Tehran Calling

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Bahman Ghobadi’s newest film offers a window into Iran’s underground music scene, and gives voice to the rise of an Internet-fueled rock ‘n’ roll revolution

“You’ve made it big. I hear you were on cable TV!” a silhouetted man whispers in Farsi. He’s sitting at a bay of mixing tables, light reflecting off his circular eyeglasses. The studio’s only illumination is a recording room behind a dirty window where a group of musicians are performing. “They talked about the concert. Blood drinking and devil worshipping…” he says, before the shawl-clad woman he’s talking to interrupts him. “That’s how they work. They try to smear musicians and lock them up.”

This dialogue and setting is the stuff of dystopian fiction—a brutal totalitarian society where non-government-sanctioned music is outlawed, and rock rebellion brews in shadowy underground studios and warehouses. But it’s only one of many staggeringly true-to-life exchanges in No One Knows About Persian Cats—a docu-drama chronicling the true story of Iranian indie rock band Take It Easy Hospital and its attempt to leave the country for Europe.

Since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, any kind of musical performance in the country (along with most other forms of art) requires the approval of the government’s censorship bureau, the Ministry of Guidance. Western-style rock and female solo artists are outright banned. Musicians risk arrest and probable incarceration for rehearsing or performing without a permit. These musical taboos are part of a host of other prohibitions against public and private behavior and dress.

Persian Cats, released in April in a limited theatrical run and Video-On-Demand, won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes in 2009. The film was shot secretly in Tehran, Iran’s capital, over the course of 18 days in 2007, a little less than two years before the so-called “Twitter Revolution” brought Iran’s discontented youth to the world’s attention.

In the film, a shaky handheld camera follows the two members of Take It Easy Hospital, Ashkan Koshanejad and Negar Shaghaghi, as they wait for the forged visas and passports that will make their escape from Iran possible. And as they wait, Koshanejad and Shaghaghi plumb the breadth and depth of Iran’s burgeoning underground music scene. One character estimates there are more than 2,000 illegal bands in Tehran—searching for other acts to help them fulfill their lifelong ambition before they leave: playing a concert in their homeland. As they hopscotch from one makeshift studio or performance space to the next, Persian Cats takes a representative sample of Tehran’s underground hip-hop acts, metal groups, garage-rock outfits and jazz pianists.

An unmistakable portrait of contemporary Iran emerges from this sparse narrative, and becomes the thrust of the film’s plot: Smoldering beneath the surface of an Islamic ?fundamentalist state is a counterculture of rebellious, repressed Iranian youth.

Persian Cats was written and directed, illegally, by Bahman Ghobadi, the Kurdish-Iranian protégé and fellow-traveler of legendary Iranian filmmaker ?Abbas Kiarostami. Ghobadi served as production assistant on Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us, the 1999 picture that cemented Kiarostami’s worldwide status as a luminary of ’90s cinema. It proved to be an instructive experience: Ghobadi released the internationally-acclaimed A Time for Drunken Horses the very next year, and became the foremost voice of Iranian cinema’s New Wave movement.

But Persian Cats came about through happenstance, not ?design: “There was no initial planning that this movie was going to be about music,” Ghobadi, 41, explains through a translator, during a phone call from Iraq. He’s currently somewhere between Baghdad and Kurdistan—for security reasons he won’t divulge his exact location. “I was trying to get a permit for a different movie I wanted to make, and I had already been delayed for two years. This movie is a direct result of those frustrations I felt during the creative process.”

Ghobadi never got the permit. During a conversation with a friend, he realized that musicians and filmmakers in Iran were dealing with the same censorship, and the same frustrations. “I ended up going to people’s homemade studios,” he says, “since I couldn’t get government approval, which was how I became introduced to Tehran’s underground music scene. It had such a big impact, I realized I had to make Persian Cats.”

