by PROSHOT KALAMI
In recent times, Iranian films have been at the centre of attention in world cinema. Since the fraudulent Election in June 2009, Iranian cinema has had to follow a different path of destiny. The poetic allegorical camera and narrative can no longer satisfy the filmmaker who now must work within the politically-charged and troubled narrative of nationhood, human rights violations and questions of artistic integrity. The unjust prison sentences passed on Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof made this road more challenging. In this essay, I examine the notion of “revolt” by means of creative process in Bahman Ghobadi’s No One Knows About Persian Cats (2009). This is an underground film—made without any permission from the Ministry of Islamic Guidance or state support—on the underground music of Iran within an underground culture that survives against the severest odds. This is the last breath at a crossroad that leads to dead-ends in all directions.
The politics of fear is the mobilising force exercised by the Islamic state to keep the nation from potential “Westernization” and anti-Islamic behaviour, through harassment, imprisonment and other nefarious measures. No One Knows About Persian Cats addresses this issue by following a group of Indie-Rock, Jazz, New-metal and Rap bands, and the challenges they face in arranging rehearsals, underground concerts or escaping the hunting guards of the Islamic authorities. Meandering through the streets of Tehran, Ghobadi’s camera travels with them into another Tehran, a liminal space between crime and freedom, where these young artists create their music. Their act of creation is their soundless revolt. And Ghobadi, I argue, has tried to give the sound back to the otherwise muted underground music of Iran in this film.
I Don’t Wanna’ Go to Jail, Why are You pushing Me? 
The narrative of the film is locked between two reverse top shots indicating two blinks of the eyes of an injured young man from whose perspective the camera shows the running lights of a hospital corridor’s ceiling in a Kafkaesque manner. The person on the emergency bed-on-wheels, we find out later, is called Ashkan, who remembers in between those blinks all that he has gone through within a few weeks in Tehran. Although the narrative of the film is fictional, the people/actors of the film, barring the professional actor Hamed Behdad who plays the role of Nader, are real and use their own names in the film. Most of the events that are depicted in the film have actually taken place, one way or the other, but not necessarily in that sequence and not exactly to the same people/characters[]. Knowing these factors is important in order to understand, therefore investigate, the connection between the viewer and the material of the film. This becomes more important in regard to Ghobadi’s style that constantly moves between the self-reflexive documentary and the fictional narrative film. This notion in the film is apparent in the way in which he has used the camera, the various rhythms in editing, the selection of locations and with his deliberate casting of largely non-actor real-life musicians.
In the very first frame of the film we see the ceiling with the sharp white fluorescent lamps moving across the frame that look like white markings on a road at first, until you realise that the camera is actually facing upwards. The sound that we hear is more like the muted and unclear breathing sound that one can hear from under the water or over a sealed barrier, a breath at the dead-end. The next shot is the reverse angle, this time an out of focus top shot, showing a young man’s bloody face, covered with an oxygen masque on an emergency bed-on-wheels moving through what seems like a hospital corridor, while another hand with a large piece of gauze is holding one side of his head. We shall meet him again. But Ghobadi leaves his viewer with this bleak image along with that eerie sound of breathing to make a jump cut to another location. The second sequence is located in a dimly lit sound studio. We see the sound editor/engineer managing the recording that is apparently in session along with a few female musicians with their instruments in the background, waiting for their recording session to come. The point of view is of the recording room. The sound is a mixture of a few people talking in the background and a number that none other than Bahman Ghobadi himself is singing in Kurdish. The narrative starts from this moment, not directly though, but through a side conversation that the engineer has with one of the female musicians, who does not seem to recognise the singer in the recording room as the famous film director! The sound engineer says, and we hear, that Ghobadi could not make his films, he did not receive permission to shoot and was stopped by the authorities, as a result he was forced to give up making films. All these made him so depressed that he tried to sing, a hobby that he always kept on the side, to feel slightly better and positive. Babak, the sound engineer also tells us, through their conversation that now Bahman Ghobadi is busy making a film about the underground music scene of Iran. Ghobadi, we hear that, was intrigued by the news of Islamic Guards ambushing an underground rock concert and arresting hundreds of people. There are no professional actors, Babak says, in the film. This, apparently, is the true occasion for making No One Knows About Persian Cats. Ghobadi himself re-asserted this, not only in the “Special Feature” section of the DVD, but also in the 2009 London International Film Festival, during a number of post and pre-screening “Question and Answer” sessions. Why is this information so important that he has to open his film with it and why is it that he repeatedly emphasises this fact at every opportunity he gets? The role the music plays, the importance of creating music and the importance of breath in the creation of voice in songs—all within the oppressive atmosphere of Tehran— and the difference between reality and the truth, I argue, are some of the reasons that this film gives us as way of understanding the importance of this occasion for the filmmaker. In this regard, music is both the apparent subject as well as the political and philosophic metaphor or allegory that the film has to offer.
