Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Intercessors and Bahman Ghobadi's 'No One Knows About Persian Cats'

Bahman Ghobadi has been referred to by some as a 'rural filmmaker' because of films such as A Time for Drunken Horses, Marooned in Iraq, Turtles Can Fly, and Half-Moon, which take place along the Iran-Iraq border. These films are indeed quite rural, but what these people seem to miss is that he is a Kurd and he is making films about Kurdish peoples. Despite the fact that Kurds make up 12-15 percent of the population of Iran, many of the Kurds who inhabit northwestern Iran live in rural and even nomadic conditions because little money is spent on infrastructure (roads, electricity) for this region. Throughout history, the Kurds have been used as pawns in various struggles by neighboring countries in order to destabilize regions and gain political advantage. As a result, Iran carefully restricts displays of Kurdish nationalism and culture, fearing that these will result in a secessionist movement. Ghobadi is not a 'rural filmmaker,' but a filmmaker attempting to revitalize the Kurdish community and culture, as he does with the underground music scene in his latest film.

In his latest film, No One Knows About Persian Cats, Ghobadi moves out of Kurdistan to make a completely urban film about musicians in Iran – and it may signal the end of his so called 'rural films' with its controversial content (not to mention lack of a production/screening permit), which will likely bar him from returning to Iranian-Kurdistan. While Ghobadi himself claims that he is not a political filmmaker, but a cultural filmmaker, in Iran culture and politics are inseparable. Much like two of his previous films, Marooned in Iraq and Half-Moon, music draws the characters of these films into political situations.

No One Knows About Persian Cats focuses on a number of different political issues in Iran today, including the ban on Western musical genres, the difficulty of obtaining a permit to produce music or hold a concert, and the difficulty of obtaining visas and passports for travel. Perhaps unlike his previous films, No One Knows About Persian Cats is surprisingly upbeat for a film about censorship. While looking at some of the darker sides of censorship – Negar's lyrics stemming from the time she spent in prison, Hichkas's rap addressing poverty and prostitution – the film engages the great vitality of the underground music scene. In both its conclusion and its overall tone, however, it seems Ghobadi is not optimistic about the current situation. Even so, it is worth noting that most of the characters in Ghobadi's film (who are real Iranian musicians) do not want to leave Iran – they would rather stay in Iran and play their music for friends and family, only their inability to do so drives them abroad. Perhaps what makes Ghobadi's film so enjoyable, even if heart-wrenching, is that the lack of optimism is tempered by the musicians' continued dedication to their art.

It is not really news that there is a thriving underground music scene in Iran – see this BBC broadcast from 2005 – and this isn't the fantastic part about Ghobadi's film. The fantastic part about this film is that Ghobadi found these musicians while creating an underground recording of his own and allowed them to tell their own story. The plot may be fictitious, but the characters in No One Knows About Persian Cats are 'intercessors,' stepping between reality and fiction as they are allowed to relay their own lived experience. At times, Ghobadi's film feels a bit 'underground,' partly because of his use of non-professional actors (which he does in many of his films), and partly because the film takes on a documentary-like feel. Rather than being a documentary about the underground music scene, however, the story of No One Knows About Persian Cats emerges out of the real life struggles of these people. In the end, the film makes you realize that this isn't a story that could have happened, it is a story that has happened a thousand times.


  1. This is honestly one of my favorite Iranian films, and I can't wait to see it on the big screen when it comes to the DCA this month.

  2. Reading this via Catherine Grant, who recommended it on facebook... I feel prepared for more on intercession on Wednesday. Nice blog. How do you keep it so short (which is why I rarely blog at the moment)?

  3. OULIPO style constraints mostly. Okay, maybe not OULIPO style, but ridiculous constraints nonetheless - for example, just four paragraphs, no more than 250 words each. Something I'm working on.

  4. Matt! How do I get my hands on this film?