Tehran Rock City
Basements, Beats, and Beatings in No One Knows About Persian Cats
dir. Bahman Ghobadi
If you think your band has a hard time here in Seattle—no money, crap shows, that damn idiot drummer—just be happy you don't live in Tehran. No One Knows About Persian Cats is the story—"based on real events, locations, and people"—of two young Iranian musicians, Negar (Negar Shaghaghi) and Ashkan (Ashkan Koshanejad), who want nothing more than to start an indie-rock band. They hope to play for their friends and family at home in Tehran, but they also want to travel abroad (Ashkan's dream is to someday go to Iceland and see Sigur Rós). Standing in their way is a theocratic dictatorship that requires all music to be approved in advance by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and that tightly controls access to passports and travel visas. At the film's outset, Negar and Ashkan are getting out of jail after having been arrested for playing a concert. $5 Cover: Seattle this is not.
No One Knows About Persian Cats stars actual Iranian musicians portraying themselves and depicting largely real-life events. It was filmed surreptitiously in Tehran by Bahman Ghobadi (A Time for Drunken Horses, Turtles Can Fly) on handheld digital cameras and in avoidance of the authorities, and while this leads to a few impenetrably blurry shots, it also gives the film a street- (and basement-) level sense of tension and scene.
Ashkan, bearded and neatly scruffy, and Negar, a young woman in thick black-rimmed glasses who manages to make her head scarf wear like a hoodie, hook up with a fast-talking fixer named Nader (Hamed Behdad, whose Wikipedia page claims, "He says that he is the Marlon Brandon of Iran"). He promises to get them access to expensive black-market passports and visas, to arrange permitting for a concert, and to help them find other musicians to play with (a particular obstacle is that because Negar is a female singer, they'll need three female backing singers to meet Islamic standards). The plot serves as a framework to survey the variety of Tehran's underground music scene—literally, as the camera descends one narrow staircase after another into illegal subterranean practice spaces, visiting rock, folk, metal, and rap bands (to be fair, there's also one carefully soundproofed rooftop shed and a band practicing at a cattle farm). Negar and Ashkan recruit musicians for their planned concert while Nader tries to keep them clear of the law—in one chilling then comic scene, Nader, arrested, has to talk his way out of an absurd fine and 80 lashes.
What might be bleakly funny to Western ears is just how benign all the music is—from the inoffensively sweet indie rock of Ashkan and Negar's band Take It Easy Hospital to even the metal band's lyrics decrying negative thinking, this is aesthetically unextreme stuff—and yet it's absolutely radical in context. The film debuted at Cannes just weeks before last year's pro- democracy protests in Iran, and it's a small testament to the people's need to make a sound in the face of an oppressively stifling regime.