It is only after this information has been given that we finally see the opening credits running over the screen. The credits are set to the song that Ghobadi himself was recording in that studio. The song, as I mentioned, is in Kurdish, Ghobadi’s native tongue. It is called “The Youth” or “Jouwani”. Persian Cats is not Ghobadi’s first film on the subject of music or musicians. His Marooned in Iraq (aka The Songs of My Motherland, 2002) and Half Moon (aka Nive Mang, 2006) are all based on a quest for music and musicians, restoring players and singers (particularly female singers), and these are embraced as the central theme of these films. In an interview in 2007, when questioned why music and musicians are the central part of these two films, Ghobadi answers that:
What follows the title sequence is a long shot of a street in Tehran with the tower of a prison looming over the street. Ahskan, the young man whose face we saw at the opening sequence, with a small bag in hand is crossing the busy street. This is cut by another long shot of the Tehran skyline, over a rooftop where the silhouette of a couple against the dying light of sunset is visible. Nothing but the far away shadows of TV antennas soars across the free and empty sky. There is no music played here, only the tranquil ambient location sound. It is only through the next sequence that we learn, again within a course of a conversation between a young girl, Negar, who introduces herself as “Negar & Ashkan” with the same Babak—sound engineer—that Ashkan, now freed after 21 days of imprisonment, was apparently among 250 other people who were arrested in an underground concert. This is a fact that had actually happened to Ashkan Kusha in real life. His crime: playing music! Once again, Ghobadi mixes his narrative with documenting the real and reality. Another factual reality is that Ahskan Kusha and Negar Shaghaghi, were invited to perform in a music festival in Manchester. Ghobadi weaves that into the scenario of his underground film. The fiction that he adds for the narrative of his film is Negar and Ashkan’s quest to put together a band for the upcoming festival and another underground concert before they leave their country for good.
Babak, the sound engineer who also is a member of a jazz band introduces Negar to Nader, a man of all tricks. Through Nader, these two young musicians get to meet some other underground music groups who, just like them, are in love with music but have hidden their art in the many infernos of Tehran. Nader persuades them to arrange a concert before leaving Iran while helping them at the same time to meet a counterfeiter who is supposed to get Ashkan a passport and the entire band, the visas for their European tour. Along them and in their quest the viewer gets to see and hear different musicians and musics in the underground scene of Tehran of 2008-2009, jazz bands, Indi-rock bands, rap artists, folk musicians, etc. etc. One major factor connects all of these musicians together, although they practice different types f music. And that is fear. Fear from the government, from being found, from being arrested, from the prison, from the silence.
