For the Iranian Film Blogathon: I review No One Knows About Persian Cats (2009), directed by Bahman Ghobadi.
A couple of years ago, I read an article about a girl group in Saudi Arabia, and was blown away by these young women, trying to do their thing in an unbelievably oppressive atmosphere. Their parents support them, although they fear the regime arresting their daughters. The girls, with piercings in lips, ears, noses, are just like any other group of young women who want to be cool, who want to participate in the culture of trends, who just want to make music. Stereotypes shatter in one fell swoop upon reading that article. They live in a country where they are not allowed to play in public, not allowed to play in public, and that hasn’t stopped them. In a globally connected world, with things like MySpace and iTunes, word has gotten out about their music, and in their own way, they are participating.
I showed that article to my brother, a huge music fan, and a songwriter himself.
His response? “Right now, those girls are the greatest rock band in the world.”
Plucky kids in American movies have always rebelled against authority, whether they just want to dance, dammit, or put on a show (“My dad’s got a barn!”), or love whoever they want to love. It’s a rite of passage, made manifest in film after film. Who knows if we feel it is expected of us because once upon a time we saw Rebel Without a Cause, or if it’s something ingrained in the hormonally surged time of adolescence. I know I was influenced by the films I saw. Either they validated my angst, they said, “I know how it is, I know how it is”, or they showed me a better way, a way up and out of the muck and mire. Some of those films now seem rather silly to me, self-involved, but I still maintain affection for them because I saw them at that important time in my life when I needed an outside eye.
Rebellion in Iran necessarily takes on giant political consequences, even personal rebellion, as recent events have shown, and even something as innocent as first love is seen as a deep threat to the State (here’s my review of The Girl in the Sneakers, an Iranian film that shows just such a situation), and a citizen’s personal life is everyone’s business. The new wave of Iranian filmmakers have a willingness to put their careers and sometimes their lives on the line to tell the stories they want to tell. These directors know that the chance of their films actually being seen in Iran are nil, and yet they press on regardless. Their reputations are giant worldwide, and yet, due to the regime’s suppression of their work and their ability to work at all (not to mention canceling their visas and passports so they cannot attend festivals), they live under conditions that are fascistic and dangerous.
Bahman Ghobadi is a Kurdish director, engaged to Roxana Saberi (although there seems to have been some controversy about that), the former Miss North Dakota, now an American journalist who was arrested in Iran in 2009 on espionage charges, causing worldwide protests (and tepid responses of outrage from so-called enlightened governments). Saberi is listed as a co-writer on Ghobadi’s latest film, the wonderful No One Knows About Persian Cats, which received Un Certain Regard’s Special Jury prize at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. There was a terrible irony in the timing: Saberi was in prison at that time, and the widely disputed Iranian elections of 2009 followed, bringing into sharp highlights all of the issues touched on in Ghobadi’s film. Saberi was released in May of 2009, and a year later, No One Knows About Persian Cats opened in America.
Ghobadi’s film Half Moon (Kent Adamson reviewed it for the Blogathon here) examined questions of Kurdish identity, as seen through the filter of music. Music is very important to Ghobadi, that is obvious, and in Half Moon, with its road trip-slash-requiem story of an old Kurdish singer trying to get back into Iraqi Kurdistan for one last concert, the music weaves through and around the film. It bonds people together. It is the voice of the exile. In No One Knows About Persian Cats, Ghobadi stays in Tehran, going underground (literally, at times), to explore the music scene in Iran. There is a story here, of two young singer-songwriters, Negar Shaghaghi and Ashkan Koshanejad (their real names), who have just been released from prison. Their crime? They play music. Music without the stamp of approval from the Islamic Ministry of Culture. They have booked a gig in London, but now they need to figure out a way to leave Iran, which requires passports, visas, not easy in normal circumstances, but nearly impossible for those who have criminal records. They are hooked up with Nader (played with humor and ferocity by Hamed Behdad), a sort of manager, a guy who can get things done for you, who knows everyone, who constantly says things like, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it … I’ll handle it.” He knows everyone in the music scene, and Ashkan and Negar are looking for a couple of musicians to fill out their band, so Nader starts taking them around on his motorcycle (the two of them piled on behind Nader) to visit different musicians.
