Had Bahman Ghobadi’s No One Knows About Persian Cats been filmed in America, it would have been an enjoyable movie or a variety special showcasing Iranian music. But it wasn’t filmed in the land of the free, it was filmed in the home of the brave – Iran.
The plot is simple. Young lovers Ashkan and Neghar are Tehrani alternative musicians in the band Take It Easy Hospital. They want to play in a music festival in the UK. They go through the challenges any band would face, i.e., firming up the roster and getting the money and visas together.
But nothing is simple in Iran, especially for its millions of young, creative people. The musicians in this movie go to astonishing lengths just to practice. Rappers have to climb to the top of a skyscraper under construction if they want to flow. A heavy metal band practices on a dairy farm owned by a member’s father; it’s isolated enough that no one can hear them. An indie band has an ongoing battle with a neighbor child who threatens to call the police on them, not because he’s offended by the music, but because it makes him feel powerful.
A meta-documentary aspect adds depth and complexity to this film. It opens with Ghobadi himself singing in an underground recording studio, while the engineer explains the coming plot, and its outcome, to a waiting customer. Just as the musicians must work underground or be imprisoned, this amazing movie was filmed in secret and smuggled out of the country.
Persian Cats is full of surprises. Some of them are cultural things that shock and shame me as an American. Singing lands people in jail. Music therapy is provided to Afghan refugee children with obvious physical and emotional injuries. When the police See Neghar’s dog in her car, they pull her over and arbitrarily confiscate him, offering no hint as to his fate. Hamed, the movie’s fast-talking fixer, gets sentenced to whipping; not for selling pirated movies, but for drinking alcohol. I once heard a neighbor complain for 15 minutes when Taco Bell discontinued his favorite menu item.
Ghobadi seamlessly blends a wide range of Iranian music. The focus is on indie rock, but the blues voices of Rana Farhan and Babak Mirzakhani are among the best I’ve ever heard. Hamed Behdad’s haunting vocals on Darkoob are contrasted by his auctioneer-fast speech throughout the movie. The heavy metal band is excellent, as is the bossa nova guitar of Shervin Najafian. Ethnic minority Kurds and Balochis get a nod. There isn’t a clunker in the lot.
The classical Persian song Leili, performed by two unnamed sisters, is a welcome reminder that Iran was once the Persian Empire. The current regime won’t be able to hold the greens back forever. This, too, shall pass. When it does, the world will be treated to an amazing gift that has been hidden for so long – the powerful, passionate creativity of the Persians.