No One Knows About Persian Cats AKA Kasi az gorbehaye irani khabar nadareh AKA Nobody Knows About th
R2 - United Kingdom - Network
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (3rd August 2010).
The Film

No-One Knows About Persian Cats (Bahman Ghobadi, 2009)

'Based on real events, locations and people', declares a title card at the front-end of No-One Knows About Persian Cats. The film then opens with a decontextualised shot of a man on a hospital gurney, blood on his face; a point-of-view shot from his perspective shows the fluorescent lights on the ceiling of the hospital corridor passing by overhead.

Via analepsis, the film then shows the events leading up to this opening sequence, introducing us to Negar (Negar Shaghaghi) and Ashkan (Ashkan Koshanejad), two young Iranian musicians who are preparing for a concert in London. Early in the picture, Negar reveals to another character that Ashkan has only recently been released from prison. ‘They [the authorities] try to smear musicians and lock them up’, Negar muses. This reflection introduces a central issue of the film: Iran’s repressive climate of censorship. Teaming up with Nader (Hamed Behdad), a bootlegger who is responsible for duplicating and selling Ashkar and Negar’s band’s CDs on the streets of Tehran, Negar and Ashkan attempt to gather (via a blackmarketeer named Mash David) the passports and visas they need in order to perform at the London concert; (via legal means) the permits they need from the Censorship Bureau before they can publicly perform their music; and to bring together a backing band.

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Negar and Ashkan’s music is self-labelled ‘indie rock’ (although after watching the film, the viewer will undoubtedly wonder how any youth music in Iran can be anything other than ‘indie’). Their quest to pull together a backing band takes them through the underground music scene of Tehran, dominated by Western genres such as (the aforementioned) ‘indie rock’, heavy metal, rap and blues; some of the groups sing in English, and others sing in Persian. (One sequence foregrounds how Iranian culture has adapted these Western music genres: Negar and Ashkan visit a heavy metal band, who rehearse in a cowshed; the lead singer, Aryan, tells Negar and Ashkan that his once Westernised heavy metal band now sing in Persian and have made content of their lyrics more directly relevant to Iranian culture, to make their music easier for their audience to understand and relate to.) The musicians’ commitment to Western music genres as a vehicle for self-expression is highlighted when one of Ashkan’s acquaintances jokes, ‘All I want is a Rickenbacker and an island […] where I can play all day with no one bugging me'.

The film offers perspectives on different aspects of underground youth music culture in Iran, shown through performances by Iranian musicians, tied together by the loose narrative of Negar and Ashkan's attempts to prepare for their indie rock band's concert in London. The footage of the different bands – who represent the different musical genres outlined above – is presented in montage, intercut with documentary-like footage of Iranian culture. For example, the blues song, taking placed midway through the film, is filmed being recorded in a studio, and is intercut with footage depicting the extent of economic poverty within Tehran: homeless people sleeping on the streets, piles of rubbish, etc.

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In this sense, the film could be said to be structured as a series of vignettes depicting different genres from within Iran's underground music scene, with Negar and Ashkan's fugitive-like attempts to find a backing band, and get the relevant permits and passports to perform in London, as a loose narrative linking device. The film thus offers a snapshot of youth culture within Tehran, bearing some comparisons with Jean-Luc Godard’s One Plus One (1968), which juxtaposed the studio recording of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ with a series of set-pieces depicting various elements of the politicised youth counterculture of the era, from Black Panthers to Maoists. On the other hand, the freewheeling structure of the film and its guerrilla-style naturalistic aesthetic could also be compared to ‘slacker’ generation American filmmakers such as Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith.

Although the twenty-something protagonists of the film show no overt evidence of being politicised in the direct way that Western youth counterculture after May, 1968 was – for them, the various music subcultures through which they traverse mostly emblematise a ‘pure’ love of music and a desire for freedom of expression rather than a Godard-esque Situationist-style subversion of the status quo – they constantly discuss and practise methods of circumventing Iran’s repressive culture: staging gigs in soundproofed underground locations; practising their music in isolated cowsheds and on rooftops; recording music videos on construction sites. This is a city in which an issue of the British music magazine NME seems to be a treasured item, passed around amongst Ashkan’s friends and acquaintances as if it is an underground publication. The rap song (and its concomitant video) performed by ‘Hichkas’ (Soroush Lashkary) comes closest to representing a Situationist critique of Iranian society: the rapper sings 'This is Tehran, a city where everything you see entices you; entices your soul till you realize you're not human, just trash', whilst onscreen we are shown images of poverty, and homelessness, from within Tehran.

