By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
Being an artist in Iran has been a tricky business for a long time; one assumes that since the fraudulent elections last year and the riots that followed, it is even trickier.
For the brilliant filmmaker Jafar Panahi, these troubled times have resulted in jail — he has been held by authorities since the beginning of March, first without a stated reason but eventually accused of making a seditious film within the walls of his house.
(Panahi’s films are overtly critical of the Iranian regime, and have often been banned there: Check out “The Circle” and “Offside,” especially, for their blunt appraisal of the status of women in Iran.)
For Kurdish-Iranian Bahman Ghobadi, whose films include “Turtles Can Fly” and “Time for Drunken Horses,” a recent movie might clinch the issue of whether he can return to Iran, where he could very well be arrested too.
Ghobadi’s “No One Knows About Persian Cats” doesn’t seem on the surface like a criminal act: It’s really just a tribute to some exciting young bands in an urban location.
But this loosely dramatized look at the Tehran music scene has nevertheless caused trouble for Ghobadi. Although the film is quite agreeable in a shaggy way, it deals with people who are directly confronting the question of whether there is any future in Iran for them.
That question must have been on Ghobadi’s mind as he furtively made the movie. He’s in the opening sequence, as himself, singing in a music studio as an engineer explains that he’s not allowed to make movies anymore.
For most of the film, we follow two young musicians, Negar Shaghaghi and Ashkan Koshanejad, who play themselves, or versions of themselves. They have a few days to try to put together money, a band and false passports, so that they might play a few gigs in Europe.
This thin plot allows Ghobadi to look through Tehran’s underground, where musicians play on the sly and forgers hustle up false papers. In other words, this is more than a music film, but it does have performances by a string of spirited people.
In this case, it’s not the content of the songs that could cause problems — it’s the idea of public music performance itself. No wonder the people in the film come across as fugitives.
“No One Knows” has a rough, unfinished quality, which suits the subject. In real life, Negar and Ashkan actually have ended up exiled from Iran, having remained in England after accepting an offer to play a concert there.
Ghobadi was forced out of Iran last year. His words in a recent interview are haunting: “It’s not very easy in countries like mine to have filmmakers. Once we have them, we cannot afford to lose them.”
“No One Knows About Persian Cats” ½
A raw, street-level film from director Bahman Ghobadi, about the thriving underground music scene in Tehran (where musicians can be arrested for performing). The movie’s got an unfinished quality, but the world it captures feels urgent and authentic. In Farsi, with English subtitles.
Rated: Not rated; probably PG for subject matter