(View the No One Knows About Persian Cats trailer.)
In the '50s, Elvis Presley incurred the wrath of many critics for his then-risqué, hip-gyrating performances. In the late '70s and early '80s, the presence of Mohawk-wearing artists playing anti-authoritarian music led some alarmists to believe that punk rock would lead to the moral decline of Western civilization.
With rock and punk having been integrated into the mainstream of Western society long ago, such notions might now appear downright quaint, if not laughable, to many who grew up with rock or hip-hop music as the soundtrack to their lives.
But there are places in the world where performing Western music is still viewed as a subversive or even criminal act. Based on real people and events, No One Knows About Persian Cats illustrates how many musicians in contemporary Iran risk jail time by following their passion for non-traditional music in a theocratic society. The film won the Un Certain Regard Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009 and opened in theaters in the United States this past April. It is scheduled for release on DVD in November.
Bahman Ghobadi, who co-wrote and directed the film, estimates there are approximately 3,000 underground bands playing music illegally in Iran, most in the capital of Tehran. His film sheds light on the vast variety of music being made surreptitiously in his country and the many precautions and dangers that these musicians have to consider while following their muses. For example, female singers are forbidden from performing in a public setting that includes men unless they are part of a chorus.
At the center of No One Knows About Persian Cats are two young musicians, Ashkan Koshanejad and Negar Shaghaghi, who essentially play themselves. Jailed for performing Western music without the permission from Iran's draconian Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance in the film, as it had transpired in real life, the freed duo is desperately trying to recruit musicians for their band and find a way to procure the visas necessary to perform a show in London. The latter isn't an easy task, especially given the fact that they have criminal records.
Ghobadi faced similar challenges in making a film that was not approved by the Iranian government. He is currently living in exile because of his preference for making films that do not adhere to the government's social policy. The ethnic Kurd splits his time between the United States, Berlin and Kurdistan, Iraq.
Ghobadi — who has also made well-received films such as A Time For Drunken Horses and Turtles Can Fly — was also under the gun while making No One Knows About Persian Cats because he had only two weeks to shoot the film before Koshanejad and Shaghaghi realized their dream of moving abroad. They currently reside in England.
There were also other obstacles Ghobadi encountered while making the film.
"It was very difficult," he says. "When you make a film about a hidden underground subject, you and your filmmaking automatically become hidden and underground. We did not have a shooting permit so we were shooting illegally."
Ghobadi also had to be very careful when filming the numerous bands and musicians that are featured in the film as they were captured performing in secret locations.
"Because the musicians are making their music illegally, they cannot practice anywhere," he says. "They must be very careful or they will get into trouble. So I did not want to cause any trouble for them, and I did not want them to lose their locations or their safety because of me. Therefore, I would go to each location only once. Any location that I shot, I never returned to it again."
The film is also illuminating because it highlights some of the underground artists making music in Tehran through performance footage. One heavy metal band is forced to practice in a cow shed in the country in order to stay safely under the radar. The film also includes performances by hip-hop, modern jazz and Persian pop artists.
Another featured band is the Yellow Dogs, a rare Iranian rock band that actually sings its songs in English. The Yellow Dogs have been living in the rock and roll hot bed of Brooklyn, N.Y., since early 2010.
The rock quartet managed to avoid arrest in Tehran by keeping its recorded music under wraps and by not publicizing its underground concerts to the public. The Yellow Dogs are preparing an EP and currently performing around the New York area and select dates in the Midwest with fellow Brooklyn-based Iranian rock band Hypernova.
"If we had been arrested in Iran the story might be totally different for us," notes Obash, the vocalist/guitarist for the Yellow Dogs. "Maybe we would still be in Iran. We may have broken up. Every concert we would have people who watched the house [for approaching authorities]. We just invited our friends to the concerts. We never released an album in Iran, which would have been very dangerous because it could [have gotten] into the wrong hands."
Ghobadi's interest in making No One Knows About Persian Cats stems from his own passion for music. A vocalist and instrumentalist, he has actually recorded some of his music in Iran.
Unfortunately, matters for many Iranian artists seem to have worsened since the widespread protests that erupted over Iran's disputed presidential election in 2009. Ghobadi says the plea for political reform that fueled the so-called Green Revolution has been met with further governmental crackdowns on artistic freedom.
"My film was made six months before the presidential election," he reveals. "Since then, repression has intensified both in cinema and music. Every day more laws repress artists and writers. I keep hearing from friends and colleagues that cinema and music in Iran are dying. But on the other hand, we are more proud of being Iranians because we found common identity through our protests."
Ghobadi hopes that the attention his film has received outside of Iran will help to generate positive change.
"The attention the film has received in the West is good, but it's not enough," he adds. "More people need to see it. It is important to see the correct picture of today's Iran."
(Jon Matsumoto is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.)