Movie Review: No One Knows About Persian Cats

I wanted to see No One Knows About Persian Cats (trailer here) because I’m curious about everyday life in Iran. The movie delivers some of that, but what it excels at is showing us Iran’s underground music scene.

As with most things, Iranian officials are very restrictive about what music can be played, who can sing (females are not allowed to sing solo), even what instruments are used. You can only play publicly  in Iran if you get a special permit and of course you won’t get a permit if you don’t stay within the boundaries. Anything that smacks of the “decadent West” won’t get approved and might even get you put into prison.

That poses a problem for the musicians in Persian Cats because they want to play everything from indie rock to rap. In fact, one of the things that most surprised me in this movie was the wide range of styles that were represented. I expected something that sounded, well, Persian (don’t ask me what I meant by that). I was also surprised by the quality. Even the rap song, which I don’t normally gravitate toward (a nice way of saying I dislike it), was well-done and enjoyable.

That doesn’t mean that the music was merely copied from Western music. The lyrics especially are brooding and poignant. What they weren’t–and this also surprised me–was political. It seems that the only rebelling the musicians are interested in is in the realm of art. That’s not to say that art can’t be political, but when these musicians sing about freedom, they mean the freedom to express themselves. They’re not advocating an overthrow of the government.

That’s what makes the Iranian government’s prohibitions and punishments seem so over-the-top: the music scene, at least the way it is portrayed in this movie, is no threat to the regime. Unless you ascribe to the view that once people taste freedom in one area, they want more of it.

The story line of the movie was simple: two young musicians want to leave the country for London so that they can play their music freely. They need fake passports and visas and ideally some more musicians to round out their group. So the rest of the movie is about their attempts to accomplish these goals. They hook up with a low-level criminal (a bootlegger of American movies) who has connections both with forgers and musicians and he escorts them around Tehran to introduce them to both.

That’s where the music comes in. All the bands in the movie are real ones, playing their own music. Even the two main characters, Negar Shaghaghi and Ashkan Koshanejad of Take It Easy Hospital, are real musicians playing themselves in this fictional narrative which is based on real events.

Needless to say, this movie wasn’t approved by the Iranian government. It was shot secretly in 17 days and then spirited to Germany for finishing touches. The result is surprisingly professional. It is in Farsi, with English subtitles, which detracted from the movie to some extent because I had trouble reading the subtitles and taking in the images at the same time. That’s what I get for not knowing Farsi. (I also got the impression we were missing out on some of the dialogue.)

The movie is becoming an international sensation since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009, where it won a special jury prize in the Un Certain Regard category. That doesn’t mean that it is well-known, although it deserves to be. Here in Columbus, Ohio, (admittedly not the center of the international music scene) it had a limited run of only one week at a campus movie house.

If you don’t get the chance to see the movie, at least get the soundtrack.* You’ll be glad you did.

Director Bahman Ghobadi wrote the screenplay with his fiancée, Roxana Saberi. She is the Iranian American journalist arrested and jailed in 2009, sentenced to eight years as a spy and finally released five months later after an international uproar. Read Ghobadi’s open letter to his fiancée written right after her conviction.

*For MP3 downloads, go here.

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