x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

From Iran to Cannes

Feature Bahman Ghobadi's latest film, No One Knows About The Persian Cats, was awarded a special prize in Cannes last month.

Bahman Ghobadi was born in 1969 in Baneh, a town in Iranian Kurdistan, near the border with Iraq.
Bahman Ghobadi was born in 1969 in Baneh, a town in Iranian Kurdistan, near the border with Iraq.

Bahman Ghobadi's latest film was awarded a special prize in Cannes last month. Whether or not the attention it garnered was a consequence of his famous fiancée, Antonia Carver explains why it is deserved.

"Whatever you do, don't ask about Roxana!" was the response from an editor colleague, when I mentioned I was due to interview Bahman Ghobadi. The Iranian film director was on the publicity trail in Cannes, with his latest film No One Knows About The Persian Cats. The portrait of Tehran's underground music scene, which opened Un Certain Regard, had the critics raving, and come the end of the festival, was awarded a special prize by the jury.

At the interview venue, one of those ridiculously sunny Cannes hotel terraces, Ghobadi was table-hopping around the poolside on his second day of back-to-back media. He finished his interview with the French TV crew and bustled over, setting his mobile down on the table with a flourish. "Roxana might call," he announced, double-checking the keys. His fiancée, Roxana Saberi, the Iranian-American journalist released from prison in Tehran a few days earlier - whose media ubiquity has afforded her single-name status - is apparently anything but off-limits.

The press was quick to seize on Roxana Saberi's credit as co-writer and executive producer on the film, and the media circus around her trial, imprisonment and release - which at one time threatened to derail the tentative US-Iran rapprochement offered by the Obama administration - has resulted in headlines proclaiming that "Roxana fiancé's film plays Cannes", a strange turn of events for Ghobadi, a household name in art house film circles and a regular on the Croisette.

At Cannes in 2000, A Time For Drunken Horses was a feast of firsts - Ghobadi's first feature, Iran's first Kurdish film, and winner of the Camera d'Or, the prize for first-time directors. A bleak portrait of a trio of orphaned children attempting to survive on the Iran-Iraq border, smuggling tyres with the help of mules and drinking alcohol to hurry them along in the harsh winter snow. Ghobadi himself was born in 1969 in Baneh, a town in Iranian Kurdistan, near the border with Iraq. He had pedigree, and had the intense apprenticeship of Iranian directors, making more than 11 shorts, including the award-winning Life In Fog (1997) and assisting legendary director Abbas Kiarostami on films such as 1999's The Wind Will Carry Us, which was the winner of a host of festival prizes. The new-wave emerging star's subsequent Kurdish-themed features, Marooned In Iraq, Turtles Can Fly, and Half Moon, were festival darlings and gathered awards from Chicago to San Sebastian, although distribution in Iran was limited.

In 2007, following the international success (but banning at home) of Half Moon, which tells the story of a group of Iranian Kurdish musicians trying to put on a concert in Iraq, he returned from the usual festival tour to Iran, intent on making his first film in Tehran, where he'd been based since studying at the Iranian Broadcasting College in the early 1990s. "For three years, I was waiting for permission to shoot 60 Seconds About Us," Ghobadi told The National in Cannes. "I was depressed, I was giving up." It was the discovery of the Tehran underground - literally, most of the bands rehearse in basements - that was his salvation.

Ghobadi's pent-up frustration, delight in working for the first time with a digital camera (he had previously shot on 35mm film), his subject and the music resulted in a radical change in his approach and style: "This film was made in 17 days, shot with the heart, the location scouting done by motorbike, the story written on location, every scene shot in one take." Something seems to have snapped in the director: where his previous films were restrained, with country-based characters, long shots and minimal dialogue, No One Knows About The Persian Cats lets rip. By necessity, this is filmmaking on the fly. Working without the necessary permits, the crew were arrested twice, and were released only through a mix of wasta (connections) and giving the police the director's previous films on DVD. (The musicians themselves took a huge risk in exposing themselves in the film; as scriptwriter Hossein Mortezaian Abkenar told AFP, in real life, they "basically face a ban over their lyrics, the kind of instruments they use or if the tune has a dance feel to it.")

The cinematic result of Ghobadi and crew's enforced filmmaking-at-100 kph is a passionate, rolling - if slightly flimsy - narrative and a rocking soundtrack. They are both a love letter to Tehran, and a devastating letter of protest to the censuring authorities. Ghobadi was introduced to the enormous music scene (one of the characters in the film estimates that there are more than 300 indie bands and 2,000 pop groups in Iran today) by the filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, who has made shorts about female singers and about young Tehrani musicians connecting on the internet. Amir Hamz and Mark Lazarz also previously covered the scene in their 2006 feature documentary Sounds Of Silence.

