No-One Knows About Persian Cats (Bahman Ghobadi, 2009)
We’ve all done it. We’ve all sat in some pub or café, where our afternoon off is spolit by Coldplay or Robbie Williams or whoever blasting out of the speakers, and joked that it must be nice to live in a hard-line Islamic state where there’s a blanket ban on dreadful pop music. But in those countries you’re not allowed to go to the pub, you’re not allowed to make music without prior vetting from the government, you’re not even allowed to walk your dog.
Mr Ghobadi was refused a permit to film the film he’d been planning. So, without bothering to apply for the permit he went into the streets of Tehran and spent two weeks filming what he saw. The outcome is No-One Knows About Persian Cats, an interesting hybrid of pop video, teen drama and documentary. Its semi-improvised, shot-on-the-fly mood gives it an energy and freshness that recalls the French New Wave (the wide-eyed, endearing adulation the Tehran kids have for Western rock mirroring the Cinematheque kids’ love of Hollywood).
The fast-and-loose storyline concerns songwriting partners Ashkan and Negar. Ashkan is the muso who slaves over his mixing desk, lyricist/vocalist Negar is going through her Joy Division/Franz Kafka phase (oh to be young!). Like all kids with a dream they’ve put their wares up on MySpace, and they’ve been courted by concert promoters in Britain and France. They have greater obstacles, however, than the usual hurdles of public apathy and label conservatism; Ahmadinejad’s goons tend not to give out the necessary permits to record Western music, nor visas/passports for the young to defect westwards.
People sometimes flourish in the most adverse circumstances, and their outlaw status gives musicians a determination and a solidarity. Our heroes are introduced to Nader (Behdad, apparently the only professional actor involved), a well-connected ligger/bullshitter on the scene who makes it his mission to get them and their music out into the world. Cue a tour of the Tehran Unislamic music scene, as Nader introduces the pair to people who may be able to help in some way- usually an excuse for each group to perform a song.
The variety of styles is surprisingly broad. We see aging jazz men, a metal band who rehearse in a farmshed (“The cows have gone crazy. They won’t eat, drink or give milk”, grumbles a farmhand), a grunge act whose dad turns off the electricity when he worries that people will hear. A singer-songwriter plays his soul-searching melodramatics to the primary school class he teaches, with close-ups of the children listening intently and enjoying; shades of Les 400 Coups. I particularly liked an angry rapper whose song had the chorus “Allah, wake up! Can’t you see we’re all trash?”
Mostly the script is paper-thin. Nader will be giving the kids a piggyback on his motorbike. “Where are we going today?” “We’re going to see this psychedelic folk band. They know a few people and I think they can get you a permit to go into a recording studio”. Then the act take their turn to play a song, which is intercut, MTV style, with montages of street life. Youths doing wheelies on bikes, flower sellers, crowded trams, Ayatollah billboards, rats running through junkie squats. Between scenes we also get some great skyline shots of Tehran.
Where the script is fleshed out a little more, it can be very funny. Two scenes jump out in particular. “Mash David” is a scatty old bloke in an attic room who Nader approaches to obtain fake passports for his pals. On request he can recite his prices. Iraqi visa, $50. Afghan visa, $5. European visa, $1,000. American visa, $8,000. Exemption from military service, $10,000. Nader tries to sweeten the deal by offering him bootleg DVDs, but David didn’t like the last lot. What sort do you like, then? “Action! Action! 100 killings and no romance!” The girl before Negar and Ashkan has come for a passport. “We’ve mis-spelt your surname. But that’s ok, the world is a shambles.”
Another scene sees Nader hauled before the authorities for the bootleg DVDs and possession of alcohol. We see Ashkan’s view of the encounter, peeping through a door ajar in the police station. Both men are cross-legged on the floor, only Nader on camera. His performance is hysterical over-the-top and fabulous. You say I drink alcohol? Smell my breath, then! Lean over! These DVDs are quality European cinema, they’re not blasphemous. Watch some! Here, take this one, I guarantee you’ll like it! His tantrums terrify the offical and get his hefty fine reduced by 90%.
But all these characters need to watch their back for the most trivial offences. Perhaps the worst affront is the policeman who snatches Ashkan’s ancient dog from his car window and rides off (“A dog outside? That’s filthy, brother!”). The cast-and-director Q&A after the film revealed that on his return from receiving an award at Cannes, Ghobadi was locked up for a week. Most of the people involved dare not go back now.
Once the kids have recruited a full band and got them up to speed, they’re ready to play a gig in their rehearsal garage before heading off to Europe and glory. Instead of stage lighting, Negar gives a candle to each of the 200 punters. What they don’t know is that David has been arrested, hence the passports and visas will not be forthcoming. Nader has reacted by going on a huge bender at a drink-and-drugs party. Ashkan finds him as is trying to wake him up when the police raid the building and Ashkan falls out the window.
We’ve been given a premonition of this in the first few seconds of the film, when we see a blurred image of a bleeding figure pushed on a hospital trolley. This scene is reprised at the film’s end. But with most of the film and the people in it so bright, breezy, warm and enthusiastic, this darker turn comes as a genuinely unexpected punch in the gut.
On the whole, Persian Cats leaves the viewer with plenty of food for thought. It’s very immediate, very now, and in years to come it will serve as an excellent document of its time. A lot of people thought we might see a revolution in Iran this year after the rigged election, and the film makes it clear that something’s got to give between the religious fundamentalists and the pop-savvy kids that they’re lording it over. All the girls in the film obediently keep their headscarves on, but they also wear Converse trainers and devour illicit copies of the NME.
In the Q&A afterwards, the director stressed that this was his favourite of his four feature films; because it wasn’t really his film or his art. The film, and the art, was that of the kids in Tehran. This is one country that’s worth keeping an eye on.