Is there a more puzzling underground music scene than that of Iran? If you follow the western media’s reporting of tough crackdowns on gigs and club nights, it seems stuck between heavy regulation, outright disdain, and tentative blossoming. Seeking to get beyond the headlines and potential ideological bias is Kurdish-Iranian filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi’s No One Knows About Persian Cats.
One of the film’s frustrating conflicts is presented immediately. Ghobadi’s desire to present this youthful, radical slice of Iranian society in a documentary style, showing off the diversity of bands and the pressures on performers, jars with the decidedly fictional narrative style given to the film, which features real bands but a made-up story.
Two young Iranians, Negar and Ashkan, decide to form a band after a spell in prison. Fully aware of the restrictions placed on western music in their country, they dream of travelling to Europe – to London, Iceland, or France – and performing their songs publicly.
To this end, they look for foreign passports and dodgy visas, using the black market connections of bootleg-DVD-salesman-cum-manager Nader (Hamed Behdad). Meanwhile, they also need to recruit backing musicians for their band, in the hope of playing a secret gig before jetting off.
This search for drummers and bassists is Ghobadi’s excuse to showcase Tehran’s vibrant musical scene, starting off with a music studio specialising in female-sung blues ballads, and taking in groovy jazz fusion, pulsating techno, psychedelic jamming and tender acoustic folk.
These mostly young groups, marginalised by the moral powers that be, flourish on the extreme edges of society, practicing in basements, freestyling in the undeveloped frame of a multi-storey building, or, like a metalcore band made up of factory workers, grinding out pop-death riffs in a countryside cow shed.
Their consumption of western media is vital, with bedroom walls plastered with Joy Division posters, or one skinny-jeaned indie band (who rehearse on a makeshift shed atop an apartment block) getting their cultural fix from a ragged, well-thumbed copy of the NME.
No One Knows About Persian Cats works best in this light, when it touches on the extreme measures musicians (or youth culture in general) will go to in order to express themselves. Furthermore, it stresses their mostly harmless approach, with lyrics dealing with personal issues and a wish to build on Iranian culture, not rage against it. The protagonists’ desire for escape is one of necessity, not choice.
The fictional storyline, anchored by Ashkan Koshanejad and Negar Shaghaghi, is supposed to hammer home this tragic predicament, but instead it complicates the project as a whole.
Ghobadi tries to satisfy both documentary and dramatic impulses, but it is a self-destructive ambition. The distinction between fact and fantasy is blurred, by association marring the film with a sense of polemical untrustworthiness. The fictional plot-line seems under-nourished, as it is dropped at every turn in favour of a stirring musical montage, but, likewise, the film loses its informative, objective stance once it gives in to the pressures of narrative, building towards a moving, emotional conclusion of foiled dreams.
Despite Ghobadi’s best efforts, Iran’s musical situation still remains a slippery subject, leaving the viewer, by the end, just as uncertain of the plight of these Persian cats.