Following a group of Iranian underground musicians in their struggle to get exit visas for a foreign concert, No One Knows About Persian Cats mirrors the troubles faced by Bahman Ghobadi and Roxana Saberi, who collaborated on the script. With A Time For Drunken Horses, released in 2000, Ghobadi became the first Kurdish filmmaker to rise to international prominence from a country where Kurds still face widespread discrimination, and the most-lauded Kurdish filmmaker since Yilmaz Güney. Saberi was born in the U.S. to Persian and Japanese parents and raised in North Dakota, the state she represented in the 1998 Miss America pageant. After earning a Master’s in Broadcast Journalism from Northwestern and another in International Relations from Cambridge, she moved to Iran in 2003, where she spent six years reporting for NPR and the BBC, among other outlets. In January of 2009, she was arrested and charged with espionage by the Iranian government, rising to the status of an international cause célèbre before being released in May. Her book, Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity In Iran, was published shortly after No One Knows About Persian Cats had its theatrical run in 2010. It’s now available on DVD.
Shortly before the film opened, Ghobadi and Saberi sat down with The A.V. Club to talk about life in exile, the importance of music in a closed society, and why in Iran, “all the lying takes place before you make the film.” Ghobadi spoke through an interpreter.
The A.V. Club: In No One Knows About Persian Cats, you’re working with real musicians and real bands, and to an extent the idea of these characters trying to get their visas and get out of the country is just an excuse for your camera to follow them around. When did the idea of making a movie about this subculture come about?
Bahman Ghobadi: The idea came to me; I didn’t go to find the idea. I was busy making another project for another film in Tehran, and after a few years I could not get my permit. The attitude that the Ministry of Culture And Islamic Ideals [had], that had made me very depressed, had made me sit at home. I was nervous and angry all the time, and I wanted to vent, so when I got the idea and I started making the film in 18 days, it was sort of like music therapy for me. It was the first time that I realized what music therapy actually meant. I owe it to these kids that were playing music. From them I learned courage, and from Roxana I learned not to have to lie for my opinions.
About lying and Roxana’s book, I’d like to say a word, and that is the regime had lied about her a lot and had portrayed her as a completely different person. So I suggested that in order to make them a little angry, she should do the same thing in her book. She would exaggerate or make a different picture than the reality. But she told me, “Absolutely not.” She said that she wants to stay completely truthful to reality and to truth. I learned honesty, and I learned how not to lie from her, because she did not agree with even a little bit exaggerating. There is not a word that is exaggerating the reality in the book. I learned what it is to be committed to one’s work and to reality.
AVC: How did that affect your filmmaking? There’s an element of lying in filmmaking; you’re making up stories.
BG: In Iranian cinema, all the lying takes place before making the film. In order to be able to make the film, you have to lie. You have to change your subject; you have to bring in scenes that you originally do not want to, but if you want to get a permit you have to show that the person is praying, that the person has a head cover, that the person is being hung because of robbery or because of drugs, not because of a human-rights situation. All these things make you not even choose a controversial subject to begin with. Before making this film, I was not even going to make films about subjects that I thought would not get me a permit. I even lied about what I wanted to make a film about.
So in this film, everything has been as it is in reality. We are not lying about anything. There are so many people like Nader. He’s actually a comic version of those people to give the Western audience a better chance of following the film, because I didn’t want the Western audience to go through the same suffering and pain that a regular Iranian would go through on a daily basis. There are a lot of places for forging visas, passports, and documents in Iran. Nothing is imagination.
For two or three weeks, I interviewed the musicians. I tried to reenact their real lives in the film. I stayed truthful to everything that they wanted to say or they said before the film and without the presence of the camera. If we went to see the Yellow Dogs or Hichkas, we would try to have the same conversations that they would normally have with each other in front of the camera. All of the locations are also real. I have not made up locations. Nothing is from my imagination. The band was actually playing at a cow farm for a few months. When they said that to me, I said, “Okay, great. Let’s go do that in the film, as well.” The guy who plays music for Iranian and Afghani refugee kids, all those kids and that location was also real. He was doing that in real life. Usually for most of my films, this is why you see the thread of documentary-making in my work. Everything I bring into the film comes from the heart of reality. My actors don’t seem like they’re acting.
