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Bahman Ghobadi’s exploration into the world of underground music in Tehran is a welcome antidote to the blasé, pedestrian, apathetic state of the music industry in the West. While we gorge ourselves on MP3 downloads and bit torrents to a point where music is seen as a free commodity, made virtually valueless by a virtual world, in Iran, any acquisition, enjoyment or creation of music (especially Western music) is forbidden by the authorities. So as the film follows a couple of indie kids (Ashkan and Negar) trying to form a band by meeting different musicians around the city, they’re not just chasing the rock’n’roll dream, they are fighting for their lives.
No One Knows about Persian Cats is an interesting hybrid of drama infused with truth, although it could easily have been a documentary. The director’s passion for music saturates every frame of the film and he even appears in the opening scene singing in an underground studio, which sets the tone for the rest of the film. Amidst the drama and the perpetual sense of danger, there are some fantastic comic scenes as well as a lot of musical set pieces. At points it seems as if the whole purpose of the film is to showcase various Iranian bands, with the story being secondary. Although a lot of the music is actually quite good, with each new band or musician comes another set piece and another ‘promo video’, which sometimes seems a little obvious. Many of them feature flashing images and scenes of the darker side of city life (especially in the hip-hop scene).
Yet this is conversely one of the most endearing aspects of the film. As Ashkan and Negar explore the depths of the underground scene, they see a surprising array of different genres, and music snobbery doesn’t get a look in. They meet a singer-songwriter with wonderfully poetic lyrics about the struggle for freedom and a heavy metal band who practise in a cowshed as they were forced out of their village; they go to a rave at a house party and meet an indie-funk band who rehearse in a space built on the roof of a building (whose neighbours constantly report them to the authorities so they keep getting arrested).
Encounters with the authorities are par for the course for these musicians. Ashkan and Negar have recently been released from prison and have been invited to play a gig in London but have no band and more crucially, no passports or visas with which to make the trip. It’s hard to believe that their twee, casio-based indie pop would rile up the authorities too much, but the mere fact that they are expressing themselves artistically and touching on subjects outside of the rigorous Iranian dogma means that they have to be very wary. Negar is even more at risk as women are forbidden from singing due to the emotions they can stir.
Things start to look up when they meet local DVD bootlegger and all-round blagger Nader; he introduces them to a forger who can help them with visas and passports. This scene is flecked with gentle touches of humour as the old forger asks Nader for bootleg DVDs of films with more action and less romance. As every commodity is bought and sold on the black market, Nader has a good little niche for himself copying films and music from the West, and he becomes the musicians’ ally in trying to help them both escape Iran and set up a concert in order to raise funds. One of the other really masterful scenes in the film is when he gets arrested and talks his way out of a flogging, prison and a fine with quick-fire dialogue and perfect comic timing.
The film opens up a world that even most Iranians don’t know exists. These indie bands look like they’ve just stepped off the pages of the NME, yet are in constant fear of that knock on the door, and we follow them through tunnels, up stairs, down basements and back alleys as they insist on creating art and having a voice despite the dangers. The dream of going to the West, or in Ashkar’s case, of going to Iceland to see Sigur Rí³s, seems like an endless struggle when you are constantly looking over your shoulder. Despite all of the obstacles, rock music is still being created in Iran by these rebels with a cause.
This bold and inspiring film was obviously a great risk to make but it is ultimately rewarding for its audience. Recommended for all music lovers but especially to struggling musicians who should know that however tough they think things are, they can’t be nearly as bad as they are for these Persian Cats.
Watch the trailer: