The other night I watched the film No One Knows About Persian Cats, a 2010 Iranian film released by IFC which, like most foreign films, is completely unknown to American viewers and thus totally dishonored. The film, which highlights actual Iranian bands as it follows the loosely-scripted real-life story of the band Take It Easy Hospital (composed of Ashkan Kooshanejad and Negar Shaghaghi) as they try to get a backing band for their group in order to play in London, UK. Filmed in a documentary-cum-music-video style, with great shots of a country seldom seen to the West and an interesting soundtrack, the film blends Western ideas with universal wants on an all-too-Middle-Eastern background which presents an overall captivating but agenda-less work.
To an American who lives in a world of free speech, where every teenager with half an ounce of vocal or musical talent believes that they’re the next pop star, “Persian Cats” stands in an astonishing contrast. Here we have bands that, because of their lyrical content or style, are not allowed a permit, which is the only way one can legally play (even practice!) music in Iran. This sounds like it would crush the dream of every 14 year-old Iranian who dreams of thumping rock metal or gyrating like Britney Spears, but as the film shows, artists without permits will go to great lengths to continue their craft, even when the stakes are high (at the begining of the film, Ashkan and Negar are released from prison after being caught preforming without a permit). The camera follows the actors (it feels almost wrong to call them actors, and yet here they are, reinacting their story; perhaps docu-drama fits better?) as they tunnel through room after room, down multiple sets of stairs and alleyways, ducking into basements and past doors covered in sheets or up into tiny attics. What’s with the maze? The musicians have to find the most removed, isolated studios for their clandestine craft-thus underlining literally the meaning of “underground artists.” In the USA, “underground artists” mean artists that simply aren’t well known. In Iran, it means being oppressed musically and being forced literally, underground. One group even resorts to playing on a rooftop shack they built, and wait until their neighbors exit the building to commence the drums.
With some of the bands, one can easily see why the Iranian government would refuse them a permit. One band (which goes so far as to practice in a cowshed when their neighbors force them out) plays heavy death metal with Persian lyrics and death stares. Another one (which we meet on a floor of a construction site overlooking Tehran) is a rap group speaking about the injustices of poverty in their country. But some of them don’t seem so bad: take, for instance, the group that Hamed Behdad (Ashkan and Negars “manager”) sings in: it has a Persian rhythm to it, and male Persian dancers preform a clearly traditional dance as he sings.
The injustice that these bands cannot legally preform-let alone practice- is only tempered by the realization that, next door in Afghanistan, music itself was forbidden under Taliban rule, a fate that seems unbelievable. Ashkan and Negars band itself is pretty tame: Take it Easy Hospital (despite it’s emo name) is full of slightly-off-tune indie pop, the sort that contains lyrics that don’t seem to match up. Perhaps the Iranian government disliked the band simply because it is composed of a guy and a girl, who are in fact a couple, although the movie never, ever seems to make light of this.
Indeed, Negars presence in this movie seems, well, I wouldn’t say shocking but it certainly seems unusual. We find (or she finds herself) constantly surrounded by men: whether it’s in one of the clandestine meeting practice studios or
meeting with Hamed or riding on the back of a scooter, she is usually the only girl ever present. As such, the viewer almost forgets that she is a girl, because no one seems to notice this distinction or make note of it. She wears black hipster glasses that underline her seriousness (she is always the voice of reasoning and practicality, gently nudging the boys along and verbalizing her and Ashkan’s wants in her soft-but-not-girly voice) and baggy clothes; perhaps if she dressed more overtly girlish or sexy her presence would be more formidable. Omnipresent is a large olive-coloured backpack that she wears in most scenes, as if to prove that she is a woman, for she is the burden bearer.
Negar seems free from restraint: there is no older brother or parent demanding to know where she is, that she come home; money doesn’t seem to be an objection, nor is the fact that she wanders around Tehran alone (as she does in the opening scene, where she arrives at a “real” recording studio and talks in her lost-and-delirious way with one of the studio producers). She even appears to have her own car, as evidenced by the fact that we see her driving the band around. When a policeman pulls her and Ashkan over, he does not berate her for being in a car alone with a man: instead, he takes her dog away from her.
Thus, the Tehran that we are introduced to seems uneasy, unsure, a little bit lost. While there is an agenda, a plot to the film–the band is trying to get to London–and we are introduced to the themes/ideas of people struggling to speak freely, the film doesn’t push these ideas in one’s face. This is not a typical presentation of a clashes between ideals, East vs. West, old vs. new, although these forces do come out. Negars is a prime example: she wears a headscarf, but it is casually wrapped around her head so that her light-brown hair is clearly visible, as though she is torn between wanting to respect tradition and religion but also represent herself. In wearing the scarf undone, it appears that she is unsure of herself. Nader likes to speak English, and one day overhears Negars critiquing him for this, which is somewhat odd when one considers that her band preforms entirely in English.
Uneasiness seems to reign: perhaps it’s OK to sing in English, because it’s commercial and goes with their indie style better, but to speak English amongst Iranians is perhaps pretentious. The bands make some comments about the Americans, yet their music is clearly Western: modern rap, of the variety that the rap group preforms, was born in the urban frontiers of the USA; screamo-rock bears the influence of grunge a la Nirvana and Take it Easy Hospital’s brand of indie pop wouldn’t be out of place at a hipster bar in Brooklyn.The bands dream West, where they can play their music in the open, all except the rap group, which smartly states that their music “is for here, Tehran.” Indeed: their words speak to the public, to the government; their words critique their, Iranian, society, and would be out of place in the Western world of freedom. As I watched the movie, I couldn’t help but wonder what is the point? What is the point of making music if you’ll never get to play it for an audience? To never have your cries of social freedom and justice heard?
The answer is both literal and figurative. Negar and Ashkan defy the government by planning a secret concert in an underground room, always with the help of Hamed, himself a good study in the struggle of East vs. West. Hamed, who parrots bootleg DVDs and likes to drink alcohol–what does he get out of helping Negars and Ashkan? What is the point for helping struggling musicians who might never get anywhere? It certainly seems like they’ll be going nowhere, when the old man forgering their passports gets arrested. Hamed, who’s hopes and dreams seemed to be escaping back to London with the band, seems to question the reality of their musical struggle and subsequently gets drunk. No one knows about Persian Cats, as the film’s title suggests: no one knows about these bands, but to the bands, this does not matter. They seem determined that one day, some how, their words will break free of their cages and prisons and inspire the people they were meant for.
“I’ve been here alone/I’ve been here with you/…it’s a jungle out there,” go the lyrics in Take it Easy Hospital’s song “Human Jungle,” easily their best song (and, in my opinion, the best song in the movie; it certainly replayed in my ears after I’d finished watching). Is she talking about the tricky, dangerous jungle of Tehran, where police hide behind every corner, waiting for a bit of music to play? Is she talking about the jungle that is the world beyond Tehran, the West where the band has their eyes focused on? She could be talking about either one: no one knows, but it’s a fitting bit of lyricism.
At the end of the film, when Negar and Ashkan go to rescue Nader from a party, the police arrive: to escape capture, Ashkan jumps out the window; the last we see of him, he’s being rushed to the ER. The very last image of the movie shows Negar appearing to back flip off a roof. It is a very vague scene that asks a million questions. Is she really on a roof? Is she trying to emulate Ashkan’s seemingly suicidal jump? If this was an American movie, the film would have ended with the band playing their planned concert triumphantly, basking in the glow of an audience. It would have ended on a note of hope and victory. Negars jump does not seem to be very hopeful: it seems like she has given up. Or has she? Perhaps she is escaping her cage. No one knows.