Today: July 20, 2024

No One Knows About Persian Cats Cinema

This film is an exercise in reportage as much as film-making. Made without a permit in just 17 days, No One Knows About Persian Cats
follows two young musicians, Negar and Ashkan, as they flaunt the
authorities in Tehran to enjoy the indie music they love and try to
assemble the visas, permits, passports and band needed to play a dream
gig in London. Tellingly, Ashkan Koshanejad who plays male lead Ashkan was like his character, imprisoned for 21 days for playing in a rock concert.
This blending of fact and fiction added to documentary style
cinematography and generous cut-aways of Iran’s capital serve make this
film a powerful and mature exposure of oppression.

Director Bahman Ghobadi (Half Moon, Turtles Can Fly)
uses frantic montages of street-level Tehran to accompany every song the
various bands in the film play in a neat pastiche of music videos.
These soundtrack sequences underline the difficulties facing the indie
kids of NOKAPC in the effort for unfettered self-expression and provide a
jarring score to the film, in both English and native Farsi.

The film’s theme is perfectly summed up when one mop-haired cat with a
guitar complains: “All I want to do is go to a desert island and play
my guitar and have no-one to bother me.” There is a wonderful naivety to
the young Iranians’ efforts to setup their band and get the required
documents to play abroad. Ashkan’s motivating desire to escape is to go
to Iceland and watch Sigur Ros play. It is simultaneously heart-breaking
and heart-warming to see these Hoxton scenesters of the Middle East talk dreamily about escaping
the confines of the authoritarian regime. The band’s eccentric manager
Nader; part-Del Boy, part Tommy Cooper and played with unforgettable
energy by Hamed Behdad, at one point states with great authority that
there are exactly 312 indie bands in Iran. Their helpless plans seem
blessed by blind luck from the start and destined to end in tragedy.

One of the few negatives is that the sound and cutting of the film
start off amateurishly, detracting from the guerrilla film-making style
for the first half-hour. But eventually the production values are
whipped into shape and manage to keep up with the ambitious handheld
camera-work that tracks Ashkan, Negar and Nader through the
side-streets, tenement blocks and basement gigs of Tehran and its
suburbs.

The film’s dialogue is kept impressionistic; voices compete over one
another and speak in the banalities of youth rather than high-minded
rhetoric. The authorities talked about are seldom seen. When Ashkan and
Negar are pulled over for the laughable offence of having a dog in the
car, the animal is passed through the window to the unseen police while
the camera remains on the passengers’ reactions. Repression is faceless and everywhere: disapproving parents, mullahs passing down sentences, informant neighbours and tragic consequences.

Ashkan and Negar’s innocence is important because this film is not
about musicians fighting the system with political songs and Billy Bragg
belligerence. They’re just young people looking for a scene, worldover. When
they talk about neighbours phoning the police to break up their jams
there is no anger at the curtain-twitching, just sad acceptance. One of
the studio managers says that he wants no politics in the recording
room. It says a lot about the subtle power of this film that the Tom
Waits-esque dirge he sings later seems all the more political for this
statement; as if he is lamenting not just a lover but the death of a
nation. Like the studio manager, the film never becomes polemic or
satiric; its power rests in simple story-telling, vivacious characters
and the uncovering of a real, vibrant Iran that seems a far greater loss
to Khomeini’s regime than the neutered society our Western media
currently portray.

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