x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Everyone knows this Persian cat

Bahman Gobadi, the Iranian director whose latest docudrama, No One Knows About Persian Cats, is taking the film-festival circuit by storm talks to us.

If you look at Bahman Ghobadi's page on www.imdb.com, it looks like the Iranian director doesn't have much planned. His list of credits ends with No One Knows About Persian Cats, a high-spirited docudrama about Tehran's indie-rock scene co-scripted by his partner, the one-time jailed journalist Roxana Saberi. Beyond that, there's nothing, either in production or scheduled: the future is a wide, empty horizon. Yet by his own account, he has a bewildering array of projects in hand.

"I have two or three scripts now," he says in his rapid, slightly impressionistic English. He switches to Persian when the going gets rough, for instance when he has to explain what he's up to. "Next one is about an artist like me. He left Iran for ever. He went to stay in the West, like Germany or the US. This story is about that. But I have to stay there. I'm studying English. I'm searching every day with a taxi to know New York."

One of his scripts is about Iran: his interpreter for our interview, the Iranian director Pegah Ghaemi, explains that about 70 per cent of it is likely to be filmed in Iraqi Kurdistan. "I want to go there for shooting and change some streets on location to be like real Iran," Ghobadi says. And he wants to make two more films about musicians. "Music allowed me to change my point of view about cinema," he explains. This seems hard to deny: his earlier features - A Time for Drunken Horses and Turtles Can Fly - were solemn art-house exercises in the Kiarostami mode (indeed, Ghobadi used to be Kiarostami's assistant-director). Persian Cats is a rock show. "Now I am studying painting," Ghobadi says. "Maybe a few years later painting will open a new window again. I think all art can change my point of view."

It's easy to see why he might keep a few irons in the fire. His last film was shot in an illegal 17-day dash."A few pages, real locations, real people," he says. "And this time was for me like hospital, it was so relaxed. All of the groups, all of the music were like doctors for me." ("Like therapy," Ghaemi ventures.) But the adventure has left him in an awkward position with respect to Iran's censors.

"I don't want to go back there," Ghobadi says. "I don't have time for waiting there one or two, three years for permission- All the time they call you, 'Where are you? Where is your location? Who is your actress? Just remove this dialogue in your script.'" He sighs. "They don't give me permission," he says. "They want someone like me to be sat at home. I'm not talking about filmmakers: all of the artists, writers, painters, musicians- They play with them."

This only redoubles Ghobadi's desire to keep making films about them, and to have those films play to a big audience. MEIFF, though enjoyable, is too small and rarefied a stage for him. "I want to one day come back here to release to 10 cinemas, in two or three cities, for two months, not for a few days," he says. "It's important! I'm not talking about my film, I'm talking about a lot of artists. They show their works in my film. It's the first time. For me the first time I saw underground musicians in Iran was when I was shooting all of my groups. I think there's a new thing about in Iran - new energy, underground life in Iran." The problem is how to set it free.

"I can tell you [there are] like 10,000 bands and composers working at home, who don't show their works," he says. "They cannot release their works out there, like CDs, and sell, and make a concert. Their music is haram there." He addresses Ghaemi in Persian, and she translates: though all his other films have been about Islam, which is good because he's a Muslim, he was never allowed to make films about the problems artists have. Now that he has the guts to make films like this, he's happy.

He seems to have tapped into the mood of Iran, too. He made the film about six months before the election protests and it screened in Cannes just before things kicked off. For me, having never visited Iran, Persian Cats became the lens through which I tried to make sense of that explosion of youth and rebellion. The same seems to have gone for young Iranians. Speaking through Ghaemi, Ghobadi explains that his film proved to be a catalyst for underground cinema and underground music ? that lots of young people were now making films like his.

"This film is a protest," Ghaemi translates. "It's about the screaming of the young people. It's the same situation as was happening with the protests. His film was almost predicting what was going to happen. But the reality was, the young people in Iran were sick and tired. It was the same experience that he was having with his own life." And now Ghobadi has removed himself from Iran, spending his time in Paris, New York and Iraqi Kurdistan. What will come of his new freedom seems to be impossible to say. Here's hoping one of his projects will take shape soon. 10,000 Iranian musicians, and fans of fizzing, vibrant cinema everywhere, are counting on it.