If you consider indie rock innocuous, try playing it in Iran. The country’s government couldn’t make it harder to be in a rock band, charming boy-girl harmonies or not. Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi (A Time For Drunken Horses), a participant in the country’s new wave, uses a clever dollop of fiction to craft a narrative around fundamentally true events in his newest film, No One Knows About Persian Cats. As they try to assemble a band, the main characters deal with all sorts of visa troubles, permit issues, and police harassment. Their jangly, self-professed “indie rock” is born out of personal strife and a need for self-expression amid a stifling theocracy. In a recent interview with City Paper, Ghobadi discussed the circumstances surrounding the movie.
No One Knows About Persian Cats opens at E St. Cinema on Friday, May 7.
What experiences led you to make a film like this?
I love music. If I were not a director, I would’ve been a songwriter. Kurdistan is a cradle of music despite the harshest conditions. Censorship just couldn’t deal with music, and over the past two years, it’s been very hard to make films as well. I had to act like the censorship committee wasn’t there and just make my movie how I wanted it. I’ve been accused of being a separatist because I’m Kurdish, but I’m not a separatist—I’m just proud of my heritage.
The youth in Iran have to deal with a lot of tension and anxiety. The clubs and bars are all closed, and a you can’t even walk into a public park with your girlfriend in peace. There are just small spaces for music; it’s illegal to have concerts or recordings.
Do you feel an obligation to cover the strife and oppression going on in Iran?
Yes. I feel responsible because my country made me a filmmaker, and this new generation gives me new courage. I feel like I played the part of a bridge with this movie. It’s a window to shine light into a dark space. I’m not a film-maker this time; I can call myself a window-maker maybe, and an amateur one at that.
When you’re making a film about Iran and it’s all in Persian, do you have to consider how it will translate to foreign audiences?
It’s very difficult. I could’ve made the film as an absolute documentary, taking out the 10% that I contributed to it, but it would’ve been difficult to convey what needs to be seen. It’s an important movie that needs to be seen, but there’s no company backing this, there’s no funding backing this. I’m relying on people who see it to spread the word.
Do you worry that there are specific social and political contexts to the story that foreign audiences won’t understand?
No. Music knows no boundaries. Issues of freedom and democracy know no language. Human rights do not require a language. In 106 minutes, I wanted to give people something to smile about, something to laugh about, and I wanted to share music so they can understand and empathize.
How did you decide which artists to work with?
My friend Babak [Mirzakhani, Tehrani blues musician] was like a flashlight. I had three weeks, and he showed me 20 bands. Out of the 2000 or so bands in the country, I can’t say these are the top 20, because I don’t know; but they are among the best. Most of them are youth that are new to the scene. There were older people of my generation, professionals that do a great job, that we could’ve worked with, but I wanted to focus on the youth. For three weeks, I interviewed them, and their own stories and their own music are in this film.
Were the bands pleased with how the film turned out?
Yes, they were very pleased, though I wish you could interview them about it. I made the film free to the people of Iran, and I think peoples’ perspectives changed. You have to understand that the media there calls these bands Satan worshippers, fire worshippers. I wanted to show that that’s not true, you can get close to these people and their music.
Do people generally believe what the media says about bands?
Some do. Some of the parents, the older generation, believe them. When people play music, sometimes neighbors call the police.
Was it dangerous for any of these artists to work with you?
Several bands were afraid, but not for themselves; they were afraid their families would be harassed. We told them, unless you want us to, we won’t film you. That’s why I say the people and the music chose me, not the other way around. If they hadn’t been there, there would’ve been no way for me to visualize or imagine this film.