Land of the free, sure, but every once in a great while, there will be a story in local and national media that details an American artist’s struggle against censorship. If an artist is in fact fined or jailed, the general response of many Americans is pure outrage coupled with frequent references to the First Amendment. From the arrest of Larry Flynt in 1976 (and his subsequent trial, resulting in six days in jail) to Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction” in 2008 that resulted in a $550,000 fine from the Federal Communications Commission, American citizens have their fair share of struggles on the slippery slope of censorship.
But our fights pale in comparison to those in other countries. In Iran (and other similarly oppressive countries), a musician can be arrested and detained for simply playing music in a style not approved by the government. No One Knows About Persian Cats, a film directed by Bahman Ghobadi (A Time For Drunken Horses, Turtles Can Fly) debuting in Colorado at Chez Artiste in Denver on May 14, tells the true story of the underground indie rock music scene in Tehran; from hushed practice sessions to eventual incarceration, the musicians profiled in this film provide a glimpse into the lives of young Iranian artists and ad hoc activists in one of the most notoriously censored countries in modern times.
Few Westerners know or understand the depth or breadth of Iran’s governmental censorship program, and with good reason. Reporters Without Borders ranks Iran’s media and information dissemination (or lack thereof) a “one,” the lowest on their five-point scale. Not only is the Iranian government controlling what information their citizens can access (such as books and websites), but also restricts what is allowed out of the country through various media channels. The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance is responsible for censoring all media that is remotely capable of reaching even the smallest audience. Subject matter that is considered unlawful ranges from any criticism of the current political structure to religious reformists. Additionally, Iran also has a sordid history of not only banning women from attending public entertainment events without a male escort but also banning and jailing female performers (solo female singers have been banned from performing since 1979).
One of the most remarkable things about Persian Cats is that it was even made. Everyone who was involved in both the real-life events that inspired this film as well as the actual production of it had a lot to lose, and the result is hard to characterize — part fictionalized reenactment, part drama, part documentary.
The film follows a young Iranian singer, Negar, and her boyfriend, Ashkan (both from the band Take it Easy Hospital), as their attempts to form an indie rock band (after being released from prison) force them to run from authorities. Both actors are playing themselves. While the film reminds us that they did, in fact, escape and live to tell the tale, they have lived in exile in London since the film’s release.
Ashkan tells of the hurried 17 days that they shot the film (in 2008) as well as the fake permits director Ghobadi used to secure equipment and crew for production. At the end of shooting, Ashkan and Negar left for Manchester for what they thought would be a short trip for a film festival, as well as to perform a few shows, but have remained in England ever since due to the fear of what possible consequences they may suffer as a result of making this film.
“There was no time to think,” says Ashkan of the speed and frenzy in which the movie was shot. “You had to do the movie and leave.”
Negar spent 21 days in prison after he and other band members were arrested during a self-produced show in 2007.
Negar and Ashkan say that none of their music or lyrics were political, but the fact that they wanted to play non-traditional music (i.e. rock) was enough to condemn them.
Ashkan laments how making music inserts him and others into a political and ideological debate.
“Most of the artists aren’t political; we aren’t political,” Ashkan says. “Nowadays, whatever you do [in Iran], you are considered a political person.”
Since the film’s release (available through the Independent Film Channel and opening nationwide throughout the coming months) in 2009, critics and audiences are lauding this production as both raw and refined. Persian Cats received the Un Certain Regard Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009 and was an accepted submission to the South by Southwest music festival for its soundtrack. Several other artists (most notably The Yellow Dogs, The Free Keys and Hich Kas) are featured on the soundtrack (through Milan Records), which has become a bestseller in Europe. The Yellow Dogs are also a featured band in the film (one scene actually took place during an actual rehearsal in their practice space on a roof in Tehran) and have had their own fair share of experiences that mirror Negar and Ashkan’s. While they were never arrested, they were constantly evading police and spoke of their friends who weren’t as fortunate.
“We were really active in the underground scene and one of the only bands in Iran who had underground concerts, but we always kept everything secret,” Obaash, the lead singer of The Yellow Dogs, told Boulder Weekly. “[The police] arrested some of our friends during a concert in the suburbs in Tehran and sent them to jail for 20 days. What was the crime, worshipping Satan?” The Yellow Dogs have followed suit and since the film have moved to New York City, where they can play their music without the threat of imprisonment, or worse.
As for the greater impact of the film, Obaash believes this is just the beginning.
“[This film] brought more attention to the underground music scene and it will influence the younger generations of Iranian musicians. There will be more courage for doing what they love to do,” says Obaash of the potential influence Persian Cats has on the younger demographic of Iranians. “Right now in Iran there is a renaissance in art, politics and people’s minds. I can see a bright future for Iran. The only thing we need is time.”
On the Bill:
No One Knows About Persian Cats opens at Chez Artiste in Denver on Friday, May 14. 2800 South Colorado Blvd., Denver, 303-352-1992.