There are two films playing in New York City that are directed by Iranians. Playing at the IFC Center (I downloaded it on Time-Warner, where IFC films are generally available), No One Knows About Persian Cats is first rate. Directed by Iranian-Kurd Bahman Ghobadi, this is the story of rock musicians in Tehran trying to avoid the authorities. It is perhaps the best explanation of why so many young people rose up against the Islamic thought police last year.
I had high expectations for Shirin Neshat’s Women without Men since she is a long-time expatriate leftist opponent of the Islamic Republic, especially since the movie is set in 1953 during the coup against Mossadegh. Unfortunately the movie is hampered by a screenplay based on a magical realist novel by Shahrnush Parsipur.
If Persian Cats consisted of nothing but the musical performances that are interspersed throughout the film, it would be worth the price of admission. They serve as a kind of introduction to the varieties of the country’s music, much as Fatih Akin’s Crossing the Bridge did for Turkey. Unlike Turkey, however, the young musicians are hounded underground by the authorities as if they posed as much danger to the system as political subversives. In a way, there is a basis for their fears considering rock-and-roll’s long-time anti-authoritarian impulses.
The movie stars a young musician named Ashkan and his girl-friend Negar, who are played by Ashkan Kooshanejad and Negar Shaghaghi—musicians and lovers in real life. Ashkan’s goal is to tour London but unless he secures a fake passport and visa, he is out of luck. The plot of this movie revolves around this quest and their efforts to line up sidemen who turn out to be real-life underground musicians in Tehran.
Ashkan and Negar rely on the help of Nader (Hamed Behdad), a fast-talking hustler (but not dishonest one) who introduces them to a fake passport maker and various musicians. Nader is a comic character who functions like a spark plug in the film. His manic energy and braggadocio reminded me of Mickey Rooney in one of his “let’s do a musical in the barn” movies. In one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, Nader tries to talk himself out of 75 lashes and a stiff fine in a cop’s office. His apartment has been raided and alcohol and foreign DVD’s turned up, a grave offense to the authorities. He says that the alcohol was only meant for an Armenian friend (a Christian ethnic group) and the DVD’s were for his personal use. All 10,000 of them, asks the cop?
Perhaps some of you saw an excerpt from the movie when it went viral. It is a performance by rapper Soroush Lashkary who uses the stage name Hichkas. It is great:
Playing at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema, Women without Men was shot in Morocco. The director Shirin Neshat has a background as a visual artist and this, her first film, had me captivated by its images even if the story left me confused and frustrated most of the time. It is obvious that Neshat has much more interest in imagery than story-telling since the film lacks exposition and meaningful dialog. To what extent this is the fault of the original material it is impossible for me to say.
One particular element of Neshat’s movie left me totally annoyed. In the beginning of the film, Munis—one of the five featured women victimized by male chauvinism—has jumped off a roof because her religious fundamentalist older brother has made her life impossible. Without explanation, Munis then shows up again in the middle of the movie as an anti-Shah activist whose devotion to the cause might have something more to do with her attraction to a young and handsome Communist Party member. The NY Times described this as a “magical realist trope”. Well, okay. Why not have her transformed into an 18 foot serpent that devours the Shah’s thugs while we are at it.
Despite the backdrop of the coup, the movie contains very little political dialog even among the Communists, who devote themselves to passing out leaflets on doorsteps in the dead of night. Neshat’s main interest, and ostensibly that of the novel, is to dramatize the suffering of women in a traditional society. Such a movie, of course, needs to be made especially in light of this one’s shortcomings.