I Shot, I Ran
By Martin JohnsonUpdated April 15, 2010 12:01 am ET
Bahman Ghobadi is one of Iran’s leading filmmakers, but after completing his most recent movie, “No One Knows About Persian Cats,” he went into exile in Iraq.
The movie, which opens on Friday, was shot without permission from Iranian authorities in 17 days, and tells the story of two young musicians forming a band and organizing a concert in order to raise money. The plot may seem somewhat mild by American standards, but most music has been banned in Iran since the rise to power of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979. As a result, there is an underground music scene with bands playing in many different styles. The film’s release and the situation depicted in the movie cast more light on the oppressive regime in Iran and its deteriorating relationship with a thriving artistic community.
“It would have been impossible to get permission to make this movie,” Mr. Ghobadi said last month from Amsterdam, in a phone interview translated by Sheida Dayani. He feared that he would be imprisoned if the authorities were aware of this production and has said that he aged one year for each day of the shoot.
“No One Knows About Persian Cats,” which won the Special Jury Prize award at the Cannes Film Festival, features a wide range of musical performances as the protagonists search for bandmates, space for a concert and a fake passport to facilitate their escape to London, Berlin, New York or some other locale where being an aspiring musician is merely a economic struggle and not a crime. The musicians in the film routinely perform in basements, forests, atop construction sites and anywhere else that their music will not attract the wrath of the police.
The title of the film is a play on words, referring to the ban on bringing pets outside in Iran—yet Persian cats are cherished for their beauty. Mr. Ghobadi estimates that there are as many as 3,000 musicians honing their skills in secret. “They don’t only fear for themselves,” he said, “but they fear for their families.”
Roxana Saberi, the Iranian-American journalist who was imprisoned for three months on charges of espionage last year, is one of the film’s screenwriters. In an email interview last week, she told me of meeting a woman who gave voice lessons to her male students in her closet because it’s illegal for a woman to sing in the company of men.
“It’s a completely Orwellian situation,” said Raam, the one-named lead singer of the group Hypernova, an Iranian rock band that has been based in New York since 2007. “You have children who are being taught to report their parents’ actions and neighbors being told to report their neighbors’.” A reflection of this situation is that the members of the band don’t use their real names; they fear their families in Iran would suffer reprisals from the authorities for their actions in the West.
The music on the soundtrack of “No One Knows About Persian Cats” ranges from the driving synthesizer-based rock of Take It Easy Hospital to the furiously layered hip-hop of Hichkas. Some of the lyrics are in English, others in Farsi; some music would fit right into the American mainstream, and other tracks are ingenious fusions of Persian and Western styles. All of it bristles with urgency. Hypernova is living what is a dream for many of these bands. Its new recording, “Through the Chaos” (Narnack), was released last week; the band, whose lean and energetic music recalls aspects of Joy Division and Franz Ferdinand, will give several performances on the East Coast this spring.
Although Tehran residents’ cultural output is rigorously censored, Raam said it is commonplace for them to have satellite television and Internet connections. The underground scene is fueled by a black market of CDs and DVDs.
One of the DVDs in circulation in that black market is Mr. Ghobadi’s previous film, “Half Moon” (2007). It is a road movie that tells of a great Kurdish musician who organizes a band and heads to Kurdish Iraq for a musical celebration of the fall of Saddam Hussein. The film was denied domestic distribution in Iran because of its portrayal of women singing in the company of men.
Mr. Ghobadi and such other directors as Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, Mahmoud Rasoulof and Mohsen Makhmalbaf have created a stirring new national cinema in Iran, but it has been hit hard by the current wave of repression. Messrs. Panahi and Rasoulof have been imprisoned and Mr. Makhmalbaf has left the country. Mr. Panahi was jailed after openly siding with the green revolution, the widespread protests that followed the fraudulent election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last year; his wife released a statement earlier this month that said the conditions of his imprisonment amount to torture.
Ms. Saberi has just published a book, “Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran” (Harper). She saw some similarities in the missions of her book and the movie. “They both show what happens when people in power try to impose their own views upon others through restrictions, intimidation, and harassment,” she said in her email. “Although these methods might in the short run succeed in driving people underground (like the musicians in the movie), it cannot silence or eliminate their voices or wishes in the long run.”
Mr. Ghobadi views his filmmaking and that of his peers as part of the movement to bring change to his native country. He cited the amount of film, literature and music that has been released by Iranians despite 31 years of rigid censorship, and he said he is devoted to making movies “that will fight this government until we have a better Iran.”
Mr. Johnson writes about music and the fine arts for the Journal.