Bottom Line: A strikingly outspoken docudrama about underground music in Iran.
CANNES — Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi puts aside Kurdish themes for a topic that would appear even more politically sensitive in Iran: the underground music scene. This bold piece of docu-fiction, an open protest against censorship and the repression of individual liberties, will no doubt make waves in Iran, where its only hope for release is on black market DVD. Abroad, it may do some theatrical business as a niche item, but here too the big sales will be to DVD and the small screen.
Unlike Ghobadi’s last two prize-winning features — “Half Moon” and “Turtles Can Fly” — “Nobody Knows About Persian Cats” has a heavy documentary influence, to the point where an opening tagline notes that it is “based on real events, locations and people.” This leaves no doubt that the film is intended as an open challenge to a police state based on a highly conservative interpretation of Islam. Significantly, none of the film’s likeable young protags challenges religion or the current political caste.
This is an important distinction for the non-pro cast and filmmakers living in Iran. Roxana Saberi, who was arrested in Iran under accusation of being an American spy, is credited as executive producer and co-scriptwriter; she was released from jail shortly before the film’s Cannes premiere in Un Certain Regard. So there is much at stake when Iranian filmmakers, artists and musicians speak out.
The familiar-looking story line follows a young woman, Negar (Negar Shaghaghi), and her boyfriend, Ashkan (Ashkan Koshanejad), on their quest to form an indie rock band, cut a record, stage a concert, buy false passports and visas and immigrate to London. The soft-spoken Negar is a singer and, as we learn, female singers are forbidden in Iran, unless they form part of a chorus. Her close relationship to Ashkan is daringly depicted as a friendship, not a marriage.
Helping them find an old man in an attic who churns out false travel documents is the exuberant young fixer Nader (Hamed Behdad), who becomes their Cicero through Tehran’s music world. There we meet all kinds of young musicians who rehearse in barns, basements and on rooftops, risking police arrest at any minute. Yet Nader estimates 2,000 groups are at work making music. Generous samples of local rock, heavy metal, jazz and blues are intercut with candid camera shots of Tehran streets in all their traffic, poverty and dynamism.
Of the many performers captured by D.P. Turaj Aslani’s highly mobile video camera, an unframed woman singer identified as Rana Farhan is a standout.