No One Knows About Persian Cats

Movie Review: No One Knows About Persian Cats

No One Knows About Persian Cats (a film by Bahman Ghobadi) is, among many other things,  a band-on-the-run film, with the bands in question scrambling to stay one step ahead of the police in Tehran. You might even get away with calling it “A Hard Days Night”, if that title werent already taken, and if you were ready for a dark ending.

The proto-documentary of freedom-seeking vs. authority in Iran was filmed secretly, without permits, in 17 days in Tehran in late 2008.  Dont expect a wobbly experience of kids lurching with a camera to capture unlit scenes. There are minimal sacrifices to production value. The logistics and restrictions dont get in the way of the portrait of a young generation fighting censorship and isolation. It will make you wonder why the US might want to attack this country.

The Iranian-Kurdish director, Bahman Ghobadi, first made his name with The Time of Drunken Horses (2000), a poetic tale set in the mountains of northwestern Iran (Kurdiistan), where the population has more in common with Iraqi Kurds across the border than with the strict mullahs in Tehran. Ghobadi lives in northeastern Iraq now. The notion of a someone emigrating to Iraq should help you draw conclusions about the life he abandoned in Iran, or the life that he might dread there if he returned.

Negar and Ashkan in No One Knows About Persian Cats

Negar and Ashkan in No One Knows About Persian Cats

Shot in the everyday Tehran that regular people inhabit, Persian Cats follows Negar and Ashkan, two gently charismatic and ambitious underground rockers, as they attempt to form a band while they scheme to get passports and visas for a gig in London.  The film winds its way through Tehrans underground scene – here underground is more than a marketing term – and we see a range of young musicians playing styles that reflect remarkable familiarity with whats happening in the West – even rap. All that music is illegal.

Forget about the suburban musical laments of anxiety and repression in the US. This is the real thing. Youll be shocked, not just at the governments severity, but at he prices that the kids will pay to get out with false documents.

Ghobadis film looks like a documentary, but not like the kind of documentary made by inexperienced indies who are racing around to reveal something. Nor is it preoccupied with its own style.  Ghobadi told me in an interview that he never saw A Hard Days Night or Jean-Luc Godards Band of Outsiders (1964)- these films would seem like inspiration if you look at “Persian Cats” from a cinephiles perspective. While not feigning a bumpy hand-held investigative look, Ghobadi has found a practical way to tell an important truth. Irans theocracy is a place where almost everything that a young person might want to do is illegal. Women arent permitted to sing for men. You cant take a dog into the streets without having it confiscated by the police. A woman cant be seen in the company of a man whos not a relative or her husband (although the regime issues temporary marriage permits to fudge that one), and the list of offenses extends into infinity. That way, the police are free to arrest you for almost anything. We see this dilemma in operation with the musicians who want to either play their music or leave for a country where they can play. These are hardly the political radicals who want to topple a regime. But the clerics dont see things that way. As I mentioned, Bahman Ghobadi has fled to Iraq.

Ashkan Koshanejad in "No One Knows About Persian Cats"

Ashkan Koshanejad in "No One Knows About Persian Cats"

(We also see it from the inside of jail cells in the newly-published book, Between Two Worlds, by Roxana Saberi, the films co-screenwriter and executive producer -and Ghobadis girlfriend – who spent five months in prison on spying charges in early 2009 before pressure from the US and other countries got her released. Saberi, who was born in the US to an Iranian father and Japanese mother and grew up in Fargo, North Dakota, is a former Miss North Dakota who went to Iran as a journalist and was preparing a book on Iranian society when she was arrested in January 2009.)

Persian Cats takes its title from the captive nature of animals that are kept at home.  The musicians, like the cats, need to be protected, not hunting, Ghobadi seems to be telling us.

While Persian Cats often looks like a documentary, and it is a tour through a music scene in which real bands play real music, be careful about seeing the film as journalism and drawing conclusions about Iran today. Persian Cats has already been overtaken by events. The doc was completed at least a year ago, and showed in Cannes in May 2009, before the government responded violently to protests after the June 2009 elections. Since then, weve read about abuses of those in prison, and the director Jaffar Panahi has been locked up.  He is still in prison.

It leaves you with questions.  If we can see a finished film that was made on the run in Tehran, without permits, why arent we seeing more footage of the political reality in Iran today? Its hard to believe that Ghobadi is the only one with a camera.

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