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Friday, Aug. 6, 2010
'No One Knows About Persian Cats'
Going underground: exploring the true spirit of rock 'n' roll in Iran
By KAORI SHOJI
Persian cats may be the next cool thing, but don't be misled: We're not talking about the feline kind.
Until recently the works of Iranian/Kurdish filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi ("Turtles Can Fly" "A Time For Drunken Horses") had been about the repercussions of Middle Eastern unrest and the deep clawmarks of damage inflicted upon women and children. But his latest, "No One Knows About Persian Cats," addresses a whole different set of problems and opens a tiny window of hope.
The film is about a Tehran-based rock duo who dream of going to London — but in a nation where "blasphemy, free speech and rock music" are banned along with a laundry list of other issues (the title is a reference to a law prohibiting pets from being seen in public), the possibilities of getting together the cash to procure a visa and passport, let alone holding a concert in order to do so, are close to total zilch. Remember the proverb about getting a camel through the eye of a needle? There should be a footnote that includes something about Iranian rock musicians getting to perform — in their own country or anywhere else.
Ghobadi's usual languid pace and poetic style are muted in favor of skewed, rapid-fire MTV-style editing and the heavily artsy-fied Tehran street scenes pay rather obvious homage to Christopher Doyle, "Chungking Express" and several hundred karaoke background visuals.
From a freeworld/capitalist viewpoint, it's a little much and all too familiar: At times it feels like Ghobadi has abandoned a sacred chunk of his integrity. But this is all happening on the other side of the fence, where musicians are forced to play in basements, locked garages insulated by blankets and barns (where, in this case, the drummer gets hepatitis from a cow and is carted off to the emergency ward). From that perspective, it's not hard to see that MTV-style practically equals integrity.
It's also risky to the point of possible imprisonment. Ghobadi's cowriter and fiancee Roxana Saberi was arrested before the film went into postproduction and she spent three months in a jail cell, being released just before the world premiere. But other members on the project have been incarcerated, and Ghobadi himself was forced to cancel a promotional trip to Japan after he was refused a new passport.
"No One Knows . . . " is a semidocumentary based on the real lives of Tehran rock musicians Negar Shaghagi and Ashkan Koshanejad, who fled their country for London four hours after finishing the film's final take (they now perform as Take It Easy Hospital). Shaghagi is a pretty, demure girl, whose trademark accessory is a pair of oversize glasses. She's more outspoken than Koshanejad on politics and social injustice, but he's more experienced, world weary and resigned. "You can't change this country through music," he says, but at the same time believes that bringing indie rock to the Iranian public "will give them something to live for."
At the start of the film, Koshanejad has just been released from prison for performing without a permit on cable TV. It's not his first time, and he feels like throwing in the towel altogether. Shaghagi reminds him of their dream: to get a band together, get fake passports and get the hell out.
To this end, they team up with Nader (Hamed Behdad), who claims to be an agent but is really more of an entertainment everything-man, oozing fast talk and Western movie trivia from every pore. Shaghagi is skeptical but feels she has no choice but to trust Nader, and they go off — three on a single motorbike — on a kind of "mission from Allah."
Indeed, the whole thing could be an Iranian "Blues Brothers" if not for the constant meddling of the music police (yes, there is such a thing) and the nagging fear of arrest that hovers over them all like a storm cloud. Holding even a tiny concert without a license means the cops are liable to burst in at any time and throw everyone in prison, including the entire audience and someone's mother making refreshments in the kitchen.
And yet a thriving, pulsing underground music scene does exist, and Ghobadi takes us on a tour to see chadored ladies professing to love 50 Cent, or a heavy-metal band leader hold sessions in his father's metal factory. If they have an advantage over free-world pedalers of rock 'n' roll, it's that they live and breathe its very spirit, their lives plugged into the music in a way many of us can only imagine.