Last night, I made my first trip to E Street Cinema, the independent theather hosting this year's Filmfest DC. I joined a few of my friends from Iran. They have been raving about an acclaimed documentary from their home country that was showing at the festival. With my next Netflix movie a day away and even less interest in the current big-time box office flicks, I was along for the ride.
We saw No One Knows About Persian Cats, a docu-drama about the underground music scene in Iran. It won one of the Special Jury Prizes at last year's Cannes Film Festival, and I can definitely see why. The director, Bahman Ghobadi, follows two young adults (Ashkan and Negar) after their release from prison. They're on a quest to launch an indie rock band and eventually travel overseas. Along the way, the group meets a shrewd, impromptu manager/agent/A&R man of sorts (Hamed). He introduces the duo to a plethora of underground rock musicians, in hopes of finding other band members. However, their dreams of expressing themselves artistically without worries about the government are constantly in danger — and also quite expensive. I couldn't believe how much passports and visas cost in other countries!
It's a rollercoaster ride of sorts, as the movie takes you from a farm that doubles as a practice space for a metal outfit, through the busy, motorcycle-filled streets, and finally to a rooftop, where a rap group spits some rhymes, far and away from the public eye. Where there's a will, there's a way for these musicians.
Persian Cats made me realize that underground music has a completely different (and possibly even deeper) meaning in the Middle East. In America, independent and underground bands are usually associated with musicians who perform a particular style of music, keeping their songs a secret by choice. In Iran, playing udnerground music is forbidden. Against the law. One day, you're in a jam session with your band mates... the next, the police are chasing you out of a hidden practice space.
Even if you're not necessarily a fan of indie rock, the film profiles over 20 artists, from world musicians to rap groups. And I must say that the film is very well shot and produced (the director and his crew filmed over 200 bands in 18 days!). Ok, I must confess — so Ghobadi was at the screening and did a Q&A session afterwards. But that was an added bonus. Either way, Persian Cats is a phenomenal insight into one of the world's most oppressed music scenes.
I plan on stopping by E Street again real soon. And perhaps, I'll have a review on the much anticipated, world's first street art disaster flick — Exit Through the Giftshop.