Movie review: ‘No One Knows About Persian Cats’

Rock’s beginning was all about youth and rebellion and risk, a bit of history that tends to get lost in an “American Idol” world. So “No One Knows About Persian Cats,” a heart-pounding descent into the illegal underground music scene of Tehran comes at you like the scream of an electric guitar.

Director Bahman Ghobadi shot it on the run in just 17 days and without a government permit, a choice that landed the crew in jail twice during the production. The camera, also not allowed unless it’s rented from the state, could have been confiscated at any time. Yet the film has a remarkably exuberant spirit that is impossible to resist, which has made it a favorite on the festival circuit after winning Un Certain Regard at Cannes in 2009.

The filmmaker stumbled into this hidden pocket of Iranian creativity after another project he’d been working on for a couple of years was killed by the government. It put him in a rebellious state of mind. He wanted to tell the story of how the music thrives even in the face of repression that deems it a sin to even listen to a woman sing. To make or perform rock music is also against the law.

The locations he uses are real ones, as is the music and the musicians; it gives the film a cinema verite authenticity. For the musicians, subterfuge becomes as important to master as the songs: a metal band practices in a rural cow shed, a rock group books time in a rooftop room cobbled together with scraps, a recording studio is literally underground in a building basement.

The story centers on an indie rock couple, Negar Shaghaghi and Ashkan Koshanejad, playing versions of themselves. They’re just out of jail and desperate to make it out of Tehran. Their dream is to play at an upcoming concert in London, though Negar would settle for busking on a street corner. All she wants is to be able to sing without fear.

Nadar (Hamed Behdad) is the irrepressible promoter who is convinced he can make them superstars. He’s the one who keeps driving the action, helping them piece together a rock ‘n’ roll future. There are the black market visas and passports to buy, the band to assemble, the CDs to cut. In this, Negar and Ashkan seem like any other young artists anywhere looking for a break and Nadar the manager who talks a good game but can never quite deliver.

Ghobadi wrote the screenplay with his fiancée, Roxana Saberi. She is the Iranian American journalist arrested and jailed in 2009, sentenced to eight years as a spy and finally released five months later after an international uproar that included top U.S. officials.

Though Tehran’s rockers live on that same edge of uncertainty, where a disgruntled neighbor might call the cops if they play too loud, the music isn’t bitter. They sing of love and freedom with styles as varied as Coldplay and Usher. Against that soundtrack, Ghobadi creates a fast-moving string of images of a city very much on the move. Faces, cars, buildings flash across the screen as the music plays. Everything feels as if it’s in transition.

The narrative arc swings between light and darkness, from the sheer joy of the Persian rappers who practice on top of an unfinished skyscraper, to Nadar’s arrest and interrogation for his black-market DVDs. In Ghobadi’s hands, though, it always feels real.

And the Persian cats? They’re a luxury in the city, by law never allowed outside, but they love the music. Who wouldn’t? It sings of hope.