No One Knows About Persian Cats Review
A film about the underground Indie Rock scene in Tehran may seem like something of a departure for Iranian filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi, the director’s previous films all being concerned with issues related to the necessarily largely itinerant Kurdish population trying to find a safe place to live in the dangerous mountainous region between Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. In common with those films however, there are certain fundamental issues dealt with here in No One Knows About Persian Cats with regards to freedom of expression and the determination of individuals to overcome the most restrictive and inhumane personal difficulties that come with living in the region.
Although better know for the two bigger international successes of A Time For Drunken Horses and Turtles Can Fly, films that looked specifically at how very young orphaned children are forced to adapt to living with war and constant personal danger, music has been an important factor in Ghobadi’s two other films, Marooned in Iraq and Half Moon. Both these films have specifically broached the subject of singing, using music as an expression of freedom in a country where there are strict laws about its performance and where women are even prohibited from singing solo in public. As soon becomes clear in No One Knows About Persian Cats, there are other laws that restrict what people can sing – it is forbidden to sing songs that deal with political, anti-Islamic content or lyrics that encourage immoral behaviour, and the consequences of breaking these laws can be very strict indeed.
Using a fictional construct but using real musicians, the film follows Negar and Ashkan as they try to get additional musicians together and the necessary travel documentation to allow them to play at a couple of concerts in Europe. As Ashkan plays all his own instruments on his recordings, he needs to find like-minded musicians willing to play his music in live performances – which is no easy matter when most musicians are secretive about their music, never venturing beyond soundproofed basements or in some cases even cowsheds. But just as importantly, Negar and Ashkan also need people who have the necessary passports and visas to perform abroad. They are introduced by an engineer in a recording studio to Nader, a man who will be their guide through the vast network of underground musicians that is thriving despite restrictions that has seen most of them do time in prison, promising not only to introduce them to sympathetic and like-minded musicians, but even help them obtain all the necessary travel documentation through other underworld connections.
With only a notional idea of a storyline and using real musicians rather than actors, No One Knows About Persian Cats consequently has the rough and ready feel of a documentary, which is typical of the kinetic style of Bahman Ghobadi, and particularly well suited here to the filming of energetic indie rock music and youth culture of Tehran. Nader, who also does a sideline in bootlegging DVDs, introduces Ashkan and Negar to a thriving community of bands working in all musical styles and genres – from soul divas to traditional singers, from jazz-fusion combos to heavy metal and rap units. Ghobadi gives the viewer time to get to know the people in the bands, listen to their stories of being reported to the police by neighbours and the terms of imprisonment they have been sentenced to for playing music illegally. He also gives their music a platform, filming music-video style sequences of performances set against the bustle and variety of life in Tehran, the place that inspires and gives force to the music, despite also trying to stifle it.
At a time when Iranian filmmakers are being carefully watched by the authorities and, in the case of Jafar Panahi, being arrested and imprisoned for being outspoken against the current government, it’s a brave subject to tackle, both on the part of the director and the young people who take part. (One young female nu-soul singer in the mould of Duffy is necessarily filmed in blurry images, her face never shown). The point of course that music is a form of personal expression, particularly within the youth culture, that will find a way to persist no matter what restrictions are placed on it, but it’s more than that. It’s not enough that the music remains underground and in basements cellars, but it needs to reach an audience. No One Knows About Persian Cats bravely gives these youth and their bands a chance at expression to a wider audience that otherwise would indeed not know anything about them. It’s a subject that is at the heart of all Bahman Ghobadi’s films, and it’s no less effective – or indeed sometimes just as dispiriting – here.