The low-key, tuneful indie music played by Iranian boy-girl duo Negar and Ashkan is so mild and well-mannered that you couldn’t imagine it rocking any foundations, let alone a government, yet in an Iran where all Western-influenced music is banned playing it is liable to get you thrown into prison.
That’s the fate recently experienced by the ‘Negar’ and ‘Ashkan’ (Negar Shaghaghi and Ashkan Koshanejad playing versions of themselves) at the start of Kurdish-Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi’s semi-documentary drama No One Knows About Persian Cats, a clandestinely filmed account of the underground music scene in Tehran.
Having been arrested following a police raid on a concert, the newly released Negar and Ashkan are trying to find band members, visas and passports so they can leave the country and play an invited gig in London. Their search takes them on a furtive tour of Tehran’s undercover music world in the company of bootlegger Nader (played by the film’s only professional actor, Hamed Behdad), a motor-mouthed bullshitter who says he can get them the fake documents they need to travel.
Semi-improvised and shot on the run, No One Knows About Persian Cats is undeniably rough around the edges, but its raw immediacy is exhilarating. Even though Negar and Ashkan, and their fellow musicians meet frustration and harassment at every turn, the irrepressibility of the street-corner rapper or the thrash metalheads playing in a cowshed is truly uplifting.
No One Knows About Persian Cats reminded me of Tom Stoppard’s play Rock ‘n’ Roll, which explored 20+ years of Czech history from the Prague Spring to the fall of the Berlin Wall through the prism of rock. Stoppard’s play suggested that it was apolitical rock musicians – such as the endlessly persecuted Prague band the Plastic People of the Universe – rather than the country’s dissident intellectuals who actually lit the fuse that brought down communism.
Negar and Ashkan don’t have a political axe to grind, but their very desire to play Western music is deeply subversive to Iran’s repressive Islamic authorities. Last year’s anti-government street protests after Ahmadinejad’s rigged election suggests that the mullahs won’t be able to keep the lid on forever.
On general release from 26th March.