No One Knows About Persian Cinema: B. Ghobadi’s Songscape of Revolt
by Proshot Kalami
In recent times, Iranian films have been at the centre of attention in world cinema. Since the fraudulent Election in June 2009, Iranian cinema has had to follow a different path of destiny. The poetic allegorical camera and narrative can no longer satisfy the filmmaker who now must work within the politically-charged and troubled narrative of nationhood, human rights violations and questions of artistic integrity. The unjust prison sentences passed on Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof made this road more challenging. In this essay, I examine the notion of “revolt” by means of creative process in Bahman Ghobadi’s No One Knows About Persian Cats (2009). This is an underground film—made without any permission from the Ministry of Islamic Guidance or state support—on the underground music of Iran within an underground culture that survives against the severest odds. This is the last breath at a crossroad that leads to dead-ends in all directions.
The politics of fear is the mobilising force exercised by the Islamic state to keep the nation from potential “Westernization” and anti-Islamic behaviour, through harassment, imprisonment and other nefarious measures. No One Knows About Persian Cats addresses this issue by following a group of Indie-Rock, Jazz, New-metal and Rap bands, and the challenges they face in arranging rehearsals, underground concerts or escaping the hunting guards of the Islamic authorities. Meandering through the streets of Tehran, Ghobadi’s camera travels with them into another Tehran, a liminal space between crime and freedom, where these young artists create their music. Their act of creation is their soundless revolt. And Ghobadi, I argue, has tried to give the sound back to the otherwise muted underground music of Iran in this film.
I Don’t Wanna’ Go to Jail, Why are You pushing Me? 
The narrative of the film is locked between two reverse top shots indicating two blinks of the eyes of an injured young man from whose perspective the camera shows the running lights of a hospital corridor’s ceiling in a Kafkaesque manner. The person on the emergency bed-on-wheels, we find out later, is called Ashkan, who remembers in between those blinks all that he has gone through within a few weeks in Tehran. Although the narrative of the film is fictional, the people/actors of the film, barring the professional actor Hamed Behdad who plays the role of Nader, are real and use their own names in the film. Most of the events that are depicted in the film have actually taken place, one way or the other, but not necessarily in that sequence and not exactly to the same people/characters[]. Knowing these factors is important in order to understand, therefore investigate, the connection between the viewer and the material of the film. This becomes more important in regard to Ghobadi’s style that constantly moves between the self-reflexive documentary and the fictional narrative film. This notion in the film is apparent in the way in which he has used the camera, the various rhythms in editing, the selection of locations and with his deliberate casting of largely non-actor real-life musicians.
In the very first frame of the film we see the ceiling with the sharp white fluorescent lamps moving across the frame that look like white markings on a road at first, until you realise that the camera is actually facing upwards. The sound that we hear is more like the muted and unclear breathing sound that one can hear from under the water or over a sealed barrier, a breath at the dead-end. The next shot is the reverse angle, this time an out of focus top shot, showing a young man’s bloody face, covered with an oxygen masque on an emergency bed-on-wheels moving through what seems like a hospital corridor, while another hand with a large piece of gauze is holding one side of his head. We shall meet him again. But Ghobadi leaves his viewer with this bleak image along with that eerie sound of breathing to make a jump cut to another location. The second sequence is located in a dimly lit sound studio. We see the sound editor/engineer managing the recording that is apparently in session along with a few female musicians with their instruments in the background, waiting for their recording session to come. The point of view is of the recording room. The sound is a mixture of a few people talking in the background and a number that none other than Bahman Ghobadi himself is singing in Kurdish. The narrative starts from this moment, not directly though, but through a side conversation that the engineer has with one of the female musicians, who does not seem to recognise the singer in the recording room as the famous film director! The sound engineer says, and we hear, that Ghobadi could not make his films, he did not receive permission to shoot and was stopped by the authorities, as a result he was forced to give up making films. All these made him so depressed that he tried to sing, a hobby that he always kept on the side, to feel slightly better and positive. Babak, the sound engineer also tells us, through their conversation that now Bahman Ghobadi is busy making a film about the underground music scene of Iran. Ghobadi, we hear that, was intrigued by the news of Islamic Guards ambushing an underground rock concert and arresting hundreds of people. There are no professional actors, Babak says, in the film. This, apparently, is the true occasion for making No One Knows About Persian Cats. Ghobadi himself re-asserted this, not only in the “Special Feature” section of the DVD, but also in the 2009 London International Film Festival, during a number of post and pre-screening “Question and Answer” sessions. Why is this information so important that he has to open his film with it and why is it that he repeatedly emphasises this fact at every opportunity he gets? The role the music plays, the importance of creating music and the importance of breath in the creation of voice in songs—all within the oppressive atmosphere of Tehran— and the difference between reality and the truth, I argue, are some of the reasons that this film gives us as way of understanding the importance of this occasion for the filmmaker. In this regard, music is both the apparent subject as well as the political and philosophic metaphor or allegory that the film has to offer.
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