Saturday, 5 December 2015

Film Review - 'No One Knows About Persian Cats'

Ashkan and Negar are young musicians, and a part of a thriving underground music scene in modern Tehran. They live in a world were performers require permits to be allowed to actually play their music, and where musicians who attempt to play without a permit risk arrest if they are caught. Each of the two has, in fact, previously spent time in jail for the sake of their music - and, they are each clearly prepared to do so again, if necessary.

The two musicians are, perhaps understandably, eager to leave Iran in order to be able to perform elsewhere – particularly, at an indie-rock festival to be held in London which they are hoping to be able to attend. But first, they need money. They need to arrange for passports and visas. And, perhaps most importantly, they need a band.

They are aided to Nader, a fast-talking (quite literally), and somewhat shady, businessman who seems to know how to manoeuvre around the rigid laws of Iran. Nader is suitably impressed by their music, and so sets about doing all he can to help them – putting them in contact with someone that can arrange fake passports, as well as introducing them to a wide variety of different Iranian bands.

This is a film which is, at heart, really about the music. The search for band-mates is clearly used as a means of weaving in a variety of performances from actual Iranian musicians – and, the film will quite unashamedly bring things to a temporary halt in order to let the performance play out. One thought that occurred to me, early on, was that the film had actually started to feel like a more serious and dramatic take on The Blues Brothers - what with the obvious emphasis on 'putting a band together', and a story that was really only present to serve the music. It's probably a good thing, then, that the music is actually very good.

At other times, too, the film began to feel much more like a documentary than a work of fiction. Dialogue will often seem to be largely improvised by the cast of young performers - with Nader being the only one present who seems to be performing from an actual script. The actual performances given by the cast, too, will often seem a little amateurish, at best - as though no one on screen is actually entirely comfortable being on camera. Again, with Nader being the only one present who seems to be an actual, professional, actor.

The reason for this is fairly clear, though. As it happens, this film, itself, is as much a part of the artistic underground in Iran as the music that makes up its subject matter. Film makers, much like musicians, also require government permits to be able to create their art - and, after three years of trying and failing to get such a permit for another film, director Bahman Ghobadi  found himself drawn to the underground music scene. Seeing fellow artists struggling for their art in much the same way he was, he chose to focus his new film around these people. But, of course, he still didn't have a permit - so, No One Knows About Persian Cats was, ultimately, a film made in secret.

The act of making the film placed everyone involved at the same risk of being arrested as that faced by the characters themselves. But, despite this, the film was made, and released to an international audience.

Negar Shaghaghi and Ashkan Koshanejad, the films two protagonists, are not simply actors playing roles – they are young musicians essentially playing themselves. And, it quickly becomes fairly obvious that the same is true for every other musician who appears in the film. There may be a fictional story woven around them but in this sense, at least, it truly is a documentary.

This is something that is to the film's benefit, in the end. As a documentary, the film is a fascinating study of a little known sub-culture - it feels like something that is important, and well worth an audience's time. But, as a film, it lacks focus, and any sort of dramatic tension - and, it is let down by the fact that the cast includes only one actual actor (Hamed Behdad, who plays Nader - though, to be fair, he does make for a genuinely entertaining presence in the film). The overall impression I was left with was that the purpose of the film, to bring attention to these young musicians, would have been better served be abandoning the fictional pretence entirely, and simply making a documentary. In the end, there isn't even all that much that would have needed to be changed.

It does feel like an odd conclusion to come to, really - to be forced to admit that a film might have been better off without its story. But, that does seem to be the case, here. The experience, as a whole, is weakened by the fact that there is a fictional story laid over the top. Instead of simply allowing these young musicians to speak for themselves, the film's fictional element only serves to draw attention to the fact that none of them are actors - and, that's not really fair to them.

But, the subject matter is fascinating - and, the music really is great - they may not be actors, but they are all genuinely talented musicians. If you go into this film thinking of it as a documentary, then  you are likely to get a lot more out of the experience.

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