Just as NY Times reports armed militias entering Tehran, I still want to end this year and the 2000s decade on a note of hope—not the kind of Hope that has a “TM” symbol next to it—but the rare kind of hope that Kurdish Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi inspires in the 2009 film No One Knows About Persian Cats.
For me—someone who’s easily watched 200 films this year—this is the best film of 2009, hands down. The Cannes Special Jury Prize and IMDB’s 8 of 10 stars concur.
But this is not a feel-good movie, or a mainstream one.
…This is partly why I really want to put some serious words down and put together a chronicle of its music here:
As a result of being an underground film with underground content, both the film and the music can be hard to get a hold of, not least because the subject matter and many of the featured music styles (lumped together as “Western”) are currently banned by the regime.
This has created headaches for the director and musicians, adding to the difficulty of access.
But the story and circumstances are more complex than the media tends to portray.
Without spoiling anything, the film takes place in Tehran and centers around a couple, Negar and Ashkan, who are indie rock musicians of the dark & dancey Casio-twee variety, looking for a backing band so that they can go abroad to perform in London, since they’re not allowed to play public venues in Iran.
Their band name is Take It Easy Hospital.
The film opens with a kind of anti-disclaimer, saying that it’s based on real people, real locations and real events.
It definitely presents a side of Tehran that is intentionally accessible to very few people, even within the city itself.
We’re led through streets, back alleys, tunnels, mazes and hallways to guarded and padded makeshift practice and performance spaces, like this, where Yellow Dogs perform “New Century,” a song that rips on American consumerism:
We’re even led to a cow shed where Nikaein (a.k.a Nik Aeen Band) perform a Farsi death metal cut (You sympathize with the band and the cows).
Another reviewer of the film spotted a Joy Division poster in one of them, but I missed it.
The couple meets Nader, a charming, fast-talking ad hoc music promoter, who instantly appreciates and falls in love with their demo CD.
I found Nader’s character the most fascinating…
If we end up knowing little about Negar and Ashkan, aside from their love of music and will to leave, the film seems to reveal the most about Nader, developing his complex spirit throughout.
Ghobadi makes you think the film is mainly about the couple and their dream of leaving, but it’s just as much about Nader and the way his own dreams and fate are bound up with Ashkan and Negar’s.
Nader insists that he can make their dreams come true right there in Tehran, asserting that there are over 300 indie rock bands across Iran.
At the same time, he does all he can to help them get visas and passports to leave, recognizing the limited possibilities if they stay.
To help them find their backing band, Nader takes the two all over the city, introducing them to different artists and band members that they might draw from.
We see scenes of different aspects of life in Tehran along the way.
A lot of the musicians are in their early 20s, the age when mandatory military service (sarbazi) is an issue, and they need to either complete it or find a way out of it if they are to leave for gigs abroad.
The beauty of the film and soundtrack is that they reflect a kind of cross-genre camaraderie that doesn’t seem like a forced partnership, like when it’s recommended to the electro-poppers that they recruit a brilliant heavy metal drummer, or other unlikely candidates.
The common struggle to organize, practice and perform their favorite art form seems to make willing participants of nearly everyone they meet… with the notable exception of one guitarist who spends 11 hours a day playing for Afghani and Iraqi war refugee children.
While it presses your ears to the wall of these underground music spaces, it does it without being voyeuristic, hammy or melodramatic. The acting is quite natural and convincing as well.
Ghobadi does a good job with reality checks, too, taking you across the urban class divide.
He takes you to an enormous, chandeliered house with a raging “techno party” but also to the slums where a kid sleeps on a rubble heap in torn socks a few feet away from a rat.
We are hit with rapper Hichkas’ claustrophobic and pleading lyrics about class struggle in “Ekhtelaf,” but take time to reflect on more introverted indie rock lyrics, both of them referring to the same “jungle,” and the way it plays out inside and out.
A line that really stuck with me from Hichkas—whose name translates in English to Nobody—is “Me, you, him…we come from a single drop…but look at the gap between us now.”
He brings out the theme of religiosity running parallel to consumerism in Iranian society (“money first, god second”), talks about the heartbreak of your girl seeing a rich kid on the side, and ends with an affront to anyone who thinks they can rise out of circumstances of poverty and prostitution by aspiring to get rich.
(You might remember Hichkas’s first media appearance when the Daily Show’s Jason Jones went to Iran and interviewed him last June.)
The thread of all these different scenes and strata run around the yearning to leave and perform openly…
…But there is also Nader’s somewhat mysterious and subdued dedication to Tehran, and Hichkas’ relentless and emphatic loyalty to the city, to paraphrase, “there is nothing beyond Tehran…this is it,” as he cops a represent attitude and style of speech comparable to American rappers.
By the way, don’t call him a rapper…that’s rap-khun to you.
There were a few scenes that seriously broke my heart, and some that evoked a kind of spiritual experience for anyone interested in obscure music and all things Iranian.
One of them is Nader pleading and arguing as he is about to be fined the equivalent of $2,000 plus 80 lashes for possessing American DVDs and alcohol…you have to be there.
The other is when Ashkan says that he fantasizes about going to Iceland someday, and when asked why, he says to see Sigur Ros.
Having seen Sigur Ros and a lot of amazing shows, I have to admit feeling at that moment like I took them a bit for granted because I gathered that not many (if any) in Iran really knew or cared about this kind of music, given the dominating surround-sound of LA-style Persian pop. My mistake.
