MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

What You Don’t Know About Persian Cats

It wasn’t until March, 2001, when Mullah Mohammed Omar ordered the destruction of the magnificent Buddha statues at Bamyan, that most Americans realized the Taliban weren’t your garden variety Islamic fundamentalists. After all, when the Russians exited Afghanistan, with their tails between their legs, U.S. policy returned to: out of sight, out of mind.

That would change, of course, in the bloody aftermath to 9/11. The Taliban, which had sheltered Al Qaeda, would be pushed into the mountains of western Pakistan, and Afghanis would tentatively begin testing the limits of their newfound freedom.

Last year, Havana Marking’s fascinating documentary Afghan Star described just how far things had changed — culturally, at least — while also pointing out some attitudes that hadn’t. Marking’s cameras followed the progress of several contestants – two men and two women – in the country’s inaugural edition of Britain’s Pop Idol.

Afghanis may have been relieved of their ultraconservative government, but remnants of the once-powerful “religious police” still were feared in much of the country. Merely entering such a contest could be viewed as a political act. Terrorists threatened to destroy the towers of television stations carrying the program and the women contestants, especially, risked assassination if they moved to the music or their scarves fell to their shoulders. Still, Pop Idol was a huge success.

This would qualify as old news in neighboring Iran, where the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance has held sway for 30 years. The fatwā issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini against novelist Salman Rushdie demonstrated just how humorlessly the regime takes material deemed “blasphemous against Islam.”

Today, Iran is drawing the attention of world leaders not for censorship, but its nuclear program and crooked elections. Bahman Ghobadi’s eye-opening semi-documentary, No One Knows About Persian Cats, reminds us that, in Iran, performing rock music can be as dangerous as taking to the streets to protest government repression.

Ghobadi, who was born in the province of Kurdistan, has made several movies that have caught the attention of the international film community. A Time for Drunken Horses won two major awards at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, with Marooned in Iraq capturing another in 2002. Turtles Can Fly garnered a special mention for a Crystal Bear and the Peace Film Award at the 2005 Berlin festival.

Although Persian Cats won a Special Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard division at last May’s Cannes Festival, it likely will be a very long time before it is shown legally in Iran. Not only is the subject matter taboo, but Bahman shot it using a phony permit and hand-held camera not authorized by the government agency that controls equipment rental.

“Recently, I had a project set in Tehran entitled 60 Seconds About Us,” Ghobadi recalled. “I spent two years preparing to direct the film, only to be denied authorization to shoot … two years of my life was lost. So, I bought a small SI-2K camera, in order to avoid having to depend on the State, which owns all the 35mm equipment.

“As soon as I bought the camera, I wanted to try it out. Before long, I met a group of underground musicians and was very drawn to their passion, courage and energy.”

Two “indie rock” musicians, Negar Shaghaghi and Ashkan Koshanejad, offered to guide Ghobadi through the underground movement and introduce him to key artists. Before agreeing to play characters very much like themselves in Persian Cats, they cautioned the writer/director that they would be leaving Iran in 17 days and might not be returning. So, time was of the essence.

“Their plans determined my schedule,” Ghabadi said.

The new camera freed him to travel light, while borrowed motorbikes allowed him to shoot street scenes quickly and unobtrusively. Even so, it didn’t help that he was arrested twice for illegal filming and had to talk his way out of being jailed.

In the movie, characters Negar and Ashkan have just been released from prison for making “decadent, western-style music” and are anxious to form another band. They hoped to perform in Europe, America or Australia, but needed a travel permit. If denied by authorities, they would be willing to pay for false documents, and begin a new life in self-exile, just as Shaghaghi and Koshanejad did. Their friend and “agent,” Nadar (Hamed Behdad), was a “fixer,” with access not only to underground studios, kindred musicians and foreign venues, but also the top forgers of documents in Tehran.

In Persian Cats, the term “underground” is employed both literally and figuratively. Finding a soundproof studio or concert space often required the skills of a spelunker, as they were hidden deep within the walls of old housing complexes. Rehearsal space also was difficult to find.

One band’s preparations were routinely hampered by a latch-key kid, whose “hobby” was snitching on them to police. A heavy-metal outfit was required to practice in a manure-encrusted barn on a dairy farm. (According to one of the hired hands, the loud music caused the cows to stop producing milk.) Bahman also was able to capture a hip-hop video being shot on an empty floor in a building under construction overlooking Tehran.

