No One Knows About Persian Cats

By Patrick Z. McGavin

Cannes Film Festival 2009 (Un Certain Regard):  The opening film of the Un Certain Regard program, Bahman Ghobadi’s “No One Knows About Persian Cats” takes on an immediate political interest given one of its writers and producers is the Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi who has been imprisoned and accused by the Islamic Republic of espionage.


Saberi is also the fiancé of the movie’s director, Ghobadi. “No One …” is the fifth feature of the Kurdish-Iranian filmmaker (“A Time for Drunken Horses”). The filmmakers have made a deceptively simple and erratic movie from a great story.


In some respects, the movie plays like an “Iranian Once,” that is a loosely arranged, funny and sometimes involving piece that uses Iran’s bourgeoning underground music culture to dramatize the very undemocratic and repressive tactics employed by the Islamic government to restrict personal, intellectual and artistic pursuits.


Like “Once,” it draws on some very appealing and talented musicians playing a variation of musical styles, jazz, hip hop, or what is often comically just referred to as “indie rock,” to explore the particular social and cultural dynamics fueling the underground craze. In many respects, the movie captures Tehran much the same way the samizdat and illegal publishing houses documented artistic, political and social life in the Soviet satellite states during the height of the Cold War.


But what’s frustrating is that Ghobadi never quite utilizes either this very fascinating material into a cohesive and sustained piece that truly examines through dramatic variation and emotional insight the particulars of life inside a very repressive, fundamentalist country.


As Marjane Satrapi showed in her great graphic art work and film “Persepolis,” Iran’s Islamic Revolution carried horrifying consequences for public art and performance, particularly for women who are banned from performing individually in public. (In one of the strangest episodes in the film, the stunning Rana Farhan is purposely blurred during her musical piece, but all too typical, it exists almost completely without context.)


Structured as a long flashback, the narrative follows two young musicians who are seeking three or four musical collaborators for a planned London concert. Negar (Negar Shaghaghi) and Ashkan (Ashkan Koshanejad) have openness and ease about them. They become our direct witnesses to the strange and sometimes forbiddingly inhospitable Tehran they navigate, mostly with the help of a young black marketer known as Nader (Hamed Behdad).


At its best the movie achieves a documentary looseness and spontaneity. The impressionistic story yokes together a string of incidents that typically involve the two musicians traveling the illegal backrooms, rooftops, basements and private spaces where ad-hoc recording sessions, illegal concerts and sometimes hilarious practices sessions unfold. In the funniest, most surreal moment, the two are taken to a farm where a heavy medal band plies their trade. It’s interrupted when one of the band members suddenly takes ill.


The other significant obstacle the young musicians face is securing the necessary passports and visas for the band. In the best scene in the film, they negotiate money with a rogue operative where they learn everything –travel visa, European identity cards, American green cards—are available for a price.


Ghobadi fails to develop and shape the material into a satisfying whole. Some of his stylistic decisions are downright difficult to comprehend or counterintuitive to the material. Every time he breaks to the often breathtaking and beautiful music, he resorts to jazzed up visual overlays of different people, places and daily activities that feel like unimaginative video art. The other problem is the movie’s overwrought and way out of place ending is virtually identical to a critical scene in Jafar Panahi’s far superior “Crimson Gold.”


Despite individual moments, “No One Knows About Persian Cats” ends as a missed opportunity.