Every time the young couple meets a group, we travel with them a few flights of stairs, spiralling down below into dark tunnels, passage ways and corridors into some underground rehearsal space of which there are many. One, for instance, is a made up space with egg cartons, one put together with the excess material from a construction site, one in a cow shed among hay stacks and cow dung, another in the basement of a house with half acoustic walls, but all illegal spaces! In a conversation between Negar and Babak we find out that the state TV has actually produced a programme condemning the underground music scene of Iran calling them “Satan worshipers who drink blood”, which in so many words bring them down to the level of the subhuman. Within the structure of the Islamic Republic “committing” underground music—and I deliberately use the term committing with regard to the true sense of the term as a transitive verb suggesting the weight of a crime—and distributing illegal music are both considered to be crimes. Therefore, these people are criminals. The music of these underground rock bands is stamped as “Satanic”, therefore inferior, by the government. Accepting this as the standpoint of the establishment and the state and assuming that the state has the interest of its subjects in mind—although in this case it is quite difficult to entertain such a position even hypothetically—Ghobadi, sets out to follow the rebel, the criminal as it were, from the very beginning of his film while he, himself is committing a crime! Following Ashkan, who has just come out of prison, and regardless of the looming watchtower of the prison, Ghobadi moves towards knowing the criminal in becoming one. Because otherwise, his showing will not gain depth, and therefore perspective, to put the “music” in the socio-political context of “identity discourse” within the body of a regime, like the Islamic Republic. It is apparent that the state rhetoric—established trough its media and ideology—situates the “presupposed subject” (i.e. the criminal musician) as not “another human being with a rich inner life filled with personal stories which are self-narrated in order to acquire a meaningful experience of life, since such a person cannot ultimately be an enemy. ‘An enemy is someone whose story you have not heard.’  […] The ultimate criminal is thus allowed to present himself as the ultimate victim.”  Once the suspect is removed from its “human” position, it is easy to deprive “it” of its human rights! The terror, therefore, is legitimate. Politics of fear “focuses on defence from potential victimisation or harassment”.  The rubric under which the Islamic Republic functions is that of defending and protecting its subjects from any contamination from the blasphemous West! Therefore as Zizek says, its immediate justification is in avoiding victimisation. This also justifies its many acts of implementation of oppression, ambushing concerts and parties, arresting musicians for practicing Indie-Rock or Rap music, etc. etc. Understanding this will make the mechanism of the fear that pushes these artists to go underground more tangible for an audience that has always lived outside such dynamics. This will also shed light on the difference between the Iranian underground music scene and what in the West one may think of an underground music movement. In most Western cultures, underground music is not necessarily illegal or occasion for arrest and imprisonment. But in Iran, Ghobadi himself attests to the fact that “like the underground music gangs, I have to make my underground film.” 
Dying for the Luck of Your Dark Hair
It is the music that situates, sets and composes the rhythm of the editing. This is particularly true in case of music videos in Persian Cats. Whenever a particular band or artist is signing a number, Ghobadi changes the structure of the film and transforms it into the music video style. Suddenly the rhythm in editing and camera angles leave the narrative sequence to enter a visual space that works like a blade slashing the smooth movement of the celluloid as it were, to create a rhythm of its own. One of the best examples of this is when Ghobadi features “The Difference” (aka Ekhtelaf)  by “Hichkas”, with the singer and songwriter Soroush Lashkari, composer and musician, Mahdyar Aghajani. We see them first in their rehearsal session on the top floor of the skeleton of a building under construction (yet another ‘secret’ rehearsal space!) when Nader (the man who stitches all the pieces of this collage together) goes to visit Soroush in hope of asking him to join Ashkan’s group to accompany them abroad in their European concert. Sourush, answering in the negative makes it clear that he belongs to Tehran and he has to “rap” in Farsi. He then explains that he is recording a music video and wants to catch the sunlight before sunset. And that is when Ghobadi’s camera leaves the narrative and enters the space where this music of absolute revolt against all that Tehran encapsulates, commences.
The sequence of “Ekhtelaf” by Hichkas begins with a base that is nuanced with silence. The music is written in such a way that there is always a bar of silence in between each melodic bar. When the melodic bars are played, the shaky frame is a hand-held shot and when the silent bars come, there is cut to black frame. The sequence is established first with long shots of Tehran skylines, Tehran streets and gradually medium shots of people of Tehran on the streets. The rhythm and speed of editing pick up in correspondence with the subject of the “Rap” lyrics. But Sourush’s song seals his point of view as an artist and says it all, both for him as well as, perhaps, Ghobadi’s film. Sourush’s lyrics, and I quote extensively, read as follows:
This is Tehran,
A city where everything you see provokes you
Provokes your spirit in the dumpster until it prevails that you are not a human but a piece of trash
Here every one is a wolf.
