Review: No One Knows About Persian Cats
Film Explores the Underground Iranian Music Scene
In Iran, rock music has been illegal to own and to perform for some three decades. But the new film “No One Knows About Persian Cats” (opening May 7 at Reading's Gaslamp Stadium 15) explores the music underground in contemporary Iran. You can listen to my review and hear some selections of Iranian music.
Iranian filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi ("Turtles Can Fly," "A Time for Drunken Horses") knows what it’s like to deal with censorship and government authorities. Maybe that’s why he’s turned a sympathetic camera on the struggles of musicians in his homeland. His new film “No One Knows About Persian Cats” explores the music scene in contemporary Iran.
In a studio, an engineer explains that the musician he’s recording would like to make a film about underground Iranian music. When asked if the film will employ professional actors, the answer is no. This sets up the kind of self-reflexive cinema that Iran is known for – it’s not quite fiction and not quite documentary, but it’s very conscious of the filmmaking process and how it presents information to the viewer.
The two leads in “No One Knows About Persian Cats,” are Negar Shaghaghi and Ashkan Koshanejad, a pair of non-actors. The young couple attempts to purchase passports and visas in order to travel abroad. They also take us through the underground music scene where a rehearsal can be dangerous. When a doorbell rings, the person arriving could be another musician or a cop coming to arrest everyone. One of the pleasures of the film is how it mixes East and West. On a certain level the story is not much different from the old Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland MGM musicals. So we get the Hollywood cliché of “hey kids let’s put on the show” but with political realities of Iran today.
We see how Western pop culture pervades the country despite attempts to keep it out. Take a fast-talking promoter. Images of Brando adorn his room and he has pet birds named Rhett Butler, Scarlett O’Hara, and Monica Bellucci. He assesses the music scene in Iran at about 300 indie groups, 2000 pop combo bands, and three generations of banned female singers. And then there's a band that has a Beatles poster up on its wall. And just as the Beatles improvised a performance out in a field in the movie "Help!" an Iranian heavy metal band provides us with a jam session in a cowshed. The cows moo and look sadly at the camera as the band rocks out. The farmer complains that the cattle now refuse to eat. These scenes show the resourcefulness of the musicians who have to dodge authorities to perform wherever and whenever they can. Their lyrics plead for fences – both real and imaginary – be torn down.
But it’s all the obstacles that prompt Negar and Ashkan to seek flight from their homeland. This raises a key question in the film. Should an artist stay and fight a repressive regime or flee to create art without restriction? One rapper says he won’t leave because what he has to say is for "the heart of the city."
In real life, filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi has expressed a desire to leave his country but he doesn’t let that color the film. Both sides in the debate make their case, and we see the challenges each one faces.
As the young couple travels through the city, we get to hear a variety of musical genres from heavy metal and blues to hip-hop and a kind of jazz fusion. And each time we break for a song, Ghobadi serves up a music video focused on a different aspect of Iranian life. To a jazzy beat we get a breathless montage of youth invoking the spirit of the French New Wave. But another song -- this one with an elegant female voice -- provides an excuse to examine women in Iranian culture.
As with such films as "Beijing Bastards" and “Afghan Star,” “Persian Cats” uses music as a means of exploring a repressive society. And that should resonate well for audiences who have been treated to a number of films about Western resistance to rock and roll. Last year’s “Pirate Radio” showed how the British government tried -- and pathetically failed -- to ban rock music from the airwaves in the 1960s. So the combination of youth and music has spelled danger and rebellion to a wide array of governments.
“No One Knows About Persian Cats” (unrated and in Farsi with English subtitles) is a lively, documentary style film that provides a window on contemporary Iran. And from this vantage point we can see both how we are different and how we are very much the same.
Companion viewing: "Sounds of Silence," "Afghan Star," "Beijing Bastards"