There's a moment near the beginning of Bahman Ghobadi's terrific film No One Knows About Persian Cats in which an older woman asks the twentysomething woman sitting next to her (Negar Shaghaghi, as herself) what kind of music she plays.
"Indie rock," Negar answers.
"Oh, I love indie rock," the older woman says. "50 Cent, Madonna ... they're great!"
Never mind that 50 Cent is responsible for such indie lyrics as, "If you'll be a nympho, I'll be a nympho." The scene establishes an important frame of reference: Whatever you thought "indie rock" meant, it means something different in Iran, where being in a rock band is risky and charged with struggle.
Iranian musicians face months of imprisonment just for playing music that hasn't been approved by government censors. Permits to perform are hard to come by, and no one seems to know how to satisfy the requirements outside of not offending Islamic law. Even harder to come by than performance permits are passports and visas to leave the country, and Negar and her bandmate Ashkan have booked a show in England they desperately want to play. The two, whose project is called Take It Easy Hospital, enlist the help of Nader, an aggressively charming DVD bootlegger and small-time hustler who is quite possibly the fastest-speaking human ever caught on film. (You'll probably appreciate the subtitles even if you normally understand Farsi.) Nader strikes a deal to get them forged paperwork — at an outrageous price — and they set out to find enough musicians to make the journey and play their distant gig.
Like many of the film's acutely observed moments, the exchange between Negar and her fellow indie rock fan takes place in a hidden space — a vault tucked down several flights of narrow stairs, across a crowded storeroom, up a ladder and through a small opening at the top of a wall. As Negar and Ashkan search for bandmates, they lead the viewer on a sometimes dizzying tour of Tehran's labyrinthine alleyways, basements, antechambers, clandestine rooftop getaways and, in the case of one metal band, a cow shed. In these makeshift studios and practice spaces, musicians record and rehearse knowing that at any minute a neighbor or passerby could hear them through the walls and summon the police — whose powers lurk at the edges of every doorway, and at the opening of every crudely sound-proofed room.
The film is based on real events, and the actors, who are not professionals, go by their own names. It's hard to know exactly which elements of the script — written by Ghobadi, Hossein Mortezaeiyan and the recently escaped Iranian-Japanese-American journalist Roxana Saberi — are fictionalized. But it hardly matters. The warmth and admiration shared by the musicians, who've been forced underground — literally, in many cases — is palpable, and the more time you spend in their city, sitting in on its secret recording sessions and impromptu concerts, the more it feels a part of you. Like Wong Kar-wai's Hong Kong, Ghobadi's Tehran is a swarming, yearning, convulsing, self-contradicting place, with Wong's garish neon replaced by dusty concrete. Even as the specter of state-sponsored brutality looms, bands gather in dim chambers, recording their illicit albums with Fender amplifiers and Mac laptops. Ashkan, with his gentle eyes, plaid shirts and skate shoes, looks like he could run a cassette label out of Oakland, or be a member of The Pains of Being Pure at Heart.
"You can't do anything here," Negar says at one point, nearly despondent. But No One Knows About Persian Cats, like the musicians it depicts, hums with redemptive energy — a testament to just how much people can do, even in a place where every breath is threatened, and you have to risk your freedom just to be an indie rocker.
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