Underground Musicians Fight The Man In Tehran

Negar Shaghaghi, Ashkan Koshanejad

Hip Cats: Co-written by Roxana Saberi, No One Knows About Persian Cats follows two outlaw Iranian musicians (Negar Shaghaghi [left] and Ashkan Koshanejad) trying to assemble a band and play one last gig before they flee Tehran. Mijfilm hide caption

itoggle caption Mijfilm

No One Knows About Persian Cats

  • Director: Bahman Ghobadi
  • Genre: Docudrama
  • Running Time: 102 minutes
Not Rated: Violence

With: Negar Shaghaghi, Ashkan Koshanejad, Hamed Behdad

Farsi with English subtitles

(Recommended)

Many things are forbidden in Iran — and in Iranian cinema. The title of No One Knows About Persian Cats was inspired by Iran's ban on cats and dogs in public, but it's actually about another taboo subject: secular music.

Lightly fictionalized, this near-documentary explores Tehran's underground music scene, which harbors indie rock, hip-hop, heavy metal, Latin jazz and other styles. From a Western perspective, most of the performers don't seem particularly threatening. But in Iran, even traditional Persian music is prohibited if it's performed by women.

Kurdish-Iranian writer-director Bahman Ghobadi, who came to prominence with 2000's A Time for Drunken Horses, usually tells stories that straddle the border between Iran and Iraq. He previously alluded to the plight of female Iranian musicians in Marooned in Iraq, in which a Kurdish singer crosses the frontier to help his ex-wife, who fled Iran after women there were banned from performing.

Persian Cats is Ghobadi's first film set in contemporary Tehran, which makes it even more of a challenge to Iranian authorities. Also, it was co-written and executive produced by Roxana Saberi, the Iranian-Japanese-American journalist who was imprisoned in Iran last year on dubious espionage charges. No wonder that Ghobadi currently lives outside his homeland, with little likelihood of returning so long as the current regime is in power.

The movie begins in a recording studio, where the director is working on music because his latest script hasn't been approved. He meets Negar (Negar Shaghaghi) and Ashkan (Ashkan Koshanejad), members of an alt-rock group, Take It Easy Hospital, who play approximate versions of themselves. Because they perform rock, and because Negar is a female vocalist, the couple has just finished a stint in prison. They intend to emigrate to Britain, but want to assemble a full band for a farewell concert. They'll also need forged passports and visas to exit the country.

These twin quests provide the movie's framework: Negar and Ashkan enlist Nader (Hamed Behdad), a fast-talking fixer who specializes in access to the West and its pop culture, who'll both get the phony documents the two performers need and introduce them to musicians who might back them in that last performance.

Negar Shaghaghi i i

A Clandestine Operation: In the film, Negar and Ashkan scout Tehran's underground music scene for potential additions to their indie-pop act. Mijfilm hide caption

itoggle caption Mijfilm
Negar Shaghaghi

A Clandestine Operation: In the film, Negar and Ashkan scout Tehran's underground music scene for potential additions to their indie-pop act.

Mijfilm

The plot's whirlwind tour of clandestine music showcases, among others, a metal band that practices in a cattle barn — milk production is down since rehearsals began — and a rapper called Hichkas (Persian for "nobody") who celebrates mean-streets Tehran as if it were Compton.

For those who follow Anglo-American pop music, the Tehran scene may seem oddly familiar. Iranian rockers read New Musical Express, love Sigur Ros, wear CBGB's T-shirts and sing such lines as, "There's no room in your cage for me." But the cage that imprisons them isn't high school — it's the entire country.

The movie's principal liability is that most of the music is highly derivative. Ghobadi spends a lot of time on songs that are more interesting sociologically than musically.

But the fictionalized fates of Negar, Ashkan and Nader are more compelling. Nader gets busted for having alcohol and foreign-film DVDs, and in a sequence that's both comic and chilling, frantically argues against receiving 75 lashes. In the movie's brutal climax, Negar and Ashkan visit an illegal rave that's raided by cops.

In real life, the couple did make it to London. But at the end of Ghobadi's largely factual odyssey, most of the musicians he introduces are still locked in a cage. (Recommended)

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