'The Atlantic' Chats with a Persian Cat


Mij Film Co.

No One Knows About Persian Cats, Brahman Ghobadi's 2009 film about Iran's contemporary indie rock and rap scenes, and winner of the Special Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, was released in the U.S. on April 16. "Persian Cats" was filmed on a tight budget, on location in Tehran—and with all the logistical challenges and moral hazards you'd expect to accompany a documentary about underground music in the Islamic Republic. The Atlantic spoke with Ghobadi last week at the Washington, D.C. International Film Festival, where he talked about his journey from rogue filmmaking in a repressive regime to international acclaim at Cannes.

The movie shows a side of today's Iran that's often surprising, even stunning, to Western audiences. What inspired you to make it?

I love music very much. If I wasn't a filmmaker I would probably be a musician. I play some percussion but I sing more than anything else. My voice is not bad, or so they say. And I didn't really have a plan to make this film. The system really upset me since they wouldn't give me a permit. I needed something to stop myself from getting sick so that I would not give in to their demands. By accident I ran into these guys, these young people. I got the idea to make a movie about their underground music.

Before the journalist Roxanna Saberi was arrested on charges of espionage for her reporting on the Green Movement, she collaborated with you on the screenplay. What was it like working with her, and what did she bring to the movie?

Roxanna was one of the ones who inspired me to make the movie and provided a lot of encouragement. She taught me truthfulness, she taught me not to lie. When we met she was at a sad state since she had just lost her press credentials to the Iranian government. It was just like me - I couldn't get a permit to make a movie. I was undergoing depression since I couldn't get a permit to make a movie. I was in a real nervous state. I would sometimes fling my shoes at TV when I would talk about culture and freedom and even threw my fax machine into the backyard. She inspired me to be calm about this since she's a very calm person. We started to work together. I encouraged her in the writing of her book and I started to make films. She's been playing the piano for 15 years, she's been working with music and she was a key element in picking the music for this movie. The kind of music we showed.

She was the first pair of Western ears and eyes to look at the situation and we ran this through her to see what would appeal to Western audiences. When we were writing the script we had some great scenes with all these bands. I forgot! In the first scene she was supposed to have an appearance. I forgot the movie was supposed to be 180 minutes. I knew I could never go back to Iran after I made this movie so I included as much as I could. I had to cut 74 minutes and there were some excellent scenes in there. I want to go find them again and release a new version on DVD.

What kind of music did you listen to when you were younger, and how did you get a hold of it?

You couldn't find it very easily. But because of the Internet the past eight to 10 years it's gotten easier. Whatever comes out in the West today, the next day you will find it out on the black market in Iran. Whether it is film, music ... and our young people are thirstier for this than the young people out in the West are. They don't have any places like you do here whether they can go and pour out their energies like clubs, so they have to stay at home and work with low-speed Internet. And they are very, very well informed.

And where do today's young Iranian musicians get their instruments?

Somehow they get their hands on the most modern instruments through friends and relatives who go abroad and come back. There is actually a store that sells these instruments in Iran, but I don't know why they stop people from playing music with them... It makes you wonder: what are all these laws about music for? They're trying to keep us busy and engage us in this game that takes away our energy.

There's a scene in the movie where the kids talk to people who refer to 50 Cent and Madonna as "indie rock." Do you think the word "indie" has been overused?

(Laughs) I don't know really. But a lot of Iranian bands apply the term "indie rock" to themselves. I think indie rock is closer to the nucleus of their own culture and their own music. In indie rock you can actually use Persian instruments and see the signature of Persian influence. By using Eastern instruments they want to bring a new energy to the music. I believe that the tearing down of the walls of censorship is going to reveal a lot that's going on going on. For instance, I know of these two women who have recorded something like 300 tracks. But all of this music is hidden and you don't see it coming out.

So they have basements full of black market recordings that no one's been able to hear?

Full. And the writers and poets, it is like they are holding these things in coffins. This is not an exaggeration. I know filmmakers who have made top quality documentaries, but they're waiting for a time when they can release them. I told them to show them and come with me. But they say, I don't have money, I can't stay here. With the visa problems they can't go out of Iran and release their works. Maybe for me it is easy since I have a lot of friends and I am not alone out here.

Do you think your work will inspire others to come West?

The kids there are braver than I. They are intelligent and in its time they will do this. It is impossible for the system to stop underground art.