He also tries to get them passports in a hurry. Nader is a guy with a finger in every pie. He makes his living selling bootleg CDs, and he, with his constant stream of enthusiastic chatter, is a born salesman. But he lives on the edge of the law. Any one of his various exploits could get him thrown into prison. But he maneuvers his way through the system in a wily manner, keeping a sense of humor, and groveling and begging the authorities if necessary (there is one terrific scene that shows just this thing). He, like many Iranians, has kept his soul, his spirit, intact by not internalizing the oppression of the regime. It hasn’t “gotten” him. He plays by the rules, it’s easier that way, but he is duplicitous, like most populations in totalitarian regimes. You do what you need to do to get by, but when the regime has turned its back, you do whatever the hell you want.
Ashkan and Negar may (or may not) be a couple. There is an easy intimacy between them that suggests romance, the two of them standing on the city rooftop, staring at the smog-glamorous sunset, and at one point, Ashkan moves closer to her, bending his head towards hers, and they rest there, in silent silhouette. They hang out, tooling around the city in her car (she drives), talking and arguing about music, what they are going to do, how they want to give one last show in Tehran (“I would love it if my parents could come,” Negar says) before they leave for London. They both know that when they leave Iran, it will be for good. The situation has become unbearable for musicians.
The “underground” music scene in Tehran is often just that: The camera follows Ashkan, Negar and Nader as they descend narrow stairways into this or that basement, where someone has set up an illegal recording studio, or where musicians hang out and jam, soundproofing everything so the authorities won’t hear from the street. There is an almost ritualistic feeling to these repetitive sections of handheld descents (and ascents, sometimes – musicians also hide out up on the roofs, creating soundproof sheds where they can rehearse): Music driven underground, you have to know where to seek it out, it is not allowed to flourish in the light of day.
Ghobadi’s use of nonprofessional actors, with everyone basically playing themselves (he appears in the film as well, in the music studio in the beginning), makes the film feel like a documentary at times, a whirlwind tour of Tehran’s hidden music scene, but the overriding sense of oppression (and the humor with which everyone treats it, everyone’s been in jail for playing music, everyone sort of just accepts the situation with a shrug, then they close the door and start banging on the drums, regardless of the terrible consequences should they be caught) is always on the periphery, and there are times when I felt outraged. There is one scene where Ashkan and Negar are driving, and Ashkan is holding his dog. They are pulled over by the cops who demand to know why they have a dog. (Dogs are seen as unclean animals in Islam.) Negar is a fighter, and argues with the cops, “the dog has been vaccinated, he’s fine” – but, in a horrifying moment, the cops reach in and yank the dog out of the window, and we are left with Negar’s scream of “No” as she leaps out of the car. Cut to the next scene. The dog is never mentioned again. That one scene tells you how random, how awful, life can be on the streets.
The bands Nader introduces the two leads to show the diversity of the music scene and also how creative artists have to be to just do their thing in Iran. A heavy metal band (I loved these guys) rehearse in a cow shed out in the middle of the country. The cows don’t seem too happy about it, and the farm workers are all in cahoots with the band, piling bales of hay around the cow shed to blot out the sound. A rock band has constructed a metal shed on the rooftop of their building, and they have to wait for the neighbor to leave before rehearsing because the neighbor always calls the cops. The band mates, wearing CBGB T shirts and Joy Division T shirts, peer over the edge of the building, keeping an eye out for the telltale neighbor. A Persian rap band rehearse and film a music video on a construction site, in the open air, four stories up. They do not want to go to Europe, like Ashkan and Negar, because, as the lead rapper tells Nader, “We rap for Persia. We rap for Tehran. This is where we need to be.” There is an added complication that any band with a female singer that gets a permit to play a show has to have female backup singers, or more females on stage. It is against the law for one woman to be on stage with a bunch of men. So, basically, No Doubt would be illegal in Iran. Ashkan and Negar go to a private house where two sisters are giving a concert, the small audience sitting in the dark, the women banging on the large translucent traditional drums (shown to such powerful effect in the scene of “exiled singers” in Half Moon).
