The Perils of Artistry on the Streets of Tehran: No One Knows About Persian Cats as drama documentary

As promised at last night’s screening, below is my essay on No One Knows About Persian Cats. I didn’t want to be responsible for the death of many trees, considering that not all would read it, so didn’t print it out. I haven’t jazzed it up with pictures or anything. Just straight up words.

Enjoy…

Bill Nichols opens his book Blurred Boundaries: Questions of meaning in contemporary culture by stating: ‘A variety of evidence… points to a pervasive hunger for information about the historical world surrounding us. But our hunger is less for information in the raw than for stories fashioned from it’ (Nichols 1994, ix). This essay is going to focus on this development with reference to the drama documentary as a format in which supposedly ‘true’ or ‘real’ events are embedded into an emotionally engaging fictional story in order to project their significance to a wide audience that may not necessarily want to be lectured through the form of a traditional documentary. The drama documentary can use this engaging, dramatic vessel as a way of revealing an issue in the world that has very real ramifications for people’s lives. Bahman Ghobadi’s 2009 film No One Knows About Persian Cats (NOKAPC) will be investigated for how it utilises some of the techniques revealed in earlier incantations of the drama documentary. It will be revealed how Ghobadi uses this film to raise some of the repressive issues of life in the Iranian capital of Tehran.

NOKAPC is set and filmed in Tehran, without any legal authorisation or appropriate filming permit[1]. It is based primarily around the efforts of two musicians, Ash and Negar (both played by themselves, as are all the musicians throughout the film), who are trying to get together the paperwork they need in order to leave Iran, so that they are free to work on their music in peace. During this process they come across bands and musicians in all corners of Tehran. The very opening of the film is pivotal to setting up both their motivation, as well as immediately blurring fact and fiction. Before any footage is shown, we see the caption ‘Based on real events, locations and people’. Then the very first scene features Ash being rushed through hospital. This is a scene that chronologically fits into the end of the story and shall be covered in more detail later. This is then directly followed by a scene in a music studio where, in direct extra-textual reference to the supposed reality of the situation, the studio owner tells a friend that the individual currently recording is Bahman Ghobadi, who is unwinding, between trying to create his film. He rather openly and blatantly declares that “he is making a film about the underground music scene in Iran”, and recites Ghobadi’s motivation: “It started with the show near Tehran. They arrested 400 people”. This instantly explains to the audience the perils of undergoing such activity, which is common throughout the film; during many conversations the audience is didactically informed of statistics, reasons for imprisoning, neighbours working as police informants, prices for forged documents and many other examples. His friend asks: “with professional actors?” To which he replies: “No, there aren’t any. You know Ashkan and Negar? They’re in it”. So this one conversation helps set up the things at stake for the characters involved, as well as informing us that those playing these characters face these very issues in their real life.

The self-referentiality found in that opening scene, and the casting of real people as themselves in fictional films has a strong reputation in Iran, as Hamid Reza Sadr (2006) notes, highlighting such films as Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Kandahar (2001), Abolfazl Jalili’s Delbaran (2002) and Samira Makhmalbaf’s Five in the Afternoon (2003), all of which he explains fuse fact and fiction. Further, Lloyd Ridgeon refers to Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s A Moment of Innocence (1996) as ‘a tapestry that weaves real events with pure fiction…. a work of “factasy”’ (Ridgeon 2003: 152). This blurring of fact and fiction often correlates with the political ramifications of filmmaking in the region, as films take on a much more direct address when they’re not treated as mere items of passive consumption. Not only are the stories they are telling oppositional, but the very act of creating them is too. This is illustrated clearly by the recent six year jail sentence and twenty year filmmaking ban placed upon Jafar Panahi (see Bradshaw 2010). This international reputation that the Iranian authorities have imposed on themselves is all too clear in NOKAPC, not only from this extra-textual knowledge, but directly referred analogically within the text via direct comparison with the dangers that the musicians face in creating their art.

Before going further into specific examples from NOKAPC, it is important to look at the emergence of drama documentary. The form really came to prominence along with a number of other fundamental developments in documentary filmmaking during the 1960s. According to Brian Winston, Cinema Verité and Direct Cinema were changing notions of the audience’s relationship with the real, by utilising more naturalistic documentary techniques. He places drama documentary’s emerging popularity amongst these developments: ‘It is possible that this Direct Cinema triumph was aided by the emergence during these same decades of ‘drama documentary’, or ‘docudrama’, which combined the use of actors, scripts and sets with legitimacies of prior witnessed events and, often, documentary-style shooting and editing’ (Winston 2000: 24). Amongst the changes he refers to, drama documentary is perhaps the most interesting as it isn’t simply something that adapts the documentary, but is openly a fictional narrative. Yet, rather than unproblematically taking its place as a fictional text, the either implied or stated direct reference of the film’s content to real life experience gives these fictional texts an extra element of realism, an extra truth-claim. It is problematic in that the dramatic, scripted setting can be used with complete artistic license in order to intentionally situate the emotional reaction of the audience with respect to the film’s content. It is this dramatic focus that is significant for drama documentaries’ influence and access to a wider audience, as noted by John Corner: ‘the particular dynamics of narrative which ‘dramatisation’ allowed, together with the distinctive aesthetic and affective properties of the viewing experience offered, also suggested themselves as advantages in gaining and holding a popular audience.’ (Corner 1996: 31). It is this aspect that is so pivotal when assessing the international success of the Iranian films referred to above, as well as that of NOKAPC.