You want to be a lamb? Let me enlighten you a bit!
This is Tehran, god-dam-it, it’s no joke!
There is no flower or popsicles!
This is a jungle; eat before you are eaten!
Here, folks are half oppressed half wild,
Class differences are extreme.
It wounds and mars the spirit of people
Side by side the poor and the wealthy, jammed in a taxi,
None are willing to pay the cabbie
The truth is clear!
Don’t turn a blind eye,
I’ll make it more clear, stay and don’t give in:
Oh God! Wake up! I have years of talking to do,
Hey get up, get up,
Don’t get upset of my deeds
You’ve seen nothing! This is just the beginning.
Oh God! Get up, I, a piece of trash, need to talk to you
The peddler with his cart stands by a Mercedes
His whole life and the cart together, is just a tip for the Mercedes,
You and I and him were all a part of a united drop!
Now observe in between us the gap
The gravity is not the reason for earth’s rotation
It’s the money that runs the earth, isn’t it fun!
These days, there is first money then the god!
For all; the master, the farmer, the village keeper.
If a kid wants to play with an orphan, his father will forbid him,
Why? The orphan wears dirty clothes, his only clothes!
Oh yeah! We are all aware of these misfortunes,
Even the angels will not cross these terrains to save us from this fortune!
We don’t need help, Just a drop of tear is enough for us!
How come the sick one understood me?
I didn’t finish what I was saying, I gave up! Come back I am not finished!
Oh God! Wake up! I have years of talking to do
Hey get up, get up,
Don’t get upset of my deeds
You’ve seen nothing! This is just the beginning.
Oh God! Get up, I, a piece of trash, need to talk to you
Have you ever been in love with a girl?
I want to talk, let’s be blunt?
You tell yourself this is it, a historic love!
Stop dreaming, she is with a rich kid!
Remember that he is the other,
Leave every thing behind,
You see all those around you as nothing
And the other, as old as you, is riding a care, when God sniggers as you!
Then you pray with bitterness that one day you want to be rich and have a blast!
Don’t pray! It won’t do anything, no one will understand you!
You wanna’ fall asleep? Come see the nightmare awaken!
Let’s curse this world together!
You have to be blind not to see the vanity everywhere,
On the sidewalks, not to see poverty and prostitution!
God, get up! A piece of trash wants to talk to you!
What if even you think whether it is worth it to listen to me?!
Oh God! Wake up! I have years of talking to do
Hey get up, get up,
Don’t get upset of my deeds
You’ve seen nothing! This is just the beginning.
Oh God! Get up, I, a piece of trash, need to talk to you!
By the time the music ends we have seen all the nasty and unpleasant realities of Tehran, the paradoxical city of polar contrasts. Considering that the film is entirely filmed in Tehran—the first urban film that Ghobadi has ever made—this song, that addresses the city directly, somehow finds an important place in the body of this film. Nezamedin Kiaie, the sound engineer of the film (who is one of the most established and well-known sound engineers in Iranian film industry) in the “Special Features” of the DVD suggests that Bahman Ghobadi has paid a tribute to Iran in Persian Cats. He believes that
I Am Standing, Why Are You Sat! 
Between the two book-ended, parenthetic marks of life and death, in the liminal space of the last breath at the centre of a crossroad that leads to dead-ends, the impossibility of telling writes itself palpably in shapes beyond the conscious attempts of creation. Here a distinction needs to be made between truth and truthfulness, real and reality, between the personal experience of these artists and the factual events that had happened to them. Zizek, arguing the reliability of a victim of a traumatic event mentions this important fact that at the core of the narrative of trauma there is “confusion” and “inconsistency.” Questioning the position of the victim he says
In Persian Cats, the reality of the story takes place in the music that, in turn, is the crux, the occasion, the excuse and the raison d’être of the film. As a line in the lyric of one of the “New-metal” band’s songs of the film says, “dreaming is my reality” !