There’s a lot of music in No One Knows About Persian Cats, obviously, and each band plays a song for Ashkan, Negar and Nader, with Ghobadi providing what amounts to music videos for each song, with gorgeous caught footage from around Tehran, glimpses, fragments, beautifully realized: a little girl skipping down the sidewalk, two veiled women sitting on a bench eating ice cream and laughing, an old man glancing directly at the camera, people rushing in and out of subways, a montage, ongoing, of the faces of Iran, the populace just going about their lives, the haves and have-nots, with some startlingly beautiful images, things that show Ghobadi’s piercing and specific vision. I mentioned in my review for Half Moon that sometimes, sometimes, a director actually gives you a vision of something you have never seen before. So many images in films, while beautiful, are just copycats of either something else, or depictions of something we have all seen a million times: sunsets, rainfall, a dark grey beach, whatever: beauty, yes, but not original. Half Moon was full of things I literally had never seen before. A strange journey through a borderland, filmed beautifully, but with some shots that caught the breath in my chest. He has an amazing eye. For landscapes, yes, he makes Tehran look like a vibrant strange place, but also for faces. Ghobadi captured most of this footage on the fly, with a digital camera, and it’s haunting, beautiful, a counterpoint to the music, whether it be rock, rap, heavy metal, or traditional Persian. The full tapestry of artistic expression, going on below ground, as the world walks around above, trying to live their lives.
Ashkan and Negar, a singing duo in real life, are sweet and unselfconscious in their acting roles. You root for them. I wasn’t wacky about their music, but that seems immaterial in the world being depicted in Persian Cats. Artists should be allowed to make art. Period. Most of the bands say things like, “We make sure our lyrics are in line with today’s social codes – we don’t want to offend anyone – we just want to make music.” The two leads plan on giving their last show in Tehran (they still don’t have passports, but Nader assures him everything will work out fine), in a basement in a private house. They get the word out on the streets. They decorate the room, pulling Persian rugs across the stage floor, and Negar buys 200 small candles to pass out to the crowd. It looks like any underground rock club in any city in the world. I was rooting for these kids. The odds are stacked against them. They work hard at what they do, they argue over lyrics, they discuss their music, and, inadvertently, without even making too fine a point of it, they seem totally innocent. Ghobadi is a master at that kind of subtle portrayal. They are not rebels without a cause, they have a cause, but the kids themselves seem like good kids, with a love for music, and a yearning to just play shows, wherever they can, however it comes about. They are innocent. They are doing nothing wrong.
But the regime, as it shows itself repeatedly, doesn’t agree. And, if you think like a mullah, who can blame them. Music is powerful. People gathering together to listen to music is a powerful event. If you let that happen, then where will it stop?
The screws begin to tighten. Nader is arrested for selling bootleg CDs. He pleads his case in a beautiful scene (my favorite in the film), with Ashkan peering through the slightly open door at the police station. The old man who makes passports is also arrested. Another door closes. Interspersed with music, the film works slowly, it meanders, it is not a scream of pain or outrage, not outwardly, and that is part of its power.
Ghobadi has a great eye for detail. Nader lives in a tiny flat, and keeps parrots and finches as pets. The main parrot is named Monica Bellucci. Two finches are named Rhett and Scarlett. He loves them all to death. He speaks in English, occasionally, and everyone makes fun of him for this, but he scoffs at them. “What’s wrong with speaking in English? Listen to this!” (then in English) “I see no problem. There is no problem.” (back to Farsi) “What is wrong with that?” There’s a scene where Negar lies in bed, reading, and jotting things down in her journal. At one point, we see what book she is reading. Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka. A beautiful example of the soft subtle hand Ghobadi uses when telling this story. A man wakes up transformed into an insect. His destiny is out of his control. It is terrifying. He has transformed into something monstrous, against his will. Ashkan and Negar, who just want to play music, who just want to put on a show, in a barn, a shed, anywhere, who are willing to leave their homeland – for good – in order to pursue music – are faced with a similar nightmarish future. What will they be transformed into if they stay? None of this is said explicitly. We just see the book, Ghobadi making sure we know what it is, and the film moves on.
The word “brave” is used so often to describe films that it has become almost meaningless. An actress who takes off her clothes is “brave”. A straight actor who plays a gay man is “brave”. An actress dares to play an unglamorous role and lets herself be seen without makeup – boy, is she “brave”. Really? Isn’t that just part of the job?
But here, with No One Knows About Persian Cats, “brave” actually means what it says it means. The act of filming this movie was brave. Every musician who appears in the film is brave. They understand the consequences. They make their art anyway.
As I watched Persian Cats, my brother’s comment kept echoing through my mind:
“Right now, at this moment in time, these are the greatest rock bands in the world.”