Ghobadi is also something of a musician himself: the film opens with him singing a song in an underground studio, the place where he met many of the musicians in the film, while the technicians talk about the film he's about to make. In reality, Ghobadi is recording his first album. As with many recent Iranian films that combine documentary and fiction, it's a case of art imitating life imitating art.

His stars are the young indie musicians Negar (Negar Shaghaghi) and Ashkan (Ashkan Koshanejad), in part playing themselves. In the film they have just been released from prison and are intent on forming a band, dreaming of a gig for family and friends in their hometown followed by a European tour. As one character says, "Our dream is to go to Iceland to see Sigur Rós!" Cue much delight and myriad questions to Ghobadi from an Icelandic reporter at the Cannes press gathering. Their search for potential band members, and the black-market permits, passports and visas necessary to perform and leave the country, is really just a narrative excuse for the viewer to indulge in some great music.

Negar and Ashkan meet Nader, a charismatic and effervescent music and DVD bootlegger played by the only professional actor in the film, Hamed Behdad. Talking nineteen-to-the-dozen, wheeling and dealing, often on the back of a motorbike weaving through Tehran traffic, Nader's energy is at the heart of the film, and provides some of its funniest moments - including a scene where he convinces a judge to reduce his sentence for possession of alcohol and fake American DVDs by exhausting him with a range of reasons and excuses. The absurdities of life on the run also had the Cannes critics chuckling: deadpan negotiations for black-market visas, which make up a mini-economy of their own, range from Dh18,400 for Europe to a bargain-basement Dh184 for a document allowing entry to Afghanistan.

A great discovery is the jazz singer Rana Farhan (shot out of focus, presumably to protect her identity as an illegal female singer), whose powerful, bluesy voice and Farsi soul songs deserve far wider attention. Likewise the folk-rock band Mirza, led by singer-songwriter and film soundtrack composer Babak Mirzakha. While most of the band members dream of leaving Iran to make their music elsewhere, rapper Hichkas is determined to stay. "Everything we have is here," he says in the film. "Our relationships, our friends, we grew up here." Ghobadi films him making a video for his Farsi hip-hop hit, Khoda Pasho (Wake Up God), on a half-built high-rise on a traffic island in Tehran, the camera soaring around him as he riffs on his refusal to leave his home city. A critic friend read much symbolism into this: Hichkas is the only musician depicted above ground in the wide-open city - indicative of hip-hop being the most contemporary genre in the film, and the rapper being the only character determined not to leave.

But Ghobadi, as both director and potential émigré, remains defiant. "You have to look at the film with four eyes," he obliquely explains. The ending of the film is moving and ultimately devastating for the characters involved and Ghobadi sees no future for himself in Tehran these days. "I don't want to go back," he said in Cannes. "I need to find time. I lost my life, my love, my filming. For 18 years I've been working on the red line." No One Knows About The Persian Cats, he says, is about "living in the crux" - about leaving for the sake of art, but the agony of abandoning all you know and the city you love.

Negar Shaghaghi and Ashkan Koshanejad left Iran two months ago, just as Ghobadi started to edit the film. They now live in London, and hope their starring roles in the film will catch the ear of a manager or agent. Ghobadi kept quiet when Roxana was first imprisoned, but later released an emotional plea ("a desperate call to all statesmen and politics") in the form of an open letter. He explained that he'd asked her to stay in Iran while he finished this film; that the book she was writing was in praise of Iran. At Cannes, he stressed that she'd persuaded him to attend the festival, for the sake of the film, the musicians and his own career. Rather than attempt the softly-softly, "it's a personal matter" approach, he'd opted to wear his heart on his sleeve and protect it by declaring his love for her and his film from the rooftops of the Croisette.

After all, for many artists and filmmakers battling censorship, it's only by raising the stakes to the highest level that they can be afforded some kind of protection. If the film had played in a sidebar amid the Cannes circus, or at a lesser festival - or, for the news reporters at least, without the political hook of Saberi's involvement - it is doubtful it would have garnered so many column inches and so much support, such is the reality of film reportage and critique in today's credit-crunched newspapers.

Now the film's journey has just begun - sold to several distributors, it'll be appearing in European cinemas over the next few months and will no doubt prove to be favoured film festival fodder. Ghobadi and his team will be working the scene, building up support for their film, hoping that by keeping it in profile they give a boost to the musicians who stuck it out back home. The title of the film, in Farsi, Kasi Az Gorbehayeh Irani Khabar Nadareh, refers to a little-known bylaw in Iran that attempts to prevent pet owners from taking their dogs and cats out in public. "Persian cats are expensive. They're like the protagonists in my film, without liberty and forced into hiding in order to play their music," said Ghobadi. "And when I visited the musicians, I noticed the cats liked to stand in front of the amps and listen."

Antonia Carver is editor-at-large of Bidoun magazine @email:www.bidoun.com