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The consequences faced by these young musicians are pulled sharply into focus when Nader is arrested. Ashkan sneaks into the local police headquarters and finds the room in which Nader is being interrogated; peering through a gap in the door, Ashkan watches as Nader is accused of possessing alcohol and selling films that are against Islamic law. Threatened with a fine of 1,500,000 tomans and 75 lashes, Nader breaks down; he is let off with a far less stringent sentence, but the point has been made. Later, Negar reminds another band that ‘[g]et busted’ for playing music without a permit, ‘and you’ll go to jail for at least two months’. Faced with this situation, it’s understandable that Negar and Ashkan’s commitment to their music intermittently wanes: as Ashkan notes, Negar’s lyrics are thoroughly bleak (‘Night, malady, blackness’, state the lyrics she writes for one of the band’s songs); and as Ashkan notes early in the film, ‘You can’t do anything here. There’s no point in trying’. As the film progresses, Negar in particular becomes increasingly disheartened, at one point telling Ashkan 'Let's forget the album. It's not that important'.

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Nevertheless, the film shows a love of Tehran through its sometimes exhilarating montages depicting snapshots of the city intercut with shots of Negar, Nader and Ashkan riding through the streets of Tehran on Ashkan’s motorcycle. However, from the outset it is clear that the narrative of Negar and Ashkan’s attempts to prepare for their concert in London are doomed, and ultimately the film suggests that they are eaten up by the repressive cultural climate through which they must navigate.

The films runs for 102:38 mins (PAL) and is uncut.

Video

The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1, with anamorphic enhancement.

The film was shot on digital video, apparently guerrilla-style and with a small budget, and thus often has an almost documentary-like appearance. As is to be expected considering the quick shoot and the low budget, visuals are sometimes a little rough around the edges, with night-time sequences displaying a lack of definition and some shots oddly-composed. However, this naturalistic aesthetic works in the film’s favour, giving the film a sense of urgency and immediacy.

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Audio

In terms of soundtracks, the viewer is offered a choice of Persian Dolby Digital 5.1 or 2.0 stereo. The stereo track (with some surround encoding) is arguably the best option: the 5.1 mix has some distracting reverberation and, on the whole, sounds somewhat artificial.

Again, as per the circumstances in which the film was shot, the (largely direct) sound is sometimes soft and muffled and at other times is crystal clear.

The disc contains optional English subtitles. These are easy to read but contain many Americanisms (the aforementioned use of the phrase ‘get busted’ being one example) which I can only infer are attempts to translate the slang which is presumably used by the young people in the film.

Extras

The disc contains a number of bonus trailers, playable on start-up and skippable: In the Pit, StarSuckers, I Know You Know (6:48).

'Behind the Scenes of No One Knows About Persian Cats' (53:43). This documentary explores the production of the film. Ghobadi asserts that most films about Tehran misrepresent the city, and suggests that 'This was the easiest film I've shot'. The documentary contains much behind the scenes footage, and is mostly technical – rather than offering an insight into the cultural context out of which the film grew.

'Interview with Ash and Negar' (7:19). This is an EPK-style interview with the two stars of the film, in which they explain the meaning of the title (the fact that cats, and dogs, are forbidden in Iran, and thus are kept out of sight, acts as a metaphor: 'that no one knows about the Persian society', as Negar suggests) and their relationship with the director, their response to the praise the film attracted at Cannes, the difficulties facing musicians taking the roles of actors, and Ash's experience of spending 21 days in prison for performing an illegal concert

Theatrical trailer (1:51). The British theatrical trailer foregrounds the film’s success at Cannes (at which it won the Special Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regarde category).

Image gallery (2:04), containing production stills and photos from the shooting.

Overall

No-One Knows About Persian Cats is a rich, humanistic film. As noted above, it is somewhat reminiscent of Godard's One Plus One in its juxtaposition of music performances and the social context out of which this music grows. Apparently shot in just seventeen days, No-One Knows About Persian Cats uses mainly non-professional actors, including the two leads, Ash Koshanejad and Negar Shaghaghi, who together form the band Take It Easy Hospital. The result is a naturalistic, insightful and rewarding film that deserves to reach a wide audience.

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