Monday, 19 April 2010

'No One Knows About Persian Cats' review: Everybody wants to be a cat...

Another winner of the Un Certain Regard prize at last year’s Cannes film festival (I reviewed ‘Father of My Children’, here last month and a review for 'Dogtooth' will follow shortly), Bahman Ghobadi’s ‘No One Knows About Persian Cats’ is a fresh and exciting piece of Iranian filmmaking. It is reminiscent of 2007’s French animation ‘Persepolis’ which also looked at “western” music in Iran and managed to combine this with a broader critique of social and political problems, to similarly great effect. But whilst that film’s protagonist (Marjane) manages to leave Iran fairly early on in the narrative (and make it to the promised land of Europe), the two central characters in ‘Persian Cats’ spend the entire movie working towards that goal, in the hope of pursuing a musical career which is impossible in their native country. The “indie rock” they play is illegal and they must acquire exit visas to leave Iran, making them the Persian equivalents of Paul Henreid and Ingrid Bergman in ‘Casablanca’.

At the film’s start they have just been released from prison for playing a concert. Their dream of touring Europe sees them embark on a ‘Wizard of Oz’ style journey, encountering a number of different musicians as they hope to build a new band. Along the way we are taken on a tour of the contemporary Iranian underground music scene and a range of musical styles (rap, traditional, folk, heavy metal) thriving in a variety of makeshift venues (a cow shed, a rooftop shack). Whenever Negar and Ashkan are introduced to a new group of musicians we are shown a pastiche music video, which apes the conventions of that generic style. These have been cleverly edited together by Iranian musician Farbod Khoshtinat and are set to images of everyday Iranian life (people walking the streets of Tehran, buying goods or driving cars) in a way which serves to underline the fact that Iran is a modern city, perhaps too often accompanied on film by traditional Persian music. In fact, within the film traditional Iranian music is at one point described as “world music” – as seemingly distant from some modern Iranians as it is to us.

Much of film focuses on the exciting possibility of the duo putting on a farewell rock concert and the excitement that generates (especially evident near the film’s climax as the underground venue is prepared for the show) reminds us of the simple pleasures we are lucky enough to take for granted: the right to assemble in a group, to dance, to mix with people of the opposite gender, to drink alcohol and to listen to non-religious music. All of these things are being done in secret in ‘Persian Cats’, and without that detachment and jaded irony associated with western counterculture: people are enthusiastic and happy. The Iranian music scene is exciting and cool in the film, without trying to be edgy. In a country where people face real hardships, I suppose they don’t tend to wear misery as a badge of honour. As an upshot of this much of the music is really charming, especially that of the charismatic lead duo.

There is also some really funny stuff in the film, with the duo turning to a fast-talking and delusional movie bootlegger called Nader (Hamed Behdad) in order to arrange their escape. Nader occasionally speaks in English, quoting movie dialogue and there are numerous scenes where he references American films and actors to good comic effect. There is also lot of fun to be had here with Iranian views of American culture. One of the best examples sees a Muslim lady, wearing traditional clothes, saying “I love indie rock! 50 Cent, Madonna!” When she expresses an interest in seeing the farewell concert, Negar replies “God willing you will.” This mixture of western influences and popular culture, alongside earnest commitment to Iranian tradition and religion helps to stop ‘Persian Cats’ from seeming shallow or polemical. As Negar says at the beginning, she doesn’t want to protest, she just wants to play music.

The main point seems to be that these young people would like to be able to play their music in Iran and that the regime is driving otherwise law abiding people out with such intolerant extremism. Indeed Bahman Ghobadi has since left Iran, robbing the country of one of its most prestigious directors and of a founder of the so-called "Iranian New Wave". But the film itself is far from an all-out attack on the governing regime: the most overtly political song is the rap (see the video below), but even that isn’t about religion, but rather takes the more universal theme of social inequality in a world controlled by money. A point which could be made in any country on the Earth. This capitalist mentality is evident when Negar and Ashkan visit one of the film’s bands: the group start talking about their aspirations, all of which are material and sound like something from an episode of MTV Cribs. The film’s earlier comic references to “western” culture (Nicholas Cage, Paramount Pictures etc) could now sound like part of a more sinister hegemonic cultural imperialism. Of course, the film is ultimately against the intolerance and the violence of the Iranian government, but it does not make its points in a way shich is clumsy or unconsidered.

Aesthetically, the film sometimes looks a little amateurish and the music video sequences (whilst clever) can seem a little cheesy. But that said, ‘No One Knows About Persian Cats’ is an enjoyable and at times poignant look at a modern Tehran, which provides a really good insight into the social and cultural life of that city. The film tantalisingly blurs the line between fact and fiction in many ways. For example, the lead actors (Ashkan Kooshanejad and Negar Shaghaghi) boast the same first names as their characters and the bands they encounter are real bands playing themselves. But more relevant and interesting is the movie’s opening scene in which a character talks of a great movie that will be made about the underground music scene in Iran. After seeing ‘Persian Cats’ I was left in no doubt that this is that great movie.

Hopefully you can find the film playing in an arts cinema near you. 'No One Knows About Persian Cats' is rated '12a' by the BBFC.

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