“I wanted to show the real Tehran society through music,” said the 41-year-old filmmaker. “This generation hadn’t been revealed outside Iran. I knew I wouldn’t be able to return to the subject, so I tried to bring in as much of what I saw as possible.”

The music produced by Negar, Ashkan and their fellow musicians is described as “indie rock,” which has a slightly different connotation in Iran than it does in the United States. There, the indie umbrella covers hard rock, folk rock, heavy metal, pop, synth and emo.

Bahman is quick to point out, however, “Even though the music sounds western, the lyrics speak to Iranian issues and the musicians use traditional instruments, in addition to guitars and drums. The songs have their roots in Persian culture, which has a deep musical history.”

In its blend of old and new, Persian Cats bears a resemblance to two other terrific documentaries from the region: Heavy Metal in Baghdad, which followed a group of head-bangers around the devastated Iraq capital, and Crossing the Bridge, which describes the eclectic music scene in Istanbul, a city where east literally meets west.

“I admire the commitment of the musicians and their energy,” added Ghobadi, who met Negar and Ashkan at a studio where he intended to record his own album, illegally. “The nervousness, tension and lack of peace in the young artists come through in their music. To make it acceptable to western audiences, though, their bitterness has to be balanced with humor.”

“The soundtrack album has done very well in Europe … it even was No. 1 in France,” added Ghobadi, through his interpreter, Sheida Dayani. “All of the bands, even the heavy-metal group, had that Iranian signature. All of the sounds reflect the east.”

That signature also reflected centuries of cultural memory.

“We were influenced mostly by old Persian poetry … there’s music in the poetry, especially in the poetry of Omar Khayyám (1048-1131), who had a musical ideology of life,” Shaghaghi and Koshanejad told Kurt Andersen, host of WNYC’s podcast, Studio 360. “He didn’t live for yesterday or tomorrow … just the moment. That’s like us … we’re momentists.”

Koshanejad added, “Most of the artists and musicians in Iran are not political. We’re not against anyone or opposing any ideology. Nowadays, though, whatever you do, you’re considered to be a political person.”

Besides Khayyam, they also include among their influences Sigur Ros, Stockhausen, Joy Division, Terry Riley and Pleasure. Before leaving Iran, in 2008, they were able to hear such artists only through Internet channels and bootleg albums.

When asked if he used Persian Cats in the movie’s title as an allusion to American hipster vernacular — “hepcat,” “cool cat”– Ghobadi said he was unaware of the terms. Instead, it refers to the actual breed of cat, which is an expensive pet in the west, but just another homebound animal in Iran.

“We don’t have the right to take dogs and cats out of the house, so they’re like prisoners,” he explained. “I compare the cats to the young protagonists of my film, without liberty and forced into hiding in order to play their music.”

Of course, music and books aren’t the only things that can get young people – many of whose parents have experienced life under both the Shah and Khomeini – in trouble in the Islamic Republic. In January, 2009, Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi — who wrote the film’s screenplay with Ghobadi – was, in short order, abducted by police, accused falsely of spying for the Great Satan, placed in solitary confinement and sentenced to eight years in prison. She was released 100 days later by an appeals court, but only after pressure was put on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by world leaders and human-rights agencies.

“I’m very grateful, but some of (the women prisoners) are not even known to the outside world,” said Saberi, after her release from Evin Prison. “There’s not the same kind of international support for them. What they’re trying to do is stand up for freedom of speech or belief and religion … for basic human rights.

“They were some of the strongest and most admirable people I have ever met, not only in Iran, but in my whole life.”

Koshanejad and Shaghaghi describe the music of their London-based band, Take It Easy Hospital, as “dark pop.” It’s heavy on synthesizers and sound sampling, and the lyrics are in English and Farsi. Three songs by Negar and Ash Koosha – their stage names — are included in the soundtrack album. (They can also be heard on their MySpace page.)

“We had songs with braver lyrics, but it was safer not to include them,” Gohbadi said. “Some of the artists we met were beaten in the protests after the election. All of them, though, showed their resistance simply by making music.”

– Gary Dretzka
April 23, 2010

Be Sociable, Share!

One Response to “What You Don’t Know About Persian Cats”

  1. Just one single thought though. Have you made creating this blog as your career or do you do this within your extra time? Just wondering..

Digital Nation

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon