No One Knows about Persian Cats, shot unofficially in Tehran in 2008 in 17 days and then finished in Germany, is the story of two Iranian rockers who have a gig coming up in London that they want desperately to play—but they need passports and they need to form a band. Try getting around that problem in a country where rock music is illegal and foreign travel requires serious contacts and serious bribes. Bahman Ghobadi follows the pair through Iraq's music underground, a huge, varied and collegial scene, not least because the government won't tolerate it.
Underground music begets an underground film. Before Persian Cats got to Cannes, where director Bahman Ghobadi won the Special Jury Prize of the Un Certain Regard section, its co-screenwriter, Roxana Saberi, was arrested in January 2009 and imprisoned on espionage charges that she confessed to under pressure. The American-born Saberi, a journalist and a former Miss South Dakota, was released in May of last year when an international campaign shamed the Tehran regime into freeing her after five months of confinement and the prospect of a long sentence. She chronicles the experience in her book, Between Two Worlds, just published in the US.
If Persian Cats is judged only as a documentary, the film has been overtaken by troubling events. Just weeks after Cannes celebrated Ghobadi, protests triggered by tampered national elections in Iran were followed by a violent government suppression of any independent political activity. Demonstrators were killed on the street. Abuses of the thousands of political opponents in prison were reported to be savage. On March 1 of this year, another film director, Jafar Panahi, was arrested in Tehran and, as of this writing, is still being held. The Cannes Film Festival has invited him to serve on the Feature Film Jury, but as Lynden Barber points out in the Australian, "Even if the director is unexpectedly released before then, it is unlikely he will be allowed to leave the country. But there's nothing so potent as the cream of the world's film media being exposed to the symbolism of an empty chair."
In Persian Cats, Ghobadi has given us a careful observation of part of a youth culture trying to exist outside of official restrictions (and a universal story about exuberant expression vs. theocratic Puritanism), yet the reality on the ground seems worse for artists and filmmakers than Ghobadi's film shows it to be. One element of that reality is constant. So many activities are illegal that the police can arrest anyone for doing almost anything that seems modern or individually motivated.
In the following interviews, Bahman Ghobadi and Roxana Saberi discuss their film and the conditions under which it was made and Obash, a member of the band The Yellow Dogs, talks about the film and music scene in Tehran. He spoke to me after a screening of Persian Cats in a tribute to Ghobadi organized by the Film Center of Lincoln Center. Obash mentions with pride that Persian Cats is the first Iranian underground film. He's not quite right about that—all of Jafar Panahi's films were shot without permits.
Listen to the interview below, or download the mp3 here.