As curious people living in a particular place we rely on foreign countries to be exactly that: foreign. Otherwise, what would be the incentive to visit these places? For many westerners’ tastes, some countries are a little too foreign, making many places in the world unappealing to experience. Fortunately, No One Knows About Persian Cats reminds audiences – especially travel-phobic viewers – that no matter how strange a culture or people may seem, there’s plenty of common ground to share. On the other hand, the film also explains why having the freedom of speech should never be taken for granted.
For singers and musicians, Iran is a tough place to live in. In the views of Islam, music is considered impure – western music especially so. It’s even tougher for female vocalists, because hearing them sing is considered a sin. Nevertheless, music will not be denied. It exists underground, in basements and secret, makeshift rehearsal spaces. Two young musician/vocalists, Negar and Ashkan (who play themselves), have dreams of escaping Iran to play western music across Europe. Having just been released from prison for participating in a live concert, they understand better than most how difficult the situation is for people in their position. They team up with a fast-talking bootlegger named Nadar (Hamed Behdad) who has connections with shady individuals that might be able to provide visas and passports, but first Negar and Ashkan have to organize a band. Their search leads them to experience several genres of music and tests these dreamers’ limits of trust and friendship.
Knowing this film is spoken in Farsi and is a musical journey through Tehran, Iran, it’s easy to have preconceptions about the presentation. Ignore them. As soon as Ashkan and Negar play their demo tape – which is in perfect English – audiences will smile in spite of themselves. Listening to the familiar sounding indie-rock music will dramatically shrink the world and one will be hard-pressed not to imagine hearing the music played at their local coffee shop. Furthermore, the selection of genres is broad, covering metal, rhythm and blues and even hip-hop. Most importantly, however, every song is fantastic. They’re not just some watered-down, cheap knockoff of western music; they’re genuine, organic creations that could handle their own on any American radio station that plays similar music.
No One Knows About Persian Cats gets its title from the Iran’s strict policy requiring cats to remain indoors, which is a metaphor for the musicians’ plight. At its core, the film presents a very simple story and on paper the plot doesn’t sound like it would fill a feature-length movie. The point of Persian Cats, however, is to showcase the music, which it does splendidly. There are a few crests and valleys to keep audiences engaged in the story, but for the most part the only real drama occurs in the last 20 minutes of the film. Fortunately, the wait is worth it. Unfortunately, the wait doesn’t justify the sometimes irritating plot. While Ashkan and Negar visit different bands for recruiting purposes, the audience is treated to a full-length musical performance by each group. While the convention is enthralling the first few times as each artist shows off their talent, the repetition of this storytelling device becomes annoying later on – especially when the genre of music is not a favorite.
Ashkan and Negar are excellent choices to lead the film. They’re simply two young people with big dreams and without a hint of cynicism, which is refreshing. They’re the perfect foils to illustrate the oppression surrounding them. Hamed Behdad also does a great job as Nadar, walking the line between fierce loyalty and incredulous treachery. His fast-talking salesmanship is one of the many highlights in the film.
From a direction standpoint Persian Cats is hit or miss. Sometimes the scene is unique and wonderful to behold, like when the three protagonists ride one motorcycle together through a maze of narrow alleys and small doorways. Other times, like during the musical performances, the direction feels a little bland, offering frenetic shots of Tehran and its citizenry. Thankfully, the overall presentation is pleasing and audiences will walk away having watched something truly unique and yet surprisingly familiar all at once.