Pharrell Williams has made it his job to bring happy, dancing people to international attention. His hit single has enjoyed enormous success around the world, with two releases and a string of tribute videos. But could he have predicted that, in less than four days, 30,000 people would visit YouTube to view an Iranian version of “Happy”?
Inspired by the original music video for the song, seven young Iranian Pharrell fans made their own version, dancing on Tehran rooftops, in apartment blocks and hanging out of windows singing the hit song. But not one of them expected the video to become such a hit.
“We couldn't believe that 10,000 people would watch it in just one day. And the number is growing," says Neda, one of the video's stars.
Seven old friends got together to make the video. They are all involved in the art world in some way, says Neda, "from professional modeling to photography and directing.” She says they often talked about doing something together, “something to present to the world” that Iran’s young people “have moments of joy and happiness even though they live with many difficulties.”
To celebrate the UN’s International Day of Happiness on March 20th, Pharrell Willliams launched a charity campaign to support humanitarian aid initiatives, asking fans to upload videos of people dancing, happy and having fun. Though Neda and her friends did not meet the March 20th deadline–“we were busy with other things and could not finish it on time,” she said–when they finished the video, they decided to post it on YouTube anyway.
For Every Iranian
Though most people who viewed the film were supportive, there was some criticism. “Some people commented that if we wanted to show Tehran to the world we should have shot the scenes around luxurious and upscale houses in northern Tehran,” says Neda. “But we intentionally chose an average-looking house in central Tehran. We wanted to say: joy is not the exclusive domain of the well-to-do and wealthy. Those on the lower rungs of society can experience joy and happiness too.”
For Neda and her friends, it was important for Tehran to be recognizable in the video, especially to those who had left many years before. They wanted “every Iranian” to be reminded of the city, so Tehran’s famous Milad Tower is featured, as are the air-conditioning units found on so many of the city’s rooftops. “We wanted to tell the world that the Iranian capital is full of lively young people and change the harsh and rough image that the world sees on the news.”
The video’s director and filmmaker both have professional portfolios, but for “Happy”, they took the decision not to use a professional camera. Instead they used an iPhone 5S.
One scene was filmed in an alley, Neda says, describing some of the difficulties the team faced when working on the project. “We were really afraid,” she says. “Whenever somebody looked out of a window or someone passed by, we ducked behind a door to make sure we were not seen.”
Shooting on top of roofs presented difficulties too. “To conform to the Islamic dress code, we covered our hair with wigs,” she said. They made sure they had appropriate clothing to cover themselves where necessary. But even with all these precautions, they still attracted attention. Neighbors hung out of their windows to see what was going on, but because they did not have a professional camera, it was assumed that “a few silly young people had gathered together to have fun.”
While the video was being made, Neda and her friends kept quiet about it. When they finished, they presented it to their parents. “On the one hand,” she says, “they praised us for coming up with a new idea. On the other, they were afraid that something would happen to us, considering the present situation." But she says that, for the most part, they weren't really shocked. They know their children well, and are well aware that they all like to challenge the status quo and "push the envelope.”
The "Pharrell Williams–Happy–We Are from Tehran” video is one of many posted from around the world since the single was released in November 2013. For the seven Tehranis behind it, it was the first step they'd taken to reach out to the world. But they have many other ideas they hope to pursue. “We want to continue our work in Iran,” Neda says. “Outside Iran anybody can do this. We want to tell the world that Iran is a better place than what they think it is. Despite all the pressures and limitations, young people are joyful and want to make the situation better. They know how to have fun, like the rest of the world.”