No One Knows About Persian Cats

Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
  No One Knows About Persian Cats
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

Playing music, especially rock and roll, is a difficult prospect, at best, in Iran. But, playing music AND getting permission to travel abroad is nigh on impossible. Negar (Negar Shaghaghi) and Ashkan (Ashkan Koshanejad) dream of leaving their repressive home land and perform in London and their friend and promoter, Nader (Hamed Behdad), is certain he can get the passports, visas and all permissions in “No One Knows About Persian Cats.”

Bahram Ghobadi delves into a story of dedication of the Iran’s musicians to their art, the religious and government oppression of that same music and the lengths these troubadours will go to play. While the story is fascinating and the ending a true shock it is the music, varied and always good and performed by Tehran musicians, that makes this a musical steeped in drama. Ghobadi combines the multitude of great songs with ready-made music videos carefully and creatively built over them.

I am loving “No One Knows About Persian Cats,” its moving story about real people who just want to play music, first rate production – it is hard to believe that this was all shot guerrilla style in the heart of Muslim Tehran – and terrific music. It has a lot to say about religious persecution, human rights and freedom and says it well. I give it an A-.

After being denied permission to shoot the film he had planned for two years, cowriter (with Hossein Mortezaeiyan)/director Bahman Ghobadi ("A Time for Drunken Horses," "Half Moon") decides to follow young musicians Negar (Negar Shaghaghi) and Ashkan (Ashkan Koshanejad) as they attempt to assemble a band and get the permits and visas necessary to perform in London.  In so doing, Ghobadi exposes Tehran's vibrant but heavily persecuted underground music scene in "No One Knows About Persian Cats."

Part amusing docudrama, part music video collection, Ghobadi makes sharp political observations without getting on a soap box here, although his tough love denouement may make you catch your breath. In his last film, "Half Moon," a group of Iranian musicians traveled with a female singer, forbidden twice over in Iran (the travelling with and female singing), to Kurdistan and here, once again, Ghobadi gives Iranian women their musical due.

The film begins as studio engineer Babak records Ghobadi (who really is cutting his own album) and explains him to Negar and Ashkan, who have just gotten out of jail, two of four hundred arrested at a music festival.  The two are hooked up with Nader (Hamed Behdad), a fast talking DVD bootlegger with a parrot named Bellucci who claims to have connections.  He introduces the female/male duo to everyone from Hamed, a guy who keeps cats, to a heavy metal band forced to practice in a country cow shed (something which the cows clearly do not appreciate).  Nader keeps soft shoe shufflin', disappearing at critical moments, reneging on concert arrangements, and even getting arrested himself, but when he goes missing the night Negar and Ashkan's new band is to play for 400 on the eve of their London departure, the two are forced into the streets to find him.

With each introduction to a new band, Ghobadi creates a music video to frame their music.  Each has the same visual style - Tehran street shots quickly edited with close up cutaways, sometimes using minimal effects (kids with their faces painted 'animated' via editing, for example) - but the musical styles are incredibly varied.  We see famous Iranian female singer Rana Fahran in the studio singing "Drunk with Love" and wonder, with her explicitly suggestive lyrics, how she manages to ever perform.  The travails of finding practice space are the base of much of the comedy - after the cow shed, we see another group in a makeshift shack on a rooftop where they must wait until the downstairs neighbor leaves before playing. A rap group uses a construction site to get 'views of the street,' another fakes blindness to play in the subway.

Ashkan advises Negar that her lyrics are 'too dark' and that they need to be cheerful for international audiences to be interested. Negar, whose high, childlike voice doesn't always quite harmonize with Ashkan's, complies, an irony given what plays out over their last song. In an odd way, the two recall the duo at the heart of "Once," their passion all about the music here.

"No One Knows About Persian Cats" is a document to the courage required to express oneself artistically in Iran, both in music and on film.  It features a diverse and comical cast of characters under political persecution each on their own quests and it is entertaining, educational and heart breaking.

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