REVIEW: DVD Release: No One Knows About Persian Cats

Film: No One Knows About Persian Cats
Release date: 26th July 2010
Certificate: 12
Running time: 106 mins
Director: Bahman Ghobadi
Starring: Negar Shaghaghi, Ashkan Koshanejad, Hamed Behdad, Hichkas, Hamed Seyyed Javadi, Ash Koosha
Genre: Drama
Studio: Network
Format: DVD
Country: Iran

It is easy to become complacent and apathetic about the power of artistic expression in a pop culture soaked world such as our own. Director Bahman Ghobadi is a member of the third generation of Iranian New Wave cinema which is an important force in the cultural climate of the country. Far from being purely a commercial entity, Iranian cinema has become the main medium through which Iranians can access modernity and formulate a national identity outside proscriptive religious values.

This conflict between religion and cultural modernity is at the heart of No One Knows About Persian Cats. Negar and Ashkan have just been released from prison due to involvement in artistic activities prohibited by strict Islamic law. Far from deterred, the couple are keen to form a band so they can perform in Tehran before travelling to the UK to promote their music.

What follows is an excursion into the thriving underground music scene in Tehran, courtesy of Nader played by Hamed Behdad, the self-proclaimed “Marlon Brando of Iran…”

Nader is in many ways the driving force of the film, not only does he promise to arrange passports and visas for Negar and Ashkan but also for their potential band members. When Nader is first introduced, he is a hurricane of activity; between claiming he can facilitate the couple’s artistic endeavours, he chatters to his budgies Scarlett, Rhett Butler and Monica Bellucci. It’s just unfortunate that the demo they give him sounds like derivate washed-out Britpop. Luckily, Nader fails to notice this and introduces them to some of the best musical talent Tehran has to offer; Rana Farhan, the Persian equivalent of a soul singer, rough-and-ready rapper Hichkas, indie kids The Yellow Dogs Band and a heavy metal group.

Nearly everyone featured in film is obsessed with western pop culture. Just waiting in the queue for her illegal papers, Negar gets talking to a woman about indie music and Madonna. David, the shady character who is to provide their visas, gives Nader a verbal lashing for giving him a black market film that contains romance when all he wants is high-octane Hollywood action. Nader meanwhile will swear on his mother, the Qu’ran and endure a real lashing in order to protect his film collection when it is discovered by the authorities. However, the excitement of one indie band member when Ashkan gives him a copy of NME lends a little absurdity - why get excited about the music of Green Day when you’re a subversive musician rebelling against a strict Muslim government?

Ashkan and Negar’s difficulty in getting a permit to play a gig in Tehran shows how stringent the rules are, but this also provides much of the humour. Ashkan complains that Negar’s lyrics are too gloomy, joking, “Did you write them in prison?’” When she replies in the affirmative he adds, “you’ll never get a permit for that.” The bands have to get creative if they want to practice and avoid being reported to the police, or be stopped short by a power cut. This being the case, the trio goes to watch a heavy metal band perform in a cowshed. The cows clearly object to amps being balanced on their hay bales, as the farmer complains they have stopped producing milk.

Much of the film is music combined with cityscapes which could easily be naff pastiche if weren’t set somewhere as exotic and unknown to western eyes as Iran. The ‘indie’ unsteady camerawork is forgiven for the shots of people and places: a man proudly standing in front of his shop with a knickers display in the window, chickens being butchered, children messing about on bikes, and building sites. There is also a nod to class struggle thanks to Persian street rapper Hichkas, who explicitly states that all human life is not treated with equal respect. After all, one wonders how Negar and Ashkan support their artistic ambitions without ever having to work, it seems.

No One Knows About Persian Cats does not end optimistically and represents a generation of disenfranchised youth and talent. Many aspire to leave Iran, as, at present, this is their only option to achieve their artistic goals, but what the film does prove is that art, culture and music can thrive even under the most hostile of circumstances. SR

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