Battling an oppressive regime, Bahman Ghobadi’s semi-fictional documentary is a rousing anthem to the power of music. But does it struggle to hit the high notes?
Letting the Cats Out of the Bag by Laura Bennett
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Filmed in just 17 days without official authorisation, No-one Knows About Persian Cats follows young Iranian musicians Negar and Ashkan around Tehran as they try to put together a band to perform at a concert in London. But it soon becomes clear that their greatest obstacle is not a lack of like-minded fellow citizens sharing their passion for “indie-rock” but the necessary passports and visas required to leave the Islamic republic.
Riding along on motorbikes, in cars and on subway trains, the audience twists and turns around the urban landscape of Tehran, a fellow passenger on the duo’s musical odyssey. And guided by their loquacious fixer Nader, Negar and Ashkan call on various local musicians who form a tapestry of Tehran’s artistic underground.
The notion of a real underground movement is reinforced by the characters’ constant descent into squashed, soundproofed, subterranean rehearsal spaces – to be heard by a neighbour would almost certainly lead to arrest and possible imprisonment. When not literally going underground, the marginalisation of the musicians is made clear by their choice of unconventional rehearsal locations far from the keen ears of potential eavesdroppers; from rooftops and building sites to vacant fields and a cowshed outside the city where the resident bovines seem equally bewildered by the heavy metal they have unwittingly been asked to appreciate.
Punctuating their quest for possible band mates are the beautiful songs performed by those whom Nader, Negar and Ashkan call upon. No genre prejudice or musical snobbery here; everything from rap and heavy metal to traditional, jazz and pop has the chance to convey its powerful message. Ghobadi splices these full-length songs with perfectly timed camera work into promos of daily life in Tehran. These soundtrack montages are the beating heart of the film, celebrating the vibrancy of this pulsating and densely populated metropolis. And the space these narratives breaks create strikes just the right note, giving the audience the chance to pause and appreciate the force of Iran’s musical diversity before the gravity of the situation hits home.
Ghobadi does not shy away from the full spectrum of city life: rat-infested rubbish tips at dawn, homeless families by night, and women-only subway carriages to name but a few. As seen in his earlier film Turtles Can Fly, in which destitute children scratch out a living amid minefields on the Iraq border, this is a man who is not afraid to confront the issues. His 2009 openly published letter pushing for the release of his imprisoned co-writer and fiancée, journalist Roxana Saberi, confirms this once more.
As such, incidental scenes flesh out the all-pervading scope of censorship and lack of personal freedom in contemporary Iran, scenes which at times border on the comic. While out in their car, Negar and Ashkan are stopped by the police who roughly confiscate their bemused dog, claiming that such a filthy animal should not be out of the home. But comedy quickly flips to tragedy, with Negar’s spine-chilling off-camera scream a precursor of what is yet to come.
Yet despite this, No-one Knows About Persian Cats is a film with a strong sense of celebration of all that is, and has been great about Iranian culture. Much of the music is sung in melodious Farsi, linking back to the oral traditions of ancient Persian storytellers and poets. And as the final line-up of band members discuss their hopes and dreams for the future over a meal of traditional gheimeh stew, a strong sense of affection for their homeland and their roots reverberates. Negar admits that although she wants to leave Iran to pursue her music, she hopes one day to return under a more liberal and tolerant climate.
As the film hurtles frenetically towards its bitter resolution, the nagging doubt about whether Nader will succeed in acquiring passports and visas for the band becomes more and more insistent. Negar’s female intuition and scepticism bounces off Ashkan’s cool, laid-back, masculine belief that Nader will come through for them. And when, on the eve of their depature, Ashkan goes to a party to retrieve the drug-addled Nader, things come to a brutal and shockingly abrupt end.
This dismal conclusion however is nothing but positive for Ghobadi. By highlighting the ongoing struggle of Iran’s musicians and their astonishing commitment to their vocation, he has succeeded in creating a harmonious clarion call designed to attract the attention of the artistic community of the world at large. And despite the recent arrest of Iranian director Jafar Panahi, the presence of the film’s musicians in London to perform at the release of No-one Knows About Persian Cats chimes a sonorous testament to the fact that life does not always have to imitate art.
No One Knows About Persian Cats is released in the UK on 26th March 2010.