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Going Underground

Kurdish-Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi, known for making slow-moving, heart-rending films along the western border of Kurdistan (A Time for Drunken Horses, Turtles Can Fly, Half Moon), shifts to the heart of the capital in his latest feature to give us a glimpse of Tehran’s underground music scene.

Making a self-reflexive appearance in the opening sequence and blurring the line between fiction and documentary from the get-go, No One Knows about Persian Cats begins with the release of a young man, Ashkan, from prison.  We learn that Ashkan had been arrested at the notorious rock concert in Karaj (an actual event that resulted in a number of arrests under charges of “Satan worship”), and follow him and his girlfriend, Negar, as they make their way through the city in search of new bandmates and fake passports.

With the help of Nader, a bootlegger/music promoter (played by Hamed Behdad, the only professional actor in the film), they attempt to get a recording permit, play one last show for their friends and family in Iran, and make it to London in time for a music festival at which they have been invited to perform.

The musicians in this film, daring to make music without the appropriate government permits, are driven by their passions into the most obscure locations: basements, construction sites, and cowsheds among them.  The covert, hidden nature of these venues and subcultures is wonderfully mimicked on the screen, where Turaj Aslani’s handheld camera follows the characters through labyrinthine alleys, tunnels, corridors, and staircases.  What results is the exposure of a Tehran previously unknown, not only to Westerners, but even Tehran’s own longtime residents.

The storyline is certainly wanting, as the characters and their relationships are not well developed and the motives behind some of their decisions are unclear.  The sincerity of the musicians we meet, however, as well as the poignancy of their politically charged music, largely makes up for this drawback.

Unlike underground musicians in the West, most of these artists make music without the slightest hope of obtaining government permits for an album release or a public concert.  Those who play punk or metal music, for example, know they will be censored on account of displaying “Western influence.”  Bands with female vocalists know that women are banned from singing in groups of fewer than three and without the accompaniment of at least one male vocalist.

The only musician featured in Persian Cats who has managed to achieve significant fame despite censorship obstacles is rapper — or, as he says, “rap-kon” — Hichkas.  His hugely popular song, “God, Wake Up,” is the most overtly political one in the film.  Still, Hichkas seems to be more interested in rapping about social, class, and ethical issues than venting his grievances against the regime.  When Nader asks him if he would consider going to London, he proclaims a profound attachment to the streets of Tehran and responds that “there’s just no way” for him to go abroad.

In fact, the majority of the musicians in the film seem reluctant to leave the country for one reason or other.  And despite obvious hardships, many musicians in Iran are able to do what they love, even if political conditions necessitate different means of livelihood.  Indeed, if this were not the case, Ghobadi would not have had any subjects for his movie.  So why does he seem to insist on “escape” as the only way to cope with censorship?

As with any internationally acclaimed filmmaker, Ghobadi needs to take great care and responsibility in the way he chooses to depict globally under- or misrepresented subjects.  As they have demonstrated over the last six months, the Iranians are capable of showing great strength and resilience.  Even prior to the election, a great many had been standing their ground against what they saw as unjust treatment or unjust laws in myriad ways, including making political music or films.

To point one’s camera toward the problems or shortcomings of a society is to do the people of that society a great service.  But to lead one’s representation to such an unrealistic and melodramatic conclusion as we see in Persian Cats is a refusal to acknowledge the agency of those people to change that society.

Oppression does not render a subject helpless or voiceless.  If anything, the events of the last six months should now inspire Iranian filmmakers to create much bolder and more dignified narratives of resistance.

This article was first published by Tehran Bureau on 16 December 2009; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.

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