That’s an attitude shared by Roxana Saberi, 32, the Iranian-American journalist who co-wrote Persian Cats. She met the director in 2007 in Tehran, where Ghobadi told her about the project, and Saberi immediately agreed to help write the script and select the bands that would be featured in the film. “The movie shows aspects of Iranian society that many outsiders are unaware of,” she says, “and that many Iranians realize exist, but know the authorities do not want to be expressed publicly.”

For Saberi, the film’s themes of repression have a personal edge: She was arrested in Iran in 2009 on dubious charges of espionage, and spent three months in an Iranian prison before the charges were overturned. “Persian Cats portrays some of the discontent that many Iranians, especially many of the country’s large youth population, have felt because of the state-imposed limitations they face.”

Yet the film’s representation of those authoritarian forces doesn’t arrive until it’s final minutes, when police lights reflect off of Shaghaghi’s face and a wail of sirens presages the hasty break-up of an underground show. There are no jackboots, riot shields, tear gas, or any of the other imagery that came to define Iran’s government during the post-election uprisings of 2009. Ghobadi prefers this subtle approach to his critique of the current regime, for very specific reasons: “I don’t want to personify the problem in an individual character,” he says. “It’s a system. And not just a governmental or legal system, it’s cultural too. Certain aspects of the culture are tyrannical in their domination of the youth, and the youth are ready to rebel.”

You’re not worried about getting busted?” Shaghaghi asks a lanky, bearded man shouldering a six-string in a dimly-lit, brick-walled practice space. “Why worry?” he quips as he grips the fretboard. “We’re doing nothing wrong, just making music. We’re hurting no-one.” “Get busted, and you’ll go to jail for at least six months,” she says, shaking her head.

Persian Cats ’ companion soundtrack of the same name was the best-selling album on iTunes in France earlier this year. The Internet is quickly proving to be the most effective vehicle for cultural exchange between Iran’s booming underground music scene and the rest of the world. So says as Obaash (no last name given), frontman of the Iranian post-punk group The Yellow Dogs, via phone from Brooklyn. The Yellow Dogs feature prominently in Persian Cats; their burbling, snappy track “New Century” scores a scene where Koshanejad and Shaghaghi visit the group’s makeshift performing and recording space, in between quick-cuts of day-to-day life in Tehran.

The Yellow Dogs sprang from clandestine meetings in a friend’s basement, decorated in the style of a New York City dive bar, complete with soundproofed walls and a secret entrance. And for the three years bandmates played in Iran, they rehearsed on the roof of their drummer’s apartment, overlooking “the most beautiful view of Tehran you’ll ever see,” Obaash says, his voice brimming with enthusiasm. But in late 2009, when his neighbors called the morality police—the government military group responsible for enforcing proper Islamic behavior and dress, particularly among women—the musicians decided to pack their bags for the U.S., settling weeks later in New York.

“In order to get this music, we have to download it from the Internet,” Obaash says. “The Internet is the best thing that has happened to Iran in many years, especially for music, because there are no record stores or rock cafés. It was the only place we could go to distribute our music, and talk about our band. And it was the only way other people around the world could find out about us.”

“Young people in Iran go home, sit down at the computer, and check their Facebook, read news, listen to music, watch new and avant-garde movies,” he says. “It’s helping our culture so much. The government, the older generation, doesn’t really support culture, but people can get almost anything with the Internet.”

Which is exactly why Koshanejad agreed to star in Persian Cats as a faux-documentary version of himself: “There’s a minority community in Tehran who have chosen to change young people’s routine, and put on shows and art,” he says from his central London apartment. “We chose to be a part of that community. But we had to stay underground to play our music. I was a very invisible person in my own country, just for playing music.”

In Iran, the Internet has become largely synonymous with the country’s underground music scene. “MySpace saved our lives,” he deadpans, offering a quick laugh before assuming a deadly serious tone. “There are not many things for young people to do in Iran, so the only thing that connects you to other people is the Internet, and that definitely separates them from the older generation.” He pauses, considering his words. “That’s exactly why Twitter was so important to the uprisings after last year’s election.”

