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"Persian Cats" Director Bahman Ghobadi: "I didn't pick the topic, the topic picked me"

By Brian Brooks | Indiewire April 16, 2010 at 9:26AM

The latest film about the bad boys (and girls) of rock and roll is so controversial that an entire regime is hell bent on stamping it out. The parties are seemingly tame and unlike the cliches of other movies about bands and their desire to make it big - the groupies, the drugs, the parties, the money (and even Satan) are all absent. Yet, in this film, the cops are ready to bust them and the clerical hierarchy accuse them of heresy.
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The latest film about the bad boys (and girls) of rock and roll is so controversial that an entire regime is hell bent on stamping it out. The parties are seemingly tame and unlike the cliches of other movies about bands and their desire to make it big - the groupies, the drugs, the parties, the money (and even Satan) are all absent. Yet, in this film, the cops are ready to bust them and the clerical hierarchy accuse them of heresy.

In Iran, the Islamic Republic not only frowns on rock and roll and other popular music, it has forced it - along with nearly all other forms of artistic expression - underground. And despite the stepped up orthodoxy under the current regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an estimated 2,000 bands are currently playing in basements, apartments or practically anywhere they can find - evading the country's Office for Promotion of Virtue and Prohibition of Vice.

The kids who play despite the risk are at the crux of Iranian/Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi's latest, "No One Knows About Persian Cats," which won a Special Jury Prize in last year's Un Certain Regard sidebar at the Cannes Film Festival. IFC Films is releasing the feature, which is told in a documentary style, in limited release in theaters this weekend as well as on VOD.

"I'm very much interested in music specifically and wanted to make a film about it, but not in an atmosphere of censorship," Ghobadi told indieWIRE in New York this week. "In this case, I didn't pick the topic, the topic picked me."

Ghobadi initially tried going through the regime's official channels to get permission for the film, but as is often the case for filmmakers in the country, even if their request isn't specifically denied, officials will pursue a passive-aggressive tactic of excruciating delay.

"When I was starting this film, I had two options. One was to censor myself so I could stay in Iran, and the other way was to not censor myself and leave Iran," said Ghobadi. "I chose the second option." Ghobadi, who obtained a U.S. visa, said that despite his decision, he nevertheless felt compelled to hold back a bit out of consideration of his subject. In the film, he also shows hundreds of kids attending underground concerts, and though the shows are an offense to the government, he did go to some lengths to minimize any negative impact.

"In one scene of the film I showed kids watching a band play and the women in the audience were wearing their headscarves. I did that so they wouldn't get into [as much] trouble, but in reality, that would never happen. Most women don't wear their headscarves at these parties."

"Persian Cats" writer Roxana Saberi, an American journalist of Iranian and Japanese decent became familiar with Tehran's bustling music underground while living in Iran and researching a book. She was arrested in January 2009 and held in solitary confinement after being accused of espionage. After an international outcry, she was finally released in May and is now working on a memoir of her experiences in Iran, "Between Two Worlds."

"I hope that 'No One Knows About Persian Cats' is a reminder of the freedoms we take for granted here like freedom of expression," she said this week in Manhattan, discussing what she hopes American audiences will get from the film. "This film is a message of what happens when people in power try to impose their own ideas on society and are not open to different forms of expression."

Continuing Saberi added, "I hope people here will enjoy the film and also get a view of Iran that's not always shown in the media here."

This article is related to: Interviews