Musicians on the move crop up throughout the work of Bahman Ghobadi. In his last feature, Half Moon (06), a generously mustachioed Kurdish family band attempts to make its way to a concert in Iraq, and Ghobadi nudges their road-movie travels and travails into the realm of the kind of mystical fantasy that could one day be put into song. In No One Knows About Persian Cats, the would-be travelers are a couple of Tehran indie-rockers looking to emigrate to somewhere that doesn’t demand endless permits or frown upon women singing solo. After ordering travel documents from a black-market dealer, they spend the nebulous waiting-period hooking up with other bands, providing the pretext for a multiple-performance sampler of their city’s Western-flavored underground music scene. While it’s less informative than a straight-up documentary survey like Fatih Akin’s Crossing the Bridge, the enthusiasm of Ghobadi and his various young co-conspirators is infectious, and the music is generally catchy and occasionally excellent. But what really distinguishes the film—banned in Iran, it goes without saying—is the enormous risks these musicians take, which Ghobadi ultimately drives home with legitimate dramatic license.
The indie duo, Negar and Ashkan, are “played” by a subdued Negar Shaghaghi and Ashkan Koshanejad, aka Take It Easy Hospital—and like other bands on display, they are left unnamed. Their sometime guide throughout the city’s secret byways is a cheerful culture hustler named Nader (Hamed Behdad), who, though less frequently on screen, ties together the film’s sense of musical solidarity, within and across genres (traditional, pop, fusion). Ghobadi records the performers this trio drop in on either in situ (tiny lounges and clubs) or in a music-video variety of settings: Farsi-singing heavy-metalheads on a farm, a balladeer in the classroom where he teaches Afghan and Iraqi orphans, clunky rappers in a skeletal construction site, a sister act rendering transcendent classical Persian song before an intimate living-room audience (nonetheless forbidden because they are women performing for mixed company). The sequences are often edited to the music’s rhythms, with mixed results: one zippy montage of cutaways to the urban homeless feels too much like a cut-rate video to have much impact.
Ghobadi himself appears briefly in the background of the story’s recording studio-set prologue: he’s referred to as someone trying to unwind by laying down a few tracks since his last movie is now being sold on the street by bootleggers instead of being shown in theaters. And of course the Kurdish-Iranian Ghobadi’s making of the film is part of the drama behind the energetic music performances on display: shooting for 17 days without permission, getting arrested twice, and on top of everything dodging potshots from huffy elder statesman Abbas Kiarostami (who might do better to re-focus his energies on filmmaking). Again, Nader becomes an effective proxy for the resilience of suppressed artists: in a riveting scene shot through a cracked-open door, he alternately begs, cajoles, and rages at an off-screen government official who has penalized him for selling DVDs by imposing heavy fines—and then, having secured a settlement, encourages him to watch the artistic films again, more closely, with an open mind.
Negar and Ashkan gain a spotlight for their peppy, diligently cribbing English-language song “Human Jungle.” Like some of the film’s other Westernized numbers, the tune underlines the shifting disjunctions between their competent but standard-issue vintage, the outsized repression bearing down on them, and the novelty of pop clichés about rebellion suddenly being imbued with real meaning. But Ghobadi has other, more sober plans in store for the duo’s screen alter egos, foreshadowed by a shocking, incongruous episode involving their dog and the cops. As in so many of his other films, the freedom accorded the furthest reaches of artistic fancy inexorably collides with earthly realities.