SXSW cinema

Movies: The Iran That Hates Gays, Women, and Wannabe Rockstars

By now you know we’ve sent Daniel Villarreal to South By Southwest to scope out all that’s gay (and gay-ish), and he’s just filed his first report from Austin about the film No One Knows About Persian Cats, a little ditty about oppression in Iran.

To any artist who’s ever worried that their personal passions or sexuality would jeopardize their work, director Bahman Ghobadi’s newest film No One Knows About Persian Cats is for you. The “Persian cats” of his film are three friends (optimistic Ashkan, pessimistic Negar, and their motormouth pal Nader) who long to escape the ultra-conservative theocratic regime in Tehran to pursue their music in London. They must sneak through soundproofed ramshackle studios, underground apartments, and the local black market to find more band members and score fake passports without getting arrested, whipped, and fined the brutal Iranian authorities, which sounds like the sick script to a new Playstation game.

But their struggle challenges viewers to ask: How far would you go to pursue your one true passion?

The Iranian government is hostile to female soloists and Western rock— they’ll never grant Ashkan, Nedar or their friends permits to hold public concerts and rehearsals. Many of them have been arrested at least once or twice, imprisoned for months, and their instruments confiscated. Each music lover responds in different ways: a heavy metal group practices in a cattle farm far away from the city; the rappers practice in a construction site; the indie rockers play in a basement studio when the neighbor’s away. None of them can give up their art, but none of them want to suffer anymore than they already have to for it.

The film’s split between the underdeveloped story of Ashkan, Nagar, and Nader’s travails as their departure becomes less and less certain and a series of music videos showing scenes from modern Tehran (exhausted shop owners hustling panties, a woman in a shroud mouthing a prayer, business suits, and burkas walking around construction sites) set to R&B, world, rap, indie rock, and heavy metal music. The music forms the film’s emotional core—even though they’re all genres you heard better on American shores, the Iranian adaptation isn’t mere adolescent mimicking; it’s an political act of rebellion.

The U.S. and Iran may may be enemies in the popular media, but Iran’s brutal theocracy and America’s ultra-conservative right wing are total BFFs when it comes to crushing any sexuality or self-expression that challenges their “traditional” religious authority. No One Knows About Persian Cats reminds you that your art’s not only a weapon against authority, is also both an escape and your ultimate destination.