That is, indeed, why Bahman Ghobadi enters the under-world and adopts the ways in which the underground music finds its way of surviving the oppressive policing presence of the state. As a traumatised filmmaker whose last film was banned, who did not receive any permission to make his next film, Ghobadi assimilates with the traumatised musicians of the infernos of Tehran in order to tell his story through theirs. And in turn they tell theirs through his. This, I argue and borrowing from literature, is writing against death. This is the space within which the music of revolt and the attempt to find freedom, when freedom is the last breath of a singer, a note on the line of a music bar, the vibration of the string of a guitar or the words of a lyricist. That is the muted breath that the opening sequence of Persian Cats begins and ends with. That is the last breath that Bahman Ghobadi took before he left his homeland for as long as it is controlled by the tyranny of an autocratic fundamentalist religious regime. In 17 sessions of filming with a very small team, on the back of a few motor bikes, Ghobadi, remembers his experience with this film as one of the most emancipating filmmaking experiences he has ever had. Is it the confessional act of telling one’s personal stories through forbidden songs and music that first renders and then makes communicable such an elevating experience? One can always speculate, wonder and hope. “This is the voice of a man whose dream / does not reside at a dead-end / […] my words were not criminal / but were hung dead / The limits of your thoughts do not fit me /” as Nikaeen, one of the musicians in the Persian Cats sings.
Towards the end of the film, we see that the counterfeiter gets arrested by the Islamic Republic police. Nader, realising the gravity of situation, loses it. Negar and Ashkan who could not locate Nader for a few days, finally find him a few hours before their underground concert opens, in a secret party. But the party is ambushed by Islamic Guards. Ashkan, in his attempt to escape another arrest and imprisonment jumps from the window. Next is a cut to a shaky frame of a bird-eye angle showing a foetus like body of Ashkan on the ground. This is followed by nervous jump cuts of medium shots of the underground concert with the waiting crowd holding candles, and the bird-eye shots of people gathering around Ashkan who lies still on the ground. On an extreme close up of Negar’s face, we hear her voice, singing one of the numbers composed by her and Ashkan together. The tense jump cuts between three locations continues until Ghobadi takes his viewer back to the opening sequence. And that is when Ashkan blinks for the second time from the emergency bed-on-wheels in the corridors of the Tehran hospital. The music bar however, dos not go into silence.
The everlasting effect of the revolutionary act of making music underground, or making a film underground, is not the immediate “real” in the act of the making music, and the real in their lives. But it is in “how” their reality, now woven into the narrative of the film, appears to the observers and in the hopes thus awakened in them. The “reality” of what went on in those basements and forbidden studio recording sessions, the sublime moment that generated the enthusiasm in these young people; that reality belongs to eternity. That is perhaps why the hundred and six minutes of the film, between the two moments of reverie, the moment of liminal existence between awareness and death, when we, through Ashkan’s eyes look, from what can easily turn into a six-feet under position, at the running lines of fluorescent lamps that pass before our eyes, creating a sense of eternity. Perhaps this is a suggestion that their whole life was worth it, if in reflection one can only remember and recognise the effort, only the effort for creating something that is forbidden, creating a symphony of sounds of revolt—against the state and its ridiculous yet consequential punitive regulations—that are otherwise silenced for eternity. The hope that is built in our minds come forth through following Ashkan and Negar’s Dante-esque meanderings through the dark undergrounds of Tehran in search of their music, their freedom; and that hope echoes in their voice and is heard again, rearticulated in Persian Cats.
“The memorable is that which can be dreamed about a place. In this place that is a palimpsest, subjectivity is already linked to the absence that structures it as existence and makes it ‘be there’… This being-there acts only in spatial practices, that is, in ways of moving into something different (manière de passer a l’autre).”  That is why the whole film is continuously meandering in the past, perhaps in the memory of Ashkan in reverie, suspended between life and death, through streets, quarters, corridors, basements and the hidden studios of Tehran. We are hearing and visiting memories of a musician in between two blinks of his eyes. We are traversing spaces that are haunted by many different spirits that would have otherwise remained silent. This time, Bahman Ghobadi in his quest for breathing the breath of a singer, invokes these ghosts that emerge from their six-feet under basements of Tehran. It is indeed that underground space that defines the art of these musicians. Their city becomes the endless tunnels and staircases that lead them to the ultimately subversive sound of their music, where all sounds, one would expect, are destined to die. That is where the Persian Cats voice their revolt.