AVC: Roxana, what was your role in this process? Were you doing interviews, because that’s closer to your background as a journalist?
Roxana Saberi: I saw Bahman through these stages he said when he couldn’t get permission to make the film he wanted to make. I saw him losing hope and becoming very depressed. Then one day, he got this idea for making a film about underground music. He was very excited about it. I thought it was a great idea, too, and I offered to help. So with Bahman and Hossein Mortezaeiyan, I helped with the scripts. But really, I believe that the musicians in the film wrote the script themselves, because, as Bahman was saying, it’s based on their lives and the challenges they face and the joys that they have. We had a friend, he would give us CDs of different musicians. We would listen to them, and we would go interview some of the musicians. We would see where they would practice, and we would say, “What is your ordinary day like? What problems do you have? Do your neighbors complain? You guys don’t make any money out of this, why do you keep doing it? If you were rich, what would you do?” This sort of thing. Based on those interviews, those pre-interviews, then we got the idea for how the story should go. Bahman basically says, “What would you say in this situation? Just say it,” so that it becomes more natural. So I helped with that, and I introduced a couple of the groups, and just gave my ideas as kind of an Iranian-slash-foreigner, to give my perspective.
AVC: When Ashkan is talking about having been in prison, is that true to his experience, or does that come from other musicians?
RS: Ashkan was in prison. He was at some kind of concert outside Tehran, it was busted, and the regime claimed that these were Satan worshippers. He’s the furthest thing from that. That’s another reason that we liked him and Negar, because they’re so down-to-earth, good kids. Not only are they really talented, but they’re just the opposite of what the regime wants to show these kids as. They want to show them as Satan worshippers, as elements of cultural invasion, and we have to be careful about that. So both of them were in prison because of that concert.
AVC: As they did with heavy metal and rave culture in the U.S., the authorities bring Satanism into it when there’s a youth culture they don’t understand that frightens them.
RS: I once interviewed this hard-line official for my book that I was writing in Iran—it’s about different sectors in Iranian society, and one part was about the cultural scene—and he was an advisor. I asked him about cultural invasion, “Is this really a threat?” He said, “Yes, because it starts with things like the arts and music, and then transitions to ideas like secularism, and this is something that is being intentionally promoted by our enemies: the Western governments, America.” I don’t know if many hard-liners think like that, but to him, that was the root of the problem.
AVC: It’s interesting that the Iranian musicians describe their music as “indie rock,” which isn’t a particularly political subculture in the U.S. It gives you a different appreciation of how art goes into different corners of the world.
BG: There is no doubt that the government officials in Iran know very well this kind of music is no threat to their national security. The reason they oppose it is because they also know very well that it is a way for the younger generation to vent and to let go of their energy. They actually are aware of the fact that it could be very constructive, that music could prevent them from falling into the traps of drugs or becoming alcoholic or stuff like that, but the reason they control it is because they want to control the energy that’s out there. They realize that censorship is a very good way of creating fear and creating control over the society. So they continue the stupid games, and in my opinion, within the past 31 years they have been very successful. I often ask myself, “Why is it that most of the lies come out of Islamic countries, and why is it that most of the social corruptions are in the Middle East and in these Islamic countries?” The answer is, when you control something, when you suppress something, people try to do it another way. If you tell a kid not to touch something a few times, that kid will make sure that he will find another way to touch it just to break the rules. Lying and corruption are in the Iranian society in all sense of the world, and if you do research about married women, you see that a lot of them tell you they get a lot of enjoyment from breaking the rules of corruption, because just for the fact that they break the rules it makes them oppose the system. Most of the things I said here specifically relate to Iran.
AVC: Bahman, music is obviously central to this film, and plays a very important role in a number of your films, including Marooned In Iraq and Half Moon. What is it that draws you to that subject?
