by Richard von Busack
THE MUSICAL docu-drama No One Knows About Persian Cats follows the trail of a pair of indie rockers who want to get a band together so they can play Europe. The duo of Ashkan Koshanejad and Negar Shaghaghi from the real-life act Take It Easy Hospital play “Ashkan” and “Negar,” a couple trying to pick up a band to awake some interest in Europe. The duo encounters a likable but slippery promoter named Nader, as well as an elder passport forger who is promising them an array of visas if they can pony up the money. The two meet and greet with other musicians, whose music plays against a standard MTV montage of cityscapes. We see the range of illegal and semilegal rock music going on, despite the morality police. It’s a Westernized scene: smuggled T-shirts and posters are kept for their forbidden power. We hear the chattering electric guitar of New Wave, a little jazz-rock and even some not-half-bad Tehran rap.
You learn a lot about the Iranian music scene and how it exists in cracks, through disconnected anecdotes. A Metallica-like outfit practices in a cowshed in the country, where they get infections from the cows; meanwhile, the cowherds complain that music makes the cows dry up. Rock bands have to worry about sound leakage and tattletales calling the police. At a party where house music is blaring, we see a depths-of-degradation party, with the camera swiveling to peek-a-boo at the forbidden sights: a girl smoking a cigarette, a dark bedroom in which some kind of illicit sexual behavior is apparently going on, but the one taboo the film can’t show is the sight of an unaccompanied woman singing. Negar’s vocals are dubbed in as the appealingly nerdy girl looks off in the distance.
We do get one view of a solo female vocalist: an unidentified singer with a throb in her voice singing a love song with lyrics rich with Sufi-style symbolism. This music haunted me more than anything else in the film, but I doubt if we’ll ever find out who she is: the camera keeps her face, as well as the in-legal-peril audience, in a halo of out-of-focus haze.
The crackdown continues; recent news had it that Ashkan and Negar have applied for legal asylum in England after a member of their band was swallowed up by the police last year. Director Bahman Ghobadi (A Time of Drunken Horses, Turtles Can Fly) has made a sometimes awkward film, full of stops and starts. Even though it deals with sophisticated city people, it looks a little more strained in the nonprofessional acting than his films about peasants. That’s immaterial, though. Making this film, let alone appearing in it, is an act of bravery against a regime that gets more repressive—even as the power to dictate culture slips out of its hands.