Between rock and a hard place
When, after three years, award-winning Iranian film director Bahman Ghobadi’s script was rejected by the Iranian Ministry for Islamic Culture and Guidance, he decided to react.
A Kurd, Ghobadi is no stranger to rebellion. Having shot his first films, A Time for Drunken Horses (2000), Marooned in Iraq (2002) and Turtles Can Fly (2004) in the proscribed Kurdish language, he overlooked an official warning not to do again. His next film, Half Moon, was banned in Iran.
So, converting frustration into creativity, he proceeded to make a far riskier unlicensed film, allying his own cause to that of the underground rock, punk, indie, rap and heavy metal musicians who also suffer from the Islamic Republic’s strict censorship rules. ‘I told myself, either I just go outside of Iran and make my film or I stay and make a documentary [to expose the situation],’ says Ghobadi, whose film has worldwide distribution and is now touring the festivals and picking up awards.
Underground film meets underground music: No One Knows about Persian Cats is a real departure from Ghobadi’s previous films, which exposed the gruelling lives of Kurds, especially children, on the Iran-Iraq border.
Converting frustration into creativity, Bahman Ghobadi proceeded to make a far riskier unlicensed film, allying his own cause to that of the underground rock, punk, indie, rap and heavy metal musicians who also suffer from the Islamic Republic’s strict censorship rules
The semi-documentary charts the trials and tribulations of two young Indie rock musicians, Ashkan and Negar, as they race through the back alleys of Tehran, in and out of the underground kiosks (music studios), and even to a farm in the surrounding countryside, in pursuit of the band members and fake travel documents needed to perform at a British music festival.
‘I had made some films in Kurdistan but this was the only film that I was making about the city and it had to be different. It was the music I listened to that gave the structure, the rhythm; the energy of the musicians dictated the film,’ explains Ghobadi.
Shot in just 17 days, the scenario draws on a compilation of true stories reflecting the lives of underground artists and only stars one trained actor, the unofficial music agent Nader (played by Hamed Behdad), who is also now a musician. In fact, Ashkan and Negar, who form the band Take it Easy Hospital, genuinely did receive an email during shooting inviting them to a British music festival.
‘It actually happened. We received this email from Inner City Festival in Manchester, so we said, “Ok, we are going to go to that festival and we have to be there for 7 October”. You see that fast pace in the movie, it was genuinely like that. We woke up at 5am, shot till 8pm,’ explains Negar.
The film features musicians ranging from better-known rapper Hichkas (‘nobody’ in Persian) to the more obscure heavy metal band ‘Nik Aiin’. Mixing comedy with tragedy, they give a breathtaking performance in a cowshed only for the drummer to fall sick with hepatitis in the middle of it. They had nowhere else to rehearse.
No One Knows About Persian Cats acts as a showcase for unheard Iranian artists, but Ghobadi was conscious of scripting the film so it could also claim exposure on the big screen.
The intelligence services offered him between $1-2 million in exchange for all the material and rights to the film. When he refused, he was ordered to leave the country
‘A lot of short films about music in Iran have been made, but I don’t have the opportunity, like Michael Moore in America, to make a 100-per-cent documentary and have a big company buy it and show it as a documentary. If we want our film to be shown in the cinema, we have to add that theme of story to it,’ explains Ghobadi.
Co-written in under three weeks with Hossein Abkenar and US journalist Roxanne Saberi, the scenario skilfully fuses the harsh reality of the risks and pressures faced by these musicians with lighter comic elements.
We watch, for example, as the farcical Nader wriggles his way out of a sentence of 80 lashes for bootlegging American DVDs and owning alcohol. In another scene we discover the relative value of different nationalities on the black market – a forged Afghani passport is only worth $500 versus $4,000 for its Iranian equivalent. The onscreen tension is amplified by the equally precarious conditions behind the scenes. The film crew were stopped twice in the course of filming, and the script was restricted to a handful of people, in case of informers.
But this did not stop Ghobadi from approaching the police to hire a car for the arrest scene: ‘We found [the fake passport seller] on the same day, and shot the scene in 2 or 3 hours. I had to get a permit under another director’s name and show that to the police so they would rent us a police car and policemen to do this,’ explains Ghobadi.
When you are in Iran it is tougher if you are a woman because you are facing so many filters: your family, your culture, the government. But it’s not like women in Britain are living in heaven!
The film won the Un Certain Regard prize at the Cannes film festival this year, and Ghobadi was subsequently arrested and held for 7 days upon his return to Iran. The intelligence services offered him between $1-2 million in exchange for all the material and rights to the film. When he refused, he was ordered to leave the country.
Cats has a surprising ending, but in real life Ashkan and Negar did make it to the British gig on time and are now safely in London pursuing their musical ambitions. So has their newfound freedom lived up to expectations?
‘In Iran you have your city, your friends and characteristics that [mean] your music has this special character. When you are outside of Iran, everything is changed for you. I’m not saying it’s better, I’m not saying it’s worse, it’s different,’ says Negar.
The astute 22-year-old no longer wears a headscarf everyday but admits that while it was ‘annoying’ it was the least of her worries: ‘When you are in Iran it is tougher if you are a woman because you are facing so many filters: your family, your culture, the Government. But it’s not like women here are living in heaven! No, women here get raped, they get beaten up by their husbands; their partners leave them… It’s the same as the whole world, but the difference here is that there is a law that says you can’t do this.’
The fervour of the Iranian youth will not be pacified. In fact, witnessing life abroad has only intensified these young musicians’ struggle: ‘Well for me now, I am criticizing the whole world,’ continues Negar. ‘Absolutely, two times over,’ confirms Ashkan. ‘For us it’s not that important to be out of Iran. We are part of a global generation. That’s why we chose Indie rock, because it is independent music.’
The film will open in cinemas in Europe from 23 December.
Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.