BG: I love music, I come from a region of Kurdistan that is a base for music. The big pillars for Iranian traditional music are based on music by Kurds from Kurdistan. Ever since I was a kid, I would fall asleep on my mother’s lap and she would sing to me. This is the first sound that I remember. Often I would say this to Iranian officials when they were trying to censor female singers. I would say to them, “If you’re claiming that music by women is not legal or not according to Islam, then why would God create women, and why would God give women such beautiful voices?” I believe that singing is mostly for women, and women have a better voice. Music has always been my issue, and in my previous films I could not directly deal with it because I was censoring myself and I was afraid. When I made this film, I was aware that I would not be able to go back to Iran, but it was worth it very well for me to not return.
AVC: Because you preceded this film by trying to make a film that didn’t happen, did you have the sense that you weren’t going to be able to continue in Iran anyway, so you should just make this film free of restrictions?
BG: I want to stress the point that I was sure about not being able to go back, and I was aware of the risk that it involved. But I also want to say that I didn’t leave because I wanted to leave. Me and all the musicians and artists who are in exile now left because we had to leave. We were made to leave. I left because I couldn’t lie anymore. For that reason, if you want to be honest and stay truthful, you have no way in that society and in that system. I knew if I didn’t leave, I would be like Jafar Panahi, who would either literally be thrown in jail or be in some kind of prison for the last five years, like he was for not getting a permit to make his films—not getting a permit is actually being in jail. I want to say that God made them free. We were all born free, and we’re in such bad conditions that even God with all his grandeur did not dare to control people and tell people what to do and what not to do. People control their own ways. But now we’re being controlled by some other human beings who dare choose for us what to do.
AVC: Roxana, when did the filming of No One Knows About Persian Cats take place with regard to you being imprisoned?
RS: I think they started filming in December. It was 2008, because I was in prison January 31, 2009, so I had seen one of the initial cuts and given my opinions. Some of them they took into account, some of them they didn’t [Laughs.] That’s where things were when I was in prison.
AVC: Did you discuss this sense that Bahman’s time as an artist who was able to work in Iran was coming to an end, and did that affect your sense of being able to function as a journalist?
RS: I knew that he wanted to go when the movie was done, and I was also getting ready to go too, because my book was almost done and I just was ready to go on to the next chapter of my life. I think the timing was pretty appropriate for us.
BG: Everything happened accidentally between us getting to know each other and the coincidence of her book being written at the same time as my film. She was a journalist and she was under more pressure than I was because her journalism permit was taken away. She was looking for a way out and so was I. We were basically in the same situation, which is something that I call mutual pain. This mutual pain is not just between me and Roxana, it’s shared with the whole society and this generation and these kids. It’s very unconscious. It’s nothing that was planned. Our making the book and film was not at all planned. We as artists are like mothers that have to do something about our art. We either choose to keep it and give birth to it, or we choose to do abortion. In our case, we chose to give birth to our work. The Iranian society also is like an artist that had to give birth to its child. After 31 years, after the presidential elections in June, this fetus was born finally.
AVC: Bahman, you’ve talked about this film not being seen in Iran. I don’t imagine Roxana’s book is being translated into Farsi anytime soon.
RS: It might be. Not yet. It would have to go in unofficially.
AVC: So as artists, and people who are trying to tell these stories but can’t access the people that they’re about, what position does that leave you in?
RS: Actually the movie is seen underground in Iran.
BG: We actually found a lot better way to make the film viewable and accessible. I put it on high-quality DVDs and I sent it out to people with the message that, “This is free for you, feel free to make as many copies as you’d like.” This is a way for us to push the system, this is our wave, and this film has had a lot more viewers than my previous film had. Roxana’s book, I’m sure she’s thinking about getting it translated to Persian. I think our next shared work will be on her book, Between Two Worlds. We have a mutual friend, Guillermo Arriaga, who is the writer of Babel and 21 Grams, and he has read the book and we may make it into a movie.