service, during which Najafi witnessed the hardline government’s repressive tactics firsthand. But another possibly seminal event was his trying to bring his religious and secular friends together. It might have been a futile endeavor at the time, but one gets the impression that Najafi continues to take on the role of bridge-builder, even if it’s unconsciously. As it turns out, Leili herself comes from a highly devout family, and this explains why he would even consider pursuing such an impossible relationship; he just can’t help himself.

The film takes place with the 2015 Paris terror attacks very much in the background, and Najafi cannot help but respond to the growing hostility in Western Europe toward immigrants. As someone who experienced being a foreigner in the Western world himself, Najafi once again attempts to serve as a bridge between cultures, which leads to a genuinely moving climax.

When God Sleeps has inspiring moments, even if it ultimately cannot shake off the ominousness feeling regarding its subject’s fate. It would be noteworthy to revisit Najafi even closer to the present, with the continent further gripped in a nationalistic, anti-immigrant fever. But given the danger all around him, his availability for a follow-up seems like no sure bet.