The phrase “indie rock” may instantly conjure up sounds of twee melodies and sub-Beach Boys harmonies, but in a country in which whole genres of music are essentially forbidden, that well-worn label suddenly becomes a much more elastic concept. In No One Knows About Persian Cats, Iranian filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi follows a pair of young Western-inflected musicians forced into a literal underground of cellars and distant hideouts, the only places where they can ply their trade. As Negar (Negar Shaghaghi) and Ashkan (Ashkan Koshanejad) make their way across Tehran’s hidden spaces looking for a backing band to take to London for a concert, they encounter a network of dedicated musicians performing not only the semi-precious college rock in which the duo specialize, but metal, funk, blues, hip-hop, and even traditional Iranian tunes. As a woman tells Negar early on in the film, in an exchange emblematic of the project’s inclusive musical compass and its characters’ unalienated approach to Western forms, “I love indie rock,” before going on to list her favorite “independent” practitioners as 50 Cent and Madonna.
Starring Shaghaghi and Koshanejad, a real-life musical and romantic couple, as versions of themselves alongside many figures from Tehran’s musical underground, and shot in the city’s dingy, half-lit cellars with frequently handheld cameras, Persian Cats establishes a verité intimacy that is often little interested in acknowledging the rigidity of the documentary/fiction divide. Ghobadi’s film is at its strongest when establishing the culture of an underground driven by a near fanatical devotion to music and hemmed in by the constant threat of exposure and arrest. In one detail-rich scene, a group of performers keep watch on an apartment roof, waiting for a snitching neighbor to leave for work so they can perform, and passing the time reading what for them amounts to the holy grail, a copy of New Musical Express. Later, when they descend to the egg-carton lined practice room, the apartment’s owner, the father of one of the musicians tired of picking his son up from the police station, shuts off the electricity mid-jam.
But if the threat of repression remains latent for much of the film, Ghobadi makes clear that it remains very real. When film nut Nader (Hamed Behdad), a man of irrepressible enthusiasm who names his pet birds Rhett and Scarlet, is arrested for making illegal DVD copies of thousands of movies, he’s brought before a local official, a scene that the director shoots from the point of view of an eavesdropping Ashkan, so that we just make out Nader through a chink in the door. Although thanks to a desperately over-the-top plea, Nader is let off with only a small fine, and though the scene is largely played for laughs (achieved mostly through that character’s ingratiating histrionics as well as his insistence that the official re-watch the movies from an “artistic perspective”), the threat of a violent punishment narrowly escaped turns the sequence’s comedy into a kind of gallows humor. No such levity attaches to a later scene, in which Negar and Ashkan are pulled over while driving and the small dog they’ve taken with them is cruelly confiscated by a policeman. As the director keeps his camera fixed on the young pair (as in the earlier scene, the officer remains off screen) the arbitrary exercise of a faceless authority registers with a keen, abstract horror.
If, in the film’s narrative segments, Ghobadi sticks fairly close to the neo-realist inflected aesthetic associated with his country’s national cinema, then in Persian Cats‘s frequent musical numbers, the director takes his cues from the suddenly liberated players and cuts loose. Interweaving live performances by Tehranian musicians with shots of the city that thematically echo the songs’ lyrics, Ghobadi turns these segments into something like a series of self-contained music videos. Just as the director’s pluralistic commitment means that a diverse range of music is represented, often varying widely in quality, so his musical segments prove a mixed artistic lot. Occasionally augmenting the power of the songs through apt contextualization (as in one scene where a soulful, sultry female singer’s performance is cut with images of veiled women wandering the city streets), these numbers too often overwhelm the viewer with a dizzying aesthetic of camera shakes and ultra-fast cutting that render the images nearly subliminal. In addition, a certain slickness of production attaches to many of the numbers (turning a hip-hop jam, for example, into a Euro-pop video which nonetheless remains uniquely affecting) that compares unfavorably with the nose-to-the-ground minimalism of the rest of the project.
As these musical segments begin to pile up in the film’s last third, the amped-up aesthetic carries over to the final sequence, a tone-shifting set piece that’s half bravura performance and half gut-punch sensory overload. But if this abruptly sour conclusion seems to strike the wrong note in an apparent betrayal of the film’s guarded humanism, it justifies itself as an illustration of the lack of control a person has over his own life when subject to the arbitrary rule of an oppressive government. Prepared through such scenes as the aforementioned dog-snatching, the finale shows that no matter how noble the underground musicians’ efforts may be, they’re no match for the dictates of fate—a force here represented both by Ahmadinejad’s government and Ghobadi’s hand-of-God manipulations. Still, for a film that seemed designed as a tribute to the defiance of these musicians, the sudden cynicism of the ending can hardly register as otherwise than impulsively, jarringly odd.