Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Ghobadi’s No One Knows About Persian Cats

Indie films do not get much more independent than this. Shot illegally on the streets of Tehran, it is the product of Bahman Ghobadi, the preeminent Kurdish director whose films are regularly censored by the fundamentalist government and his credited co-writer and fiancée, Roxana Saberi, a former Miss North Dakota who was imprisoned for several months on trumped-up espionage charges (leading to worldwide outrage and a mild statement of concern from our own administration). Understandably, Ghobadi never expects it to screen in Iran, as long as the current regime remains in power. Yet, it was the toast of the international festival circuit, winning Un Certain Regard’s Special Jury Prize at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. Now New Yorkers can see for themselves the film Iranian audiences have been denied when No One Knows About Persian Cats (trailer here) opens in the City this Friday.

Negar and Ashkan are musicians recently released from prison. Their music was their crime. Nearly all forms of music are prohibited by revolutionary government, yet like many of their friends, they persist, playing the sounds they love in dark cellars and secret clubs. One trip to prison was enough for them, though. They have a gig booked in London and they do not intend to return. However, getting there will be tricky, particularly given their records.

The two are referred to Nadar, a former musician who now acts as a sort of fixer for the underground scene. He assures them he can secure their passports and visas, but he seems more interested in booking them local gigs. Still, they reluctantly put their faith in him as they proceed to assemble their band from among Tehran’s best dissident players.

Much of what follows is a tour of Iran’s diverse underground music world, with many actual Iranian musicians appearing at considerable risk to their liberty and well-being. Yet, that very clear and present danger brings an audible edge and visceral energy to their music. Indeed, Tehran’s alt rockers, rappers, and heavy metal bands are real rebels, who put to shame their mannered contemporaries in the West.

Persian’s musical interludes are all quite cool, even inspiring in their way, yet harsh reality remains ever present. Negar and Ashkan live in constant danger of arrest and police harassment, as when the police pull over their car to confiscate their beloved pet dog, an unclean animal forbidden outside of their home by Islamic law. The same strictures apply to the Persian cats of the title, which must be hidden away from the intrusive authorities, much like the music that drives the film.

A musician himself, Ghobadi can be heard laying down tracks in the opening scenes. As a result, he is keenly attuned to the plight of musicians (which parallel his struggles as a filmmaker). He never sugarcoats his Vérité portrayal, giving it an ending true to their experiences. He also elicits some compellingly natural performances from his relatively inexperienced cast, especially the spirited Negar Shaghagi as her namesake. If not for the musical numbers, Persian would truly feel like a documentary filmed from a fly-on-the-wall perspective.

Reviewers constantly label films “bold” that are frankly nothing of the kind. In contrast, Persian is an honestly brave film produced at much risk to nearly everyone involved. Combining dynamic music that transcends genre with its often harrowing human drama, it gives a scrupulously realistic portrait of contemporary life in Iran. By turns entertaining and tragic, it is a powerful indictment of Iranian state censorship that should be seen by a wide audience, including those setting our current foreign policy. Recommended without reservation, Persian opens in New York this Friday (4/16) at the IFC Center.