It must be noted that there is a more contentious issue in drama documentary. The vague criteria of it being a fictionalised narrative based on actual events opens up the format for wide interpretation and potential abuse, particularly evidenced by instances of Hollywood spectacle that are far removed from real events, yet still claiming a reference to historical actuality. One such example is U-571 (Jonathan Mostow, 2000), which controversially changes historical events to reflect positively upon American naval forces.[2] Rather than attempting to disprove certain texts as drama documentaries, it is sufficient to say that there is a more culturally and critically valuable property that will be focused on in this essay; this is the drama documentary with a strong bearing on challenging dominant culture or exposing miscarriages of justice. To understand how this works in NOKAPC John Corner’s reading of the seminal text Cathy Come Home (Ken Loach, 1966) will be investigated, as will Michael Renov’s reading of Medium Cool (Haskell Wexler, 1969).

Corner describes Cathy Come Home as ‘being seen to be instrumental in developing public awareness of the problem of homelessness’ (Corner 1996: 90), which immediately sets the gravity of its influence, marking it out against the type of cinematic or televisual text that may, whilst being placed in a similar setting, be created merely for passive consumption. Not only does he focus on the way the statistics, lifestyle circumstances and characters are portrayed in such a way to be familiar to viewers, and to be thoroughly convincing – just like the didactic unveiling of statistics and information referred to above in NOKAPC – but he also focuses on how it utilises the conventions of narrative fiction in order to add more resonance to these truth-claims: ‘the intensity of emotions is registered by close-ups and shot-reverse-shot composition which, quite apart from the fact that the setting is her bedroom, generate a very different kind of depictive effect from that which any conventional documentary could achieve’ (Corner 1996: 95). NOKAPC creates its dramatic tension by illustrating the direct plight of the characters – who are themselves direct references to the ‘actors’ playing them – as creative artists operating in Tehran. The scripted drama that then works to transform this text from a lecturing documentary into an engaging, yet convincing and informative drama comes in several capacities. Along with Ash and Negar’s search for band members and forged documentation, there is noticeably, the fast talking Nader (Hamed Behdad), who is helps them and provides most of the comic relief and exposition throughout the film.[3] Referring back to the aforementioned opening scene, having Ash being rushed through a corridor on a hospital bed makes the audience anxious as to the eventual plight of this scripted character, as well as symbolically stating that this attempt at freedom is doomed from the very beginning.

This scene, along with Negar’s eventual suicide are fictionalised instances, scripted for dramatic potency. Yet, although symbolic, this clearly scripted element does not share the resonance of the real world that is illustrated around this script, which is synonymous with what Renov focuses on in his reading of Medium Cool, stating: ‘The setting or physical environment within which diegetic action transpires is normally considered to be one more or less coequal mise-en-scéne element… In this film, “place” (the summer 1968 Chicago setting) generates dramatic action and, in the end, annihilates it’ (Renov 2004: 28). What he implies is that the scripted drama of the characters’ relationships – ‘dramatic action’ – is completely overshadowed by the setting, just as the setting of contemporary Tehran overshadows the relationships of the characters in NOKAPC. Every band or musician they visit is situated somewhere different; a different place to hide in the urban maze of Tehran. From rooftop shacks, to underground rehearsal spaces, to hepatitis inducing cowsheds. Further still, the travelling between these spaces is generously documented with visceral cinematography – temporarily eschewing the realist aesthetic the film uses for its majority – showcasing the streets, the buildings and the people of this city. Noting what was mentioned above about the hazards of filming in public in Iran, especially considering how the film’s narrative emphasizes this through analogy with the risks the musicians take, these open and public scenes add an extra element of tension. None of these very ‘real’ considerations are more fully realized than the parts of the film that ironically use the least naturalistic aesthetics. Along with every band or musician’s showcasing of their musical talent, their art and their expression, the film similarly showcases its expressive ability, mimicking a music video format. These vignettes of artistic expression, though different in style in order to complement the specific musical offering, have one similarity; every sequence digresses from the characters of the narrative in order to showcase different elements of Tehran. It shows vast panoramas of the city, intimate close-ups of passers-by and snippets of street vendors, butchers and other workers. It shows the city by day and by night; in the streets, in houses and in classrooms. By affording such character to the city it can say something profound about the region; whether it is showing the dark side of homeless people sleeping rough, or smiling faces playing, it focuses on regular people getting on with their lives. It is as if Ghobadi is making a statement, as the film is critical of the authorities’ attempts to clamp down on artistry and self-expression, but also showing that it cannot be diffused. He is there creating this film, the musicians he finds are there creating music. This sense of defiance is replicated in the narrative by frequent references to the feeling of guilt brought on when artists leave their homeland.

This film follows a pedigree of drama documentaries that throughout different decades have sought out ‘real’ stories in the world that filmmakers deem worthy of a wide, international audience. Wrapping these exposures up in an engaging dramatic narrative serves to make the story more saleable to a wider audience, as well as being able to utilise artistic licence in order to emphasize an emotional truth that may not be able to be succinctly captured and portrayed with standard documentary techniques. This isn’t to imply that documentaries are not engaging, nor is it to imply that the truth-claims in drama documentaries come without their problems, but they do afford filmmakers an extra weapon in their arsenal of telling stories about history as it unfolds.

Bibliography

Bradshaw, P (2010) ‘Cry Freedom For Jafar Panahi’ on Guardian.co.uk [online] 21.12.2010 available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/filmