Rebel Filmmaking About Rebel Music
Arguably, the story of making this film is far more interesting than the film itself. It was filmed in under three weeks, constantly hiding from the Iranian police. The filmmakers literally left the country after they finished, because this movie does not exactly paint Iran in the best light. Certainly it doesn't completely espouse noble Muslim principles. After all, just about every character in the movie is breaking the law and doesn't mind even a little. They are trying to live their lives the way they want to and play the music they want to, and the Iranian government isn't going for it. We're talking about a society so distanced from the one we know that a character refers to 50 Cent and Madonna as "indie rock." And the movie knows that it's funny. This is not exactly the view of the Islamic Republic of Iran that they want outsiders to have. But that's okay, because I'm an American woman, and they don't want anything to do with me at all.
Ashkan (Ashkan Koshanejad) and Negar (Negar Shaghaghi) have an indie rock band. They're actually not bad in a mid-2000s kind of way, and they want to get out of the country and play a concert in London. However, that is essentially not possible unless they find their way through the depths of the Iranian black market. (One hesitates to call the system "byzantine"!) They meet up with Nader (Hamed Behdad), a promoter or something, who promises to get them out of the country. They are not the only ones looking to get out, though there are also plenty of people who have no problem with staying in Iran, provided they're allowed to play their music. The band, "Take It Easy Hospital," needs two passports and five visas to get out. So they visit a little old forger, the cutest character in the movie but whose name I don't know. They also meet up with all sorts of other secret bands throughout Tehran as they get ready to leave the country.
Actually, the bands are the best part of this movie. In some ways, this would have done better as a documentary about the underground music scene of Tehran. Since Take It Easy Hospital sings in English, they would have been indistinguishable from many groups playing on college radio stations around the country ten years ago. We get Iranian heavy metal and Iranian rap. A very Leonard Cohen-y group with a snarling, Tom Waits-ish singer. Probably most of the music these people play comes from styles they only encountered from music smuggled into the country and sold on the black market, but however they found it, this was music which spoke to them, and they adopted the styles for their own. They speak of their fondness and frustration, their love of the city and their hatred of the oppression. It's a wide range of music, and most of it is very good. Even when I don't quite like the genre, the songs in this movie are good examples of it. There's also an adorable sequence with small children playing air guitar.
It is difficult for me to find information about what has happened to these people since 2009. Okay, the film won a prize at Cannes. But the actual people in the movie are almost all playing themselves, and being in this movie put them in danger. Ashkan spent three weeks in an Iranian prison before the filming of this, "sleeping next to a serial killer." The kind of party where you play Iranian techno is not the kind of party the authorities much want you to be having. The movie was filmed without a permit; well, they wouldn't have gotten a permit for making a movie like this. This is an extremely risky film made under extremely difficult circumstances, and taking that into consideration, this is a very good movie indeed. But I want to know what happened next, and because these people are Iranian, it seems that the media I can access in English--because, you know, I don't speak Farsi--has no interest in telling me the musicians' fates. If, indeed, we know them, I guess.
It seems, at first blush, perplexing that so much fuss is being made over just wanting to make music. However, the history of music is full of occasions wherein it has more of an influence than anyone could possibly imagine. The title refers to the fact that pet cats are, for reasons I do not know, illegal in Iran. (A symbol of the monarchy? I guess?) However, people do still have them, and in general, people turn a blind eye. Similarly, no one can miss that heavy metal band. (Some of the funniest bits in the movie are the cows' reactions.) However, as long as they're just practicing in a cowshed somewhere, the government doesn't interfere. Though maybe they should have, given that the entire band comes down with hepatitis. The musicians think of themselves as innocent, and on an individual basis, they are. But if you are trying to control the hearts and minds of a population, one of the most important things to control is the music.