Hamid Reza Sadr, in his book, Iranian cinema: a political history, describes the trend of Iranian film as representing society beneath a veiled subtext: “Behind a tale of happy childhood, for example, may lurk a subtext about disheartened adulthood; beneath the mask of a love story, one may often find a subtle explication of oppression.” While many films can act as windows into the political and social realities of their respective cultures, the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran heavily regulates and censors the national film industry. As director Bahman Ghobadi explained after a screening of his most recent film, No One Knows About Persian Cats (2009), at the IFC Center in New York City, filmmakers must obtain a permit to be able to film in Iran. Moreover, filmmakers must submit scripts, which, in turn, must be approved by the government to ensure pro-Republic content. The same is true for music in Iran. So, what does this mean about Iran’s cultural representation of itself, both domestically and abroad? Is there a disconnect between the people and its government? Not if Ghobadi has anything to say about it. His most recent exposé of the underground Iranian music scene—with writing credits also attributed to Hossein Mortezaeiyan and Roxana Saberi—connects the world to the reality of life if Tehran.
Ghobadi first introduces us to our main characters, Negar Shaghaghi and Ashkan Koshanejad, who are real musicians—from the band Take It Easy Hospital—playing themselves. In fact, all of the characters in the film, while portraying a fictional scenario, are also real Iranian musicians from Tehran. Much improvisation, shot on a low-budget, hand-held digital camera, places the film somewhere between fiction and documentary. Sprinkle in some music videos showcasing a variety of Iranian music—from Indie Rock, to Heavy Metal, to Hip-Hop and beyond—along with the ever-present, very real drama of our musicians being caught by the police, and you have yourself a wonderful ride of a film.
Like the film industry, in order to play music or organize concerts, one must apply for a permit. This is to ensure that all Iranian music complies with the Republic’s interests. If you are caught without a permit by the government, you are jailed. According to Ghobadi, right before shooting began on the film, Negar and Ashkan had just been released from prison for music related charges. Ironically, the film follows their fictional selves as they try to find a way to perform abroad. Anxious for a way out of Iran, they must go to the black market in search of visas and passports, covertly looking for additional band members along the way. The real Negar and Ashkan eventually did make it to London, despite their fictional characters not having been so lucky. Watching the film from a Western perspective, it is hard to comprehend punishment for something as simple as playing music. As a Westerner watching the film, you suddenly find it difficult to take your freedoms for granted.
As Ghobadi explained after a screening at the IFC Center, he never applied for a permit for the film. So, like the plight of his characters, he too feared that the government might at any moment shut down production, or worse—jail him. An Iranian audience member asked him how he was able to film a scene with cooperation from Iranian police. He cleverly had submitted a script about a drug bust, which the government had approved. While filming, a government representative had checked each line of the script as it was filmed. Later, Ghobadi had dubbed the scene over with music, leaving us only with the imagery of a black market bust by Iranian police. When asked whether he would go back to Iran, he responded that he could not at this time. He now splits his time between Berlin, where his production company is based, and Iraq, where he is shooting his next film. I’m sure he also has been catching-up with fiancée and co-writer Roxana Saberi, who has been promoting her new book in the United States about her Iranian imprisonment, Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran. Unable to return to Iran as well, featured band The Yellow Dogs, were also available for questions after the New York City screening. With a great indie rock sound, and an impressive repertoire of musical influences, they have been playing shows throughout New York. Check out their MySpace page for more information about upcoming concerts.
Whether you are interested in learning about the underground music scene in Iran, or are curious about the political implications of cultural representation in the world, No One Knows About Persian Cats should definitely be on your list of must-sees. Thanks to Bahman Ghobadi, these Persian voices will not be forgotten, but rather, will be exposed beneath the state-sponsored veil of censorship in Iran. Without committed artists and activists like Ghobadi and Saberi, we might not fully appreciate Iran's next generation of rich cultural contributions to the world. The film will be playing throughout this week at the IFC Center. If you are interested in checking-out some of the other bands featured in the film, here is a list of names:
Nik Aein Band