Ghobadi’s genius comes through again when, instead of drowning out traditional and classical Persian music to focus on rock, rap and Persian blues, he surprisingly works in some traditional elements.
This is the scene of the spiritual experience…
I wish I could give away this scene because it’s such a revelation about one of the characters, but let’s leave it at that.
It’s interesting, too, that they are playing in an open field in free air space…maybe because all band members are male and playing a traditional style of music.
The classic dance is raghse choob, or literally “stick dance.”
We also see two women performing a lovely classical Persian piece and playing daf for a private home audience.
Ghobadi covered his bases here: in Iran, it is not simply an issue of playing “Western” music, but even traditional Iranian music is not supposed to be performed by women for mixed-gender audiences.
So why is this movie hopeful despite its dark undercurrent?
It hits home, huge time…in sum because it happens at the intersection of underground music and social strife—two things that are personally influential, but that rarely converge well or at all, especially in the Iranian context.
The music is sometimes not at all political, though. Siavash from Yellow Dogs says in an interview with CNN, “We don’t want to change the world; we just want to play music.” (See below).
That it can be done despite illegality and bans is pretty incredible.
In an interview, Ghobadi says he was fearful every moment of making the film for those acting in it and working on it.
As a side note: for some reason the film’s Wikipedia page tells us to see also: “Rock the Casbah,” the song by The Clash…this perked up my ears.
I wasn’t sure why this reference was there since there’s nothing in the movie about it (maybe because the song and this film are both about censorship?), but there is at least one philosophical connection: it just goes to show that making music can become an act of rebellion when you don’t mean it to at all, and equally become a government tool when you meant to rebel.
(The Clash’s lead singer, Joe Strummer, apparently wept when we found out that the phrase “Rock the Casbah” was written on an American bomb that was meant to detonate on Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War, crying, “Hey, man, I never could think that a song of mine could be written as a death symbol on a fucking American bomb.”)
Artistic control seems a universal experience of musicians everywhere, which has lead many promoters outside Iran, particularly in New York and London, to give support whenever they can.
When you listen to the lyrics of “American Dream” by the fairly successful Hypernova — an Iranian indie band based in New York who opened for Sisters of Mercy on their 2008 tour — as amazing as getting out and going up may be, in the end it’s a mixed blessing:
I know that I’ll never go back home,
To the life I had, the life that I had known.
They put me on the cover of their magazines,
Scarlet skies and broken dreams.
They promised me that they would change the world,
For better or for worse.
All I wanted was to rock-n-roll
…Is this not the life you wanted to have?
Ghobadi himself conveys this sense of loss and being lost that comes with being a migrant or living in-between worlds, saying in an interview, “I don’t know who am I [sic], I don’t know where is my country.”
When Nader first met Negar and Ashkan, he assumed that they want to leave the country because Negar is just mad at her mom and is having a vengeful, immature reaction of fleeing. He makes it sound like this is a pretty common occurrence with young people he’s known.
As soon as he realizes it’s so that they can play their music freely, he says “Then I’m your servant,” and devotes himself to their cause.
Even though it may seem that characters like Nader and Hichkas represent the desire to stay while the others yearn for the kind of success Hypernova has achieved, Negar really wants to play a show in Iran before going away. She always wanted her parents to see her perform.
The situation of young Iranian musicians seems to turn the parent-child-rock rebel relationship on its head.
For decades, the Western rock narrative has told of parents’ lack of support or outright hostility toward their kids’ wanting to make a rock-n-roll living. But Negar’s relationship with her parents in the film appears sound and supportive.
And in real life, Siavash from Yellow Dogs talks about how his mother supports him, and she confirms it in an interview with CNN.
You don’t hear much complaining about parents the way you hear about governmental barriers. In this kind of atmosphere, it seems you’d need your family behind you, and it seems they’ve got it for the most part.
This is something that film critics and reporters should take more notice of, because while it makes the story juicier to play up the idea that Iran is “an inflexible, dogmatic Islamic society” where playing Western music is a crime, as Howard Feinstein (screendaily.com) asserts, they seem to miss the point that the film actually shows this same society as comprised of young people who insist on practicing their art form at all costs.
The rules have changed in waves throughout the years after the Revolution when these strict bans were put in place, showing that Iran, too, flexes.
During the Khatami years (before Ahmadinejad’s presidency) music rules became lax and groups like Arian Band with male and female performers were allowed to play public concerts. (P.S. – Arian Band wants you to know that Iran is not all sad and gothy… it’s a fun place with a lot of joy as well).
It was in December 2005 that Ahmadinejad reversed Khatami’s reforms and banned western music from state-run airwaves.
No One Knows About Persian Cats was released in May 2009, a month before the June elections and the social and political unrest that follows.
While the film is rebellious because of the context of its content (it’s the first post-Revolution film I’ve seen with kissing, too), it still had to adhere to the rules of women wearing the hejab, if loosely, and of sexual ambiguity in film (like the fact that some aren’t entirely sure whether Negar and Ashkan are a couple).
It does a pretty great job, even if it hadn’t been such a difficult feat.
Nikaein (a.k.a. Nik Aeen Band) — “Hesar Na”
Rana Farhan – “Maste Eshgh” (Drunk on Love)
Hamed Behdad – performing “Darkub”
Free Keys — favorite track: “Freaky.”
“Dreaming” is featured in the film.
Yellow Dogs — favorite tracks: “New Century” and “My Country”
Hichkas — “Ekhtelaf”
Take It Easy Hospital — “Human Jungle” and “Scenarios and Starlights”