Journey into Tehran’s independent underground.
In his recent film, No One Knows About Persian Cats, director Bahman Ghobadi shows us a very different side of the independent music scene, one unfolding in modern Tehran under a strict and repressive government.
Near the beginning of the film, one of the main characters, a struggling musician, laments, “Here you can’t do anything. In this country, you don’t have a chance.” Sound familiar? In the Iranian capital, it is governmental control, rather than monopolistic labels and corporations, that keeps non-traditional music underground. Still, the similarities to the music scene in the western world are uncanny.
Currents of Oppression
Although No One Knows About Persian Cats is not a documentary, many aspects of the film are realistic. Ghobadi shot the movie illegally, with no government permit (which you need to make a movie in Iran), and with an illegal camera (by law, film equipment has to be rented from the state).
Ghobadi’s cast was also straight out of Tehran’s underground music scene. All the actors are real local musicians, playing characters much like themselves and reenacting experiences they’ve gone through – trying to get government permits to play gigs, being chased by the cops for performing illegally, and struggling to obtain visas to tour outside the country.
The film is worth watching just for the tour Ghobadi gives us of Tehran’s music scene. From traditional artists to metal, hip hop, psychedelic rock, and indie pop, the talented musicians showcased in this film deserve an audience, but find themselves playing mainly to clandestine crowds in basement, private homes, or empty fields.
For western audiences, the film draw’s fascinating parallels between what Iranian musicians experience trying to bypass the restrictions imposed by the government, and what indie artists from other parts of the world experience trying to negotiate controls and barriers imposed by major labels. Sure, western artists don’t have to deal with cops that will arrest you for performing or recording music without a permit, but for many years, major labels have been “policing” what types of music are recorded and performed, presented to the mainstream, and given a chance to succeed.
Currents of Support
One of the most beautiful and uplifting streams running through No One Knows About Persian Cats focuses on how Tehran’s indie musicians support each other. When the main characters, musicians Negar and Ashkan, along with their manager, Nadar, want to put on some shows and get visas to perform in Europe, they travel through various facets of the indie underground, in search of bandmates and the resources every band needs to achieve success: instruments, recording space, jam space, and plain old friendship.
Perhaps it’s a figment of Ghobadi’s idealism, but the response from the community is tremendous. Everywhere Negar, Ashkan, and Nadar go, they’re met with almost unquestioning support of their right to dream. Collaborators and co-conspirators get on board with their plans, asking only that the band commit seriously to what they’re trying to do. The adversity of their situation seems to knit Tehran’s musical community together, and each artist’s attitude is inspiring, with negativity and naysaying standing out as a rarity.
That being said, the message isn’t that perseverance and teamwork automatically lead to the land of happily ever after. In the film, as in the careers of so many independent artists, all the dreaming and struggling in the world cannot promise success. Still, after watching No One Knows About Persian Cats, I can’t help but wonder: if indie artists supported each other in the western world as much as Ghobadi shows us they do in Tehran, would there be any limit to what we could accomplish?