Youth is about freedom. It is about being free to express yourself, culturally; and music is the lifeblood. ”The days of our youth are the days of our glory,” wrote that incurable romantic Lord Byron. Yet there is little glory for the youth of Tehran. Freedom is a luxury they don’t possess; but with the optimism and tenaciousness of youth, they stretch their fingers out for what little they can reach for.
The 2009 Iranian film, “No One Knows About Persian Cats,” is a wry, touching and quietly tragic film about the struggles of several rock bands to express themselves (loudly) in a world of cold repression. Two close friends and musicians, Ashkan and Negar (the only girl, and the only one who does not smile during the entire film) have just come out of prison. They move around Tehran, meeting other possible band members. Their plan is to form a band and leave the country for a tour of the United States – a possibility they hardly dare dream about, but work doggedly towards.
The movie was filmed secretly by Kurdish Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi. Perhaps because of this, it has a documentary feel. The reality is gritty and unrelenting. There are extraordinary collages of life in Tehran – disturbing footage of junkies living with rats in piles of garbage, street scenes of mostly unsmiling people (this was noticeable), the occasional flash of opulence – that reinforce the claustrophobic atmosphere of the city.
The ultimate freedom, of course, is a visa. Our intrepid pair (the name of their band is Take It Easy Hospital) visit an underground passport and visa dealer (we only see the secret life of the city) with the assistance of the voluble Nader, who takes them under his wing – a somewhat greasy T-shirt sleeve. Nader means well, or does he? His boundless energy (he careers down streets on his beloved motorbike) is, in the end, undone.
The film is not unremittingly grim by any means. The young musicians whom Ashkan and Negar meet look like indie rock bands anywhere – shocks of thick hair, a slouching demeanor – and one of the musicians has a definite Rasta influence. They make the usual offhand, ironic jokes of rock musicians – but their jokes are about the police knocking on the door to throw them into prison, simply for playing banned, subversive music. They talk about corruption and torture and informers; and spies – young and old, neighbors and children. They joke about their rehearsal venues. One heavy metal band regularly rehearses on a farm; the cows’ milk has dried up. Rehearsal rooms are hidden in a maze of narrow stairs and dirty alleyways, dimly lit and sound-proofed so as not to give themselves away, the drums muffled.
“This is Tehran. It’s no joke. No sign of flowers or popsicles.” One of the most powerful scenes is on the top floor of an unfinished high rise, where rapper Hichkas (“Nobody” in English) presents a bitter little diatribe on inequality, hypocrisy, false religiosity and corruption. But he doesn’t want to leave Tehran. There would be no one to sing about it all then, would there.
Oh by the way, the real Negar and Ashkan (they played themselves) did eventually escape. They now live in London. The co-writer of the film, Iranian-American Roxana Saberi, was jailed on spying charges and released just in time for the film to win a Special Jury Prize at Cannes Film Festival.
And the music? Negar’s voice is wistful, the guitars and keyboards forceful, the drumming excellent, the lyrics (mostly in English) banal at times. And there are some beautiful interludes – traditional Iranian music and dancing, taking the viewer into a world of gentle movement and acoustic sound. All beautifully counter-balanced.
And hope? Not much there, although there was a bit of a happy ending in real life. But life in Tehran goes on, and freedom is like a feather blowing in the wind.
Very hard to catch.