Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi works out frustrations
The state of Iranian film, circa 2010, is like Iran in miniature: anxious, uncertain and riven by dissension. And interviewing an Iranian filmmaker, like “No One Knows About Persian Cats” director Bahman Ghobadi, is an experience in stereophonic sound: the director and his translator spend as much time arguing over his responses as he spends actually answering questions.
Ghobadi is frustrated, and rightly so. Persona non grata in his own country for his political outspokenness, criticized by fellow Iranian directors, Ghobadi, 41, wants to hit back. Being interviewed by a Western journalist is one such opportunity. His new film is another.
“Persian Cats” was born of another, earlier frustration. The director of “A Time for Drunken Horses” and “Turtles Can Fly” had made his name with his sincere, emotionally gripping stories of the Kurdish diaspora. Though his previous work was politically charged, it also dealt with children and still passed muster with the Iranian authorities.
When his next film outline was rejected by the Ministry of Guidance, in charge of all national film production, the director fell into a deep depression. After his friends suggested music as a therapeutic balm, Ghobadi stumbled across the world of underground Tehran musicians that forms “Persian Cats’ ” backdrop.
Inspired by their example, he shot “Persian Cats” on the fly, cheaply and without government permission. The film, which opens in Los Angeles on Friday, follows two young rockers, Negar and Ashkan (played by musicians Negar Shaghaghi and Ashkan Koshanejad), with a concert date in London, and none of the permits necessary for leaving the country.
Their odyssey through the dank holes and hide-outs where musicians gather offers a portrait of a deeply unfamiliar Tehran -- one where copies of British music magazine NME are passed around like holy texts and posters of Kurt Cobain and the Arctic Monkeys grace more walls than any cleric.
Sequences with speed-metal groups, hip-hop MC’s and traditional Iranian musicians are broken up by music-video-esque interludes that race through the streets of Tehran, capturing mullahs and soldiers and promenading teenagers and high-rises. The director is fascinated by the city’s incongruities: “I just wanted to show a different Tehran -- the Tehran of today, which is plagued with all sorts of problems and contradictions, but at the same time is a very vibrant environment,” says Ghobadi.
Ghobadi and his fiancée and co-writer, Iranian American journalist Roxana Saberi (arrested by the Iranian authorities in 2009 and convicted of espionage before being released), met dozens of underground acts before settling on the clean-cut, polite Shaghaghi and Koshanejad -- members of a musical duo -- as their protagonists and guides for this musical travelogue.
“They are down-to-earth and, as they say in Farsi, ‘pak,’ or pure,” says Saberi in an e-mail message. “They represent many of Iran’s young underground musicians, who are not at all like the picture certain Iranian authorities try to paint of them as troublemakers or even Satan worshippers.”
Ghobadi’s protagonists, like the Kurdish refugees who populated his earlier films, are not political activists, and their fondest dreams consist of recording an album and touring Europe. But the roiling undercurrent of frustration evident in these musicians’ songs provides a direct link to other disaffected Iranian youth, like the lyrics from one Metallica-esque group: “God, wake up, I have things to say. God, wake up, I’m trash.” The film has faced its own challenges, banned by the authorities from any theatrical release. Ghobadi has cleverly circumvented the Ministry of Guidance by distributing it free, to be watched and copied and passed from hand to hand in Iran, to considerable acclaim.
The most prominent form of underground activity in present-day Iran, of course, is the protest movement stemming from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s bitterly contested re-election, and Ghobadi acknowledges the ties that bind his film and the country’s recent unrest. “When I made my movie, it was like my protest. That’s what the young people in my movie were doing. That’s what echoed many months later on the streets of Tehran. These are all expressions of the same common pain.”
“Persian Cats” is prescient in its focus on underground youth culture and its depiction of Tehran as a powder keg, primed to explode. “It was mostly the musicians in the movie who wrote the movie themselves,” says Saberi. “The story line is based on their lives, the challenges they face, and their love of music that drives them despite all the obstacles.”
Ghobadi is releasing his new film at perhaps the most dangerous, unsettled moment for Iranian filmmakers since the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Iranian film, which has grown more deliberately outspoken in the last decade, is amid its own crisis. Director Jafar Panahi (“The Circle”) is in jail, arrested for his outspoken support of the protesters. Some filmmakers, such as Abbas Kiarostami (“Taste of Cherry”), the dean of Iranian cinema, have taken the side of the government, lashing out at Ghobadi for what he sees as Ghobadi’s unpatriotic stances and referring to his former protégé Panahi as a “troublemaker.” Others -- especially younger filmmakers like Ghobadi -- openly sympathize with the protesters.
As a result, Ghobadi no longer feels comfortable returning to Iran, fearful that he could face a fate similar to Panahi’s.
Ghobadi responded to Kiarostami in a heartfelt, angry open letter posted online, but it is instantaneously clear that the subject is still a sore one.
“The conditions in Iranian cinema are really very dark, and not all filmmakers can sit in their homes and make easy movies,” says Ghobadi, referring to Kiarostami’s recent, more abstract work. “It’s a misrepresentation if some of us are portrayed as troublemakers, because we all want the best for our country.”
Iranian cinema, which has long deliberately avoided frank discussion of political topics, is now a battleground, and Ghobadi is, against his will, a political exile.
Currently in Iraq, where he is helping to plan a Kurdish film festival and teaching young Iraqi filmmakers, Ghobadi is working and waiting to see what comes next -- for himself and his country: “I would love to go back to Iran, but I wouldn’t feel safe there. They would confiscate my passport and throw me in jail. What they basically have done to me is respectfully kick me out of the country.”