And if the authorities had their way, there wouldn’t be any. “In Iran, there are laws against blasphemy, free speech and rock and roll,” screams the opening card of the trailer for “No One Knows About Persian Cats,” the lauded feature film/documentary from Iranian filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi. The incredible film shows exactly what Iranians are doing about it (hint: over a dozen bands play their music in the film).
The film bursts conventions from the opening seconds, which show two people (playing themselves, as the making-of featurette explains) talking about the filmmaker, who is singing in a studio to lift his spirits. Why is he down? Well, the bands aren’t the only ones doing something illegal. Ghobadi isn’t allowed to make films in Iran anymore, and he made this entire movie in secret.
The movie then cuts to protagonists Negar and Ashkan, who are attempting to get out of the country to play a show in London. They don’t have passports, visas, English-language songs or a rhythm section. But they have a gig, so it’s up to them to make all those things appear in three weeks. To those unfamiliar with indie rock, this is actually a very plausible plot, given urgency by the international twist. The girl-and-guy duo spend the majority of the movie traveling through various locales in Tehran, trying to get members from various bands to join their nascent one and leave the country. They encounter all sorts of trials, not played for laughs or melodrama, on their quest.
That’s the feature part of the film, which works decently until the third act, when all the pieces get tied together into a jaw-dropping conclusion. It’s powerful stuff; the last shot will cause you think long and hard about things.
The documentary aspect interjects itself in the film via performances from many of the acts Negar and Ashkan visit. The music is varied and surprisingly hip; there’s indie pop, metal, rap, harmonica-led country, prog rock and more. Many of the groups could be held up in the same conversation with American counterparts. One Strokes-esque rock band incorporated a dance-punk groove and rhythmic vocals that sounded amazing. In short, these bands know their stuff. The music aspect is ear-opening, just as the feature film part is eye-opening.
And it is eye-opening, as a making-of extra depicts a very honest picture of the film shoot and Tehran itself. Most of the film’s small crew gets time to talk, combining technical explanations, deleted scenes, background material and a gag reel into a piece only slightly less interesting than the movie itself, if a bit bloated.
“No One Knows About Persian Cats” tries to do a lot, but it succeeds admirably on almost every level. It deserves all the praise it has garnered. A must-watch for music fans. —Stephen Carradini