Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Iranian indie rock is cool for cats

It's tough trying to start a band. You've got to find the right members, write some decent tunes, find time to rehearse, market yourselves and get those all important gigs. A large percentage of bands never make it much past their first album, and those that do will still find super stardom a long way off.

If things are hard here, imagine trying to start a band in Iran. The struggles of Iranian musicians is the focus of Bahman Ghobadi's film No-one Knows About Persian Cats. The movie follows Nager and Ashkan in their attempts to organise their band on a tour of Europe. However before they've even started the odds are weighed against them. For a start, half their band are in prison. On top of that only one of them has a passport, and none of them have visas.

They are befriended by the smooth talking Nader, brilliantly played by Hameed Behdad. Passionate for the music, Nader attempts to help them find new bands members and stage a concert locally to raise money for the black market passports and visas. However even finding rehearsal space proves to be a massive problem, as unsympathic neighbours regularly snitch to the Police. They meet a heavy metal band whose practice space on a farm is brought to an end when one of them gets heptitus; an indie rock band who sit on their roof waiting for the neighbours to leave before they can steal 15 minutes of practice time; and a rap band who meet on the top of a building site to avoid prying eyes and ears.

Sadly, what starts as a brilliantly original and insightful film starts to trail off about half way through. Ghobadi is obviously passionate about the music coming out of Iran and turns it into a showcase of local bands, often at the expense of the story. Every few minutes we meet a new act, who play for a bit while shots of veiled women are intercut with wailing guitar solos. It might look pretty but it brings the narative to a complete standstill. Now and then Nager comes back in moaning about the passports as a limp reminder of the story.

The other problem with the film is that many of the bands are not that good. It seems a shame that they go to so much effort to play, but then just do a lame imitation of Western music. As Iran has such a strong cultural tradition it seems like a missed opportunity to not experiment in ways to fuse that with popular music. One scene where the bands members eagerly flick through a dog-eared copy of the NME is both charming and a bit sad. The world doesn't need yet another band that sounds like The Strokes. The world, and indeed Iran, needs an energised youth marking out their own territory.

Of course when the odds are stacked against you like they are in Iran, even picking up a guitar and playing a chord is a triumph. There's a great scene where the band share a traditional Iranian stew while dreaming of one day owning a Rickenbacker. While taking all this into consideration I still couldn't help but wish they had bit more originality in their ideas.

The film is an eye opener and makes you realise how much you take for granted. Despite its faults its great to see something like this on the big screen. Iran isn't all niqābs and prayer mats - many of the young people of Tehran are just as passionae about new music as you and me.

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