To watch No One Knows About Persian Cats, Bahman Ghobadi’s portrait of young musicians living in Tehran, is to glimpse the political conditions of the Islamic Republic of Iran obliquely, through the formal limitations of the film and the biographical narratives that announce its release. It is the first feature that the Kurdish director, who won international fame for his 2004 film Turtles Can Fly, has successfully set in the city (he was denied authorization for a previous attempt). Since then, of course, Tehran has attracted international attention as a site of repression and resistance, and the global news media have provided a cast of archetypes: among them, an anti-American tyrant, a violent police force, and heroic young rebels like Neda Agha-Soltan and Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi (Ghobadi’s fiance and a co-writer of this film).
Providing a supplementary circuit of coordinates to this bird’s-eye view, Ghobadi set his film — a hybrid of political documentary and dramatic tragedy — in the basements, barns, and fields where Tehran’s bands play their music to avoid detection. To accomplish this, Ghobadi decided to take a political gamble of his own, purchasing a portable digital camera instead of using the State’s authorized film equipment. He shot the film in 17 days to keep off the police’s radar.
More than mere background information, Ghobadi’s filming constraints are clearly catalysts for the aesthetic choices in Persian Cats. Scenes set in the streets are hastily shot and roughly edited, nearly resembling the YouTube videos that documented last summer’s protests. The movie’s hurried sketch of a plot — two young musicians network with peers in Tehran to find an escape route to Europe — is tentative enough to allow for an organic moment to alter the course. Ghobadi casts nonprofessional actors, whose jokes, anxieties, and boasts casually coalesce into a portrait of Tehran’s underground (still, the lines are stilted at times, as when an old woman tries out a scripted gag — “Oh, I love indie rock! 50 Cent, Madonna… they’re great!”).
Between the characters’ conversations, Ghobadi directs music videos of a sort, depicting the bands and interweaving shots of Tehran to provide a social backdrop for the lyrics. The film includes a variety of (mostly Western-influenced) music, from indie rock to metal to rap, but what is most striking is the earnestness of the lyrics. Far from the ironic, glib, or allusive modes of writing customary to independent music of the last two decades, the songs Ghobadi includes are unabashedly direct. Some singers address poverty and homelessness in Tehran, while others long for more personal freedom, but all the lyrics are candid responses to the oppressive social and political conditions in Iran.
Because Persian Cats lacks authorization and documents critiques of the country, it is not likely to see release in Iran. Given the circumstances of its creation, the film is most appealing as a document of its own limitations and a portrait of the musicians who face similar constraints. In contrast with the videos broadcast through YouTube and cable networks, Ghobadi’s film is like a hastily scribbled postcard to strangers around the world, directed with the charm of a friend’s muddled handwriting.