“No One Knows About Persian Cats” is the fifth feature from Iranian-Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi (who won the Camera d’Or at Cannes a decade ago for “A Time For Drunken Horses”) – and the first for his co-writer, Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi. (Perhaps best known for having been jailed in Tehran last year, accused of being a spy, Ms. Saberi’s memoir “Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran” will soon be published by HarperCollins.) With the indispensable help of Ghobadi’s translator Sheida Diani – the director speaks English but prefers to conduct interviews in his native Farsi – I spoke with the two about their unique narrative take on Iran’s underground music scene.
The film, which follows indie rockers Ashkan and Negar (played by real life musician couple Ashkan Koshanejad and Negar Shaghaghi) as they attempt to form a band and escape Iran for artistic freedom in Europe, will be released through IFC Films in NYC on April 16th. In addition, The Film Society of Lincoln Center held a mid-career retrospective of Ghobadi’s work at the Walter Reade Theater leading up to its opening.
LW: First off, why did you choose to do a narrative film? Why not just shoot a documentary on the underground music scene in Iran? Especially since you already had so much research footage.
BG: True, most films that are about music are made in documentary format. Unfortunately, in the cinema world documentaries are a somewhat oppressed form. I had a few things in mind when I decided to make this a fiction film rather than a documentary – one of which was to find the widest audience possible. So I thought if I give it a storyline it will have more appeal and distribution. Also, I believed it was a better way to show the real Tehran. The story naturally has drama to it – they’re in hiding, they have to travel from here to there – that creates a lot of reality-based fiction in itself.
LW: Roxana, you’ve famously been imprisoned in Iran, so how did this affect the film? At what stage of production did this occur?
RS: I’d seen the first edits they had done. The first version was a lot longer. I gave my opinions, my feedback, and then a couple weeks after that – maybe two or three weeks after that – I was arrested.
LW: So your arrest didn’t actually affect the film – in terms of the script or production – since you already had the rough cut in the can?
RS: Well, it did affect the film in terms of Bahman’s mentality at the time. He was worried about me, wondering how I was. In a way it indirectly affected it.
LW: I can imagine. Talk about a post-production horror story! So how did the two of you work as co-writers before all that happened? Did each of you handle certain areas of the script or did you go back and forth on the same scenes?
RS: Bahman told me he was doing a film about underground music and asked if I was interested in the idea, if I wanted to be a part of it. He and Ashkan and Negar – they did a lot of the writing. I just helped them with how I see it.
But mostly the people who wrote the movie are musicians themselves. It’s based on their art, and the challenges they face, and the love that motivates them to continue playing that music. Also, I helped to choose the groups.
Musicians would introduce us to other musicians. We talked to them about their lives, went to see where they practiced, find out what kind of problems they have when the neighbors complain, what their hopes and dreams are. They’re not allowed to play in public there. They can’t make money off their music. So based on these conversations – and especially after meeting Ashkan and Negar – we realized this idea about who these musicians are. Then we just based the story on that.
BG: Roxana really had an important role in the film. I invited her to come help us. She had the point of view of a western audience, which I very much needed. She could be very influential in telling us which music had broader appeal and which bands had better actors. She helped a lot with choosing the tracks and in introducing us to these bands, in allowing us to get to know them.
LW: The hurdle jumping just to rehearse is highlighted in detail. A heavy metal band is forced to practice in a cowshed. Another band has to wait until a certain cop calling neighbor leaves the building, have to put clothes over the drum set to mute the sound. Yet the music scene, like all underground societies, is an open secret. People call the cops because they’re “bored” not because they truly believe music is sacrilegious. This reminds me a lot of the situation in Soviet countries. Can you discuss this aspect?
BG: The reason you had this impression is because this is the reality that these people are living. In Tehran actually people have more of a culture of accepting music than in small towns. But it’s not average people who are informing on people. It’s rather that on every street, in every alley of the city, there are one or two houses besieged by militia. They’re the ones informing on musicians.
LW: So it’s not really a Stasi situation?
BG: No, it’s very rare that the public would actually inform on one another. It’s mostly militias that do this or the undercover plainclothes cops. In smaller towns people do this more often than in Tehran – which is what I showed in the film. The kids were telling me that sometimes the neighbors are really tired of them, the sound of the noise, but they don’t really go out and inform on them.
I tell you, the police are insane! Instead of focusing on the corruption and everything important that is going on in society all they do is focus on these kids and ruin their parties. The second point is the reason you are able to make that comparison is because this is the lived reality of these artists. So if you see people practicing music at a cow farm, this is actually what happens. This is exactly why we went back to that location to shoot.
LW: The musician couple’s promoter/fixer Nadar gets busted not for music but for his dealing in bootleg films. Why was creating an analogy to Iranian censorship of your own films important?
BG: I had the experience of getting busted for committing stupid crimes at the age of eighteen or nineteen. There was one time where I was standing at the corner of the street and the police came up to me and asked why I was standing there. Was I waiting for high school girls who were passing by? I said, no, that I was just waiting for my brother. But they took me in anyway.
There was another time when I was on a motorcycle and I didn’t have a driver’s license or a permit and I got into an accident. As punishment they gave me 75 lashes. So all this stayed deep within me, that experience of judgments and courts. Especially if you’re a Sunni or a Kurd and you have a Shiite judge then that’s it. That’s the end of you, there’s no way out. Yes, so the character of Nadar was actually a copy of myself – you got that right.
In the scene where Nadar is pleading with the judge a lot of the dialogue that we were having was improvised. (I was actually the man you don’t see in the frame, having a face-to-face conversation with him across the desk.) If we found something we liked we said, “O.K., guys, we’re shooting now.” We’d shoot for five minutes then go again. Have some dialogue, improvise it, and whatever we liked we shot.
LW: For me one of the strongest scenes is the Persian rapper’s music video sequence. His lyrics are addressing Tehran’s class disparity and economic struggles, those quintessential themes of rap the world over. He also defiantly chooses to fight for liberty right at home rather than seek creative freedom outside Iranian borders. This presents an interesting paradox. Who are the true political rebels? The ones who risk everything to leave for freer lands or the ones who stay and try to change society? How do you personally feel about this?
BG: I believe it’s both. This actually proves that I did not control the film’s message at all. I told the musicians to come on camera and say whatever it is they’d like to say. When I decided to leave the country I told [celebrated Iranian New Wave filmmaker] Jafar Panahi and he told me not to do it. That it was a mistake to leave Iran.
Now in retrospect when I look back I see that I really didn’t make a mistake. I’m actually happy that I left. I feel like I’m a lot more beneficial now. People like myself or Ashkan and Negar – people who left – we’re having free interviews like this. We’re sitting down and getting the word out. But I would say it’s only three to five percent of the artists who are leaving Iran. Which is good. It’s enough. What you see is not everybody leaving. And people like me who do get out – and then assist these artists with production and western distribution – we are helping the ones who