Judge Daryl Loomis knows one thing about Persian cats: they look completely ridiculous.
I want a glassful of hope and a plateful of food.
With some two thousand independent musical acts living and working in Tehran, it seems like a thriving scene would exist in Tehran. With an outright ban on secular music in Iran, however, each of these groups plays illegally. The transformative power of music does not live by laws or prohibitions; it lives in spite of this. The near-documentary, No One Knows About Persian Cats, is a lovely testament to the spirit of these bands and the music they play.
Facts of the Case
Despite having just been released from prison for their secular art, the two main members of Take It Easy Hospital, Ashkan Kooshanejad and Negar Shaghaghi, have no intention of giving up their music. In fact, they have a gig at a London festival and fully plan to go, but they need passports and visas, not an easy acquisition within a repressive state. They latch onto a fixer, who promises to help them, but authorities are suspicious of his activities. On the hope they can get out in time, they decide to host a farewell concert with some of their fellow musicians. Such a cause is noble, but an assembly this size is bound to draw the eyes of the police.
It took a few minutes for me to secure in my head whether No One Knows About Persian Cats was documentary or fiction. When it turned out to be a little bit of both, it became one of the better examples of Cinéma Vérité I've seen in recent years. The film is real insofar as the bands are real and the story is the actual journey of the main characters (though the reality plays out differently than the film) and the situation with secular music is a real problem (we'll see how this changes with burgeoning democracy). The actors are the real people and the bands play their own music, but the film is scripted and acted in a traditional style. Cinéma Vérité often bores me, though, so I was surprised to find myself fully vested in their plight.
It's easy for me to recognize why this is the case. Luciano Visconti (The Leopard), a true master of the art, made films about poor workers being poor and working. Pedro Costa (Colossal Youth), a younger purveyor of the style, makes films about drug addicts sitting around taking drugs. While I don't deny the realities presented in these films, and I don't deny that I have a foot in each of these camps, the subjects aren't very exciting. Maybe it's a bad attitude, but if I wanted to watch poor people work, I'd go to work. No One Knows About Persian Cats, on the other hand, deals in rock and roll, a subject I can get behind.
Director Bahman Ghobadi (A Time for Drunken Horses), like the bands he represents, had to use plenty of guerrilla tactics in order to shoot on the streets of Tehran. After plenty of trouble and a couple of arrests, the results make the struggle worthwhile. For non-actors, everybody does a great jobs in their roles, familiar as they might be. The music scenes are a lot of fun and the individuals come across like any garage band trying to make it happen. The fact that these people have to practice in a barn out of town so that nobody reports them to the police is a lot different that your dad screaming for you to turn that damn noise down, but the spirit to persevere to live one's dreams is the same.
As a result of how easy it is to relate to the story, some might complain that the this band could have come from anywhere, and that there are issues present that could have been more prominent. Indeed there are a lot of political minefields that go unaddressed, such as the strange law banning dogs and cats that inspired the title. Ghobadi's previous two films are heavily political, but No One Knows About Persian Cats resonates because it isn't about the politics. Instead of focusing on war or torture, he focuses on art, which is something knows no national boundaries. Though their struggle has significantly more legal repercussion than some lame emo band from Omaha, these are the touchstones that bridge our culture with theirs and allow us to connect with the characters. It works much better than I could have expected; I'm very impressed with this film.
MPI, under the IFC label, has done fine work with No One Knows about Persian Cats. The transfer is clean and bright, with a nice color balance. In the darkest scenes, there are a few issues with blocking, but it's not a constant problem. The sound mix isn't as good as it could be, though. It's generally soft and the music isn't as strong as I'd hoped. This likely has as much to do with the filming circumstances as anything, so it can't be faulted too much. The one meaningful extra is a featurette that runs nearly an hour, and provides fantastic detail on the trials of completing this film. It's worth watching unto itself and is a great compliment to the feature.
No One Knows about Persian Cats is a great film that any music fan should see. Totally compelling and ultra-realistic, it's like indie rock's Battle of Algiers.
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