 “Zendan” aka “Prison” by Hichkas: http://itunes.apple.com/us/album/asphalt-jungle/id202480855
 In the “Special Features” of the DVD of No One Knows About Persian Cats, (by Network Releasing © 2009 MIJ Film Iran) Bahman Ghobadi explains this fully.
 This is a reference, we will find out later in the film, to a song that one of the artists called Shervin Najafian, in this film sings with a group of refugee Afghani children, called “Who Am I”. The lyric is as follows: “Who am I/A wonderer/Lost in quarters/the most kicked-out sound of the soundless city/ Where am I from?/South of the city/Where the breath is at a dead-end/Where the daydream/is imprisoned in a cage/I am the centre of a cross/ homeless and tiered/At a cross road where there is dead-end from four directions/I am the centre of a cross/homeless and tiered/Who am I?/A tramp/Full of questions without any answer/I drew in my dreams hundred roads on the wall….”
 From this moment onward I shall use Persian Cats in lieu of the full title of No One Knows About Persian Cats.
 The interview was conducted by Peter Scarlet, the artistic director of the Tribeca Film Festival and the host and co-curator for CINEMONDO, in late May of 2007. The video is available here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9mTQrvPNvXc and in the original Link TV web archive athttp://www.linktv.org/cinemondo
 In the “Special Feature” of the DVD he expresses that although the process of filmmaking was “like a picnic” he was nonetheless under tremendous pressure because he was filming without permission. In fact, he used a fried’s permission document for some of the locations and for others he simply risked it. This means that not only did Ghobadi receive absolutely no support from the state, he actually risked everything to make the film. It is noteworthy here to mention that cinema industry in Iran is by and large a state-funded and state-supported outfit.
 This is endnoted in the source (by Zizek) as: Epigraph of ‘Living Room Dialogues on the Middle East’, quoted from Wendy Brown, Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire, Princeton University Press, 2006, p.1.
 Zizek, Slavoj. Violence, “Chapter 2: Allegro moderato- Adagio: Fear Thy Neighbour As Thyself!” Profile Books, London. (2008). P.39
 The “Special Features” of the DVD of No One Knows About Persian Cats, (by Network Releasing © 2009 MIJ Film Iran)
 The opening line of the lyrics of a folk song that Hamed Behdad sings in the film. It is called DK, by Darkoob: http://itunes.apple.com/us/album/no-one-knows-about-persian/id365023728
 The irony is that Sourush who says in the film that he belongs to Tehran and rejects the offer to go for a concert abroad, in real life, has left Iran and is currently producing music in London.
 The translation is mine. Although the subtitle of the movie does provide a translation, I found that to be accurate. However, I have also consulted with the artist Soroush Lashkari himself about this.
 Aka “Man Vaistadam” 2006, lyrics by Hichkas in collaboration with Mahdyar Aghajani: http://itunes.apple.com/us/album/asphalt-jungle/id202480855
 Zizek, Slavoj. Violence, “Introduction: The Tyrant’s Bloody Robe”, Profile Books, London. (2008). Pp.3-4
 “Dreaming” by The Free Keys: http://itunes.apple.com/us/album/no-one-knows-about-persian/id365023728
De Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life, “Walking the City”, Translation by Steven Rendall, University of California Press, Berkeley. (1988)
Ghobadi, Bahman. No One Knows About Persian Cats, DVD, “Special Features”. Network Releasing ©. 2009, MIJ Film Iran
YouTube Channel: IranIndieMusic | 28 Dec 2010: http://www.youtube.com/user/IranIndieMusic#p/u/1/J7osr7NvH6g
YouTube Channel: khayambashi: | 10 Jun 2006 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vkFfUA170pA
Zizek, Slavoj. Violence, Profile Books, London. (2008)