Underground in Tehran

Now out on DVD, Tom Huddleston learns why No One Knows About Persian Cats

In Iran, making music is all but forbidden. Even traditional songs are frowned upon, so what are the chances for young people interested in playing rock, rap and indie? Bahman Ghobadi’s ‘No One Knows About Persian Cats’ explores the phenomenon of underground music in Iran, but it’s not a documentary. It’s not really a fiction film, either. ‘Persian Cats’ is a hybrid: the actors in the film play themselves, but some of their lines are scripted. The musicians in the film, of whom there are many, from every corner of the Tehrani underground, also play themselves, and their instruments, and their own songs. But the story’s fake – well, sort of.

‘Everything that you see in the film happened,’ insists lead actor, singer-songwriter Ashkan Koshanejad. ‘Every location is real, all the people are real. But for some parts, the director decided to put in stories from other people, to create a structure for the film.’ Even getting the film shot proved to be an underground undertaking. ‘It was shot in 17 days. We were doing it very fast, we were living the film as we were shooting it. The director was using another film’s permits, he tricked the authorities.’

Koshanejad has been a musician in Iran for several years, and has had his fair share of trouble with the authorities. ‘I had problems applying for permits to release my music,’ he says. ‘And I played in a show, Iran’s first rock concert since the 1979 revolution, and all the audience and musicians got arrested. Us musicians spent 21 days in prison.’

Koshanejad now lives in London with some of his co-stars from the movie, unwilling to return home, particularly given the recent troubles. ‘It’s really complicated at the moment,’ he says. ‘Iran’s government is going backwards, it’s getting worse.’ But at least he has the chance to make his music free of government intervention: indeed, his new outfit Take It Easy Hospital will be playing alongside screenings of the film at the Ritzy and Ciné Lumière. And the film itself is attracting a lot of interest. ‘We had the top-selling soundtrack CD in France, and a great response at the London Film Festival,’ he says.

The film has even managed to make it back to its native country. ‘Bahman sent a DVD to Iran, and put an introduction on it saying that this film should be free in Iran, you can share it and copy it. So everyone over there has seen it.’

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