(Originally published on In Review Online. No One Knows About Persian Cats screened last month at the Walker and opens today at the Lagoon in Minneapolis.)
Musicians who dream about Rickenbacker guitars, Ludwig drum sets, and meeting Sigur Rós are nothing out of the ordinary. But when they are aspirations of young Iranians living in Tehran, there is an undeniable bitterness to these daydreams. The scene is one from Bahman Ghobadi’s new film No One Knows About Persian Cats in which the lightly tossed out fantasies of free-market equipment, unlimited energy drinks and traveling to Iceland to meet the world’s most beloved post-rock band act as empathetic connecting points for the audience despite the obvious social, political and geographic distance. These ambitions, as ordinary as they might seem to us, are secret islands of escape for the musicians who risk arrest in the name of rock and roll. Although the threat of popular music is a myth locked in the paranoia of Elvis’ gyrating hips or Kevin Bacon’s irrepressible need to dance, the threat in Iran is very real and treated with oppressive severity. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and company are not fans of freedom of expression, especially after the protests that gripped the nation last year, and they attempt to control it with an iron fist. But just like the cracks that exist for filmmakers, musicians and fans find a way to circulate and listen to the most forbidden music. This is the backdrop Kurdish director Ghobadi uses to airbrush a portrait of music that is independent by its very nature. The musicians are the cats, and Ghobadi wants to make sure we know about them.
The film quietly follows two musicians, Ashkan and Negar, as they travel around Tehran searching for musicians to complete their band and as they seek out the necessary passports and visas to make it to a gig in London. They find a friend and agent in Nadar, who is committed to helping the couple after he hears their CD. Flying low on Nadar’s motorcycle, the three of them give us an insider’s tour of the nooks and crannies of the underground channels of Tehran and the bands that makes up a veritable who’s who of the Iranian rock world. Compared to Granaz Moussavi’s My Tehran for Sale, a very similar film on the surface, No One Knows About Persian Cats is a free and lighthearted affair that breaks away from the well-known heavy hand of Iranian film—at least for most of the film. The breezy cast of characters, all playing themselves, is a world away from anything you might expect to find. The paper-thin plot simply allows for quality time with the very likeable Ashkan and Negar, and for full, music video enhanced tracks from artists you have never heard of but wish you had. Normally I’m a harsh critic to the MTV influenced segues masquerading as content, but there is no masquerade in Persian Cats: these are full-on music video expositions that exist for the sake of the music not the film, not the other way around.
Persian Cats opens with a twist on the normal fictional disclaimer, stating, “This film is based on real people, real locations and real events.” Ghobadi should have stuck to this edict, because everything he builds with the real people and real places is diminished by the trumped up events that are supposed to give the film its powerful finale. Fact and fiction are employed, but they are never blurred. There is a definitive line between the effortless facts and the forced fiction. Ghobadi has proven with A Time for Drunken Horses and Turtles Can Fly that he can make thoughtful dramas out of very real situations, but it is almost like Ghobadi forgot that those two forces should work with, not against, one another. To its credit, the film is filled with simple, understated scenarios that break the stereotypical tropes of Iranian society. Waiting for information about their doctored visas, Negar strikes up a conversation with a woman who is also waiting. The woman would normally be a symbol of subjugation, but instead we listen to her casually chat about how she is going to aimlessly travel the world and about how she loves indie rock. The sequence is sweetly abstract and far more powerful than the downward spiral that ends the film. When the dramatic shoe drops—and it hits hard—all investment in these ‘real’ people is gone. Ghobadi shot No One Knows About Persian Cats on the sly, taking the admirable but probably necessary risk to highlight music the government sees as a threat. In light of Jafar Panahi recent arrest, Ghobadi is afraid to return to Iran. The grave situation for creative people in Iran is no joke, and is probably the core reason for the film’s knee-jerk need for tragedy, but it does a great disservice to the otherwise unique Iranian film. As a document about the welling of rock music in Iran, No One Knows About Persian Cats is indispensible; as a dramatic excursion, it’s a trip not worth taking.