No One Knows About Persian Cats (2009) is an unexpected mix of fiction, documentary and music video.
It constantly blurs the lines of fiction and reality from the self-referential asides to the use of character names that are the same as those who portray them. I read a review of the film, after seeing it, that commented that the film had lots of references aimed at people on the film festival circuit and while I didn’t get/notice those references, I do sort of understand what they were getting at. It was certainly a film aimed at an audience that was largely outside of Iran. It was as though the director had accepted the vast majority of people who saw the film wouldn’t be Iranian or if they were would be (mostly) Iranians living outside Iran. The film is openly telling the international audience, ‘you don’t know as much as you think you do about Iranian life and culture’, but there are little things that suggest the film is also telling Iranians they don’t know as much as they think they do about Iranian culture. Which is interesting, I’m not sure what to do with that thought now that its lodged itself in my brain but its interesting.
The shooting style veers from well-shot documentary to outright music videos at one point. Some of the musicians even occasionally given the camera a half-coy, half-embarrassed glance as though they are re-enacting conversations they have had, events they’ve lived through, gigs they’ve attended. It almost feels like they should have been making a documentary but knew they’d never get away with it. I note that the IMDB page for this film makes much of the way the film is shot, with several people wondering how they got away with shooting it the way they did. Which seems either a really patronising attitude to have or one that didn’t know very much about film making. Bahman Ghobadi is not an inexperienced film director, several of his films have been documentaries and (as far as I’m aware) all of them have been made in Iran. He’s going to be used to making films under awkward circumstances. He’s a talented director, working in difficult circumstances, you either get good at working round that and with that or you don’t make films.
I suppose, if you wanted to, you could ignore the underlying political background and just enjoy it as a guided tour of the underground music scene of Tehran. The film is, after all, not political with a capital P. It doesn’t come across as preaching a message. It’s a film that says – this is the way things are here, this is how people deal with them. Early on in the film one of the characters asks Negar what’s she’s rebelling against and she responds that she’s not rebelling against anything, she just wants to be able to play music. While some of the bands featured have undeniably politicised lyrics, others don’t. Some play what seems to both to the audience and to Negar and Ashkan as they watch the gigs, like quite traditional, uncontroversial music but still can’t get permits to play. What it is however, is a slice of life, an insight into the petty oppressions and brutalities of life in Tehran. Perhaps, also an insight into the sort of grind that makes a political movement expand from the minority of committed agitators into a mass movement.
And, always important in any film about music, the soundtrack is excellent.