No One Knows About Persian Cats Review
Tehran, the present day. In Ahmedinejad's Iran, any form of music that is considered anti-Islamic is forbidden...which means that the capitals' rockers, jazzers and rappers have to perform in secret, often in basements or even a cowshed. They face severe consequences if caught. Negar (Negar Shaghaghi) and Ashkan (Ashkan Koshanejad) are looking for band members to play with them at a London concert – and the necessary visa which will allow them to leave the country. Nader (Hamed Behdad) is their guide through the underground music scene in Tehran.
Bahman Ghobadi's film No One Knows About Persian Cats deliberately blurs fiction and non-fiction, which is made clear from the outset in a scene in a recording studio where “Bahman” is trying to work on the film's soundtrack. The two central characters bear their real-life names, and many of the acts we see perform are genuine ones, in a variety of genres, from soul to rap to heavy metal. The loosely-wound plot gives us time to learn about these young men and women (in a society where women are forbidden to sing solo in public), and to hear tales of being reported by neighbours and being imprisoned for playing their music. The fast-talking Nader has one of the best scenes in the film where he tries to argue himself out of a punishment of seventy-five lashes for owning western DVDs.
The film makes a convincing case that while creativity and freedom are certainly being suppressed, it's also true that the bustle of life in the Iranian capital gives an energy to the music that's created within its boundaries. Much the same as western musical cities with far fewer restrictions, in fact. In its rough-hewn, semi-documentary way (shot in just seventeen days), Ghobadi's film has a vitality and urgency that is hard to dismiss.
Negar and Ashkan (who perform together as Take It Easy Hospital) have since left Iran, as has Ghobadi. The film won the Special Jury Prize in Un Certain Regard at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival.
No One Knows About Persian Cats is released by Network on a dual-layered PAL disc encoded for all regions. The disc begins with trailers for In the Pit, Star Suckers and I Know You Know.
No doubt someone will point out an obvious forerunner, but I'd never seen an Iranian film in Scope (shot in Super 35) before. The DVD transfer is in the ratio of 2.40:1 and anamorphically enhanced. The film has a slightly rough-and-ready look that is no doubt intentional – and inevitable given the circumstances of the film's making. Some of the music performances are more noticeably edited, almost in promo-video fashion. Scenes set in darkness are very dark, with little in the way of shadow detail.
The DVD also bears a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack as well as a Dolby Sorround (2.0) alternative. This is used effectively for ambience and occasional uses of directional sound. The musical performances are recorded at a similar level to the dialogue, so (unlike some other music-themed films) you shouldn't worry about bothering your neighbours with the volume. (And I'm aware how bitterly ironic that sounds, given the film's subject matter.) English subtitles are optionally available for the feature, and the making-of, and are burned in on the trailer.
Network have provided some good extras for this DVD. First off is a making-of documentary (53:53). On the face of it, this is standard stuff: interviews with cast and crew members, behind-the-scenes footage and clips from the finished film. But given the context of this particular film, it's an eye-opener as to the making of a film in a society which certainly does not welcome it, about a form of creative expression that's not welcomed either. The relative freedom for Iranian cinema under the moderate President Khatami is now a thing of the past under the hardliner Ahmedinejad, and some filmmakers (such as Jafar Panahi) have been imprisoned.
Next up is an interview with Negar and Ashkan, shot in London (7:19). They speak in English (so no subtitles are provided). The interview follows the usual EPK format of text questions appearing on screen, followed by video of the answers. A small but notable point: Negar is not wearing the headscarf that she inevitably does throughout the film itself.
.The extras are completed by the trailer (1:51), which is in 2:40:1 anamorphic and has fixed subtitles, and a self-navigating stills gallery (2:04).