Koshanejad is no stranger to Iran’s hard-line stance on the arts. Weaned on bootlegged black-market Nirvana and Radiohead albums in the ’90s, he taught himself to play a wide variety of instruments before joining the underground group FONT in 2004. As in the plot of Persian Cats, he was arrested in 2007 and imprisoned for 21 days for playing a concert. “Honestly,” he laughs, “it only convinced me I was doing the right thing.”

After being released from prison he met Shaghaghi. The two met Ghobadi in an underground studio in Tehran through mutual friends, and he was so fascinated by their story that he decided to make them the film’s protagonists.

Though Koshanejad shares Ghobadi’s frustrations with the Iranian government, he insists that his group’s music isn’t inherently political in nature: “We’re more about social issues, human relations, peace,” he says. “We don’t do it to make a political statement; the opposite actually. We want to erase all the borders on the map, and just come together as housemates in the same home. The best equipment—the best tool for that—is our music.

“We don’t want to only present ourselves as being representative of Iran. We’re really just like everyone else, we’re all the same, and that’s the exact message we want to bring. It doesn’t matter what your language, your country is. This film shows people that whatever language you speak, whatever you might see in the world media about Iran, the actual people of Iran are just like us, and just like you. The younger generation in Iran is absolutely different.” That zeitgeist shift was likely unavoidable: A large percentage of the country’s adult men died in the Iran-Iraq war, and the ’90s postwar population boom left present-day Iran with a population in which more than two-thirds of the country is under the age of 30.

Koshanejad personally sees Take It Easy Hospital’s music as more of a statement on the shifting sensibilities of Iran’s youth population than a political polemic: “The Iranian people are changing because generations change, and no one can stop that change,” he says. “I can’t predict what will happen tomorrow, or even next year. The current government might be in power for several years more, but it’s really only a matter of time.”

I’ll tell you the truth,” a man tells an unseen government official, as Koshanejad watches through a slightly ajar door. “Please sir, help me out. I admit it—the movies are mine. I’m really passionate about films and music. But there’s nothing objectionable about them. I’ve got Muslim films, religious films… Christ, ?Moses, Noah, all of them.” His pleas are ignored, so he begs: “On the life of Imam ?Hossein, please don’t give me 80 lashes!”

When I ask Ghobadi about his hopes for the role his film might play in presenting a new perspective on Iran to the rest of the world, he demurs: “There is a tale I know from my grandfather, from his grandfather, and so on. A tale that is in the bosom of every person who lives in the Middle East. When the great powers, the Western countries, came into the region, they were absolutely indifferent with the welfare of the people. Any kind of meaningful reform or supposed help was never substantial enough to lead to progress and reform. So for the last century, Iran has been at odds with indifferent superpowers that act primarily to serve their own interests. And at the same time, Iranians are now faced with the absolutely dictatorial, oppressive behavior of the current Iranian regime and individuals in it.”

As a measure of his conviction in confronting that regime, Ghobadi allowed the film to remain in public domain so that anyone in Iran can watch it online, circumventing the country’s censors. “It’s a way for me to fight an unjust and corrupt system,” Ghobadi says. “I refuse to be at the mercy of the Iranian government, who have total control over which movies can be shown and which can’t. And I will continue to fight for the sake of myself, for all artists and for the Iranian people, so that we may have a freer exchange of ideas across borders.”

Indeed, in Ghobadi’s film, Iranian underground cinema and music are a new and vital rallying cry from Iran’s youth against their government. In a nation where artistic expression is tightly controlled by the government, the country’s youth are supporting and identifying with dissident artists as a form of protest. Music, specifically Western music, has become a catalyst for Iran’s cosmopolitan young.

“Through this music,” Ghobadi says, “I wanted to show what is happening in Tehran. What the real face of Iran is. This is the first time that a filmmaker like me can make a film about music, after 31 years. I couldn’t before, because I was afraid of the government. But these young people in the underground music scene, they taught me to not be afraid. They’re the ones who are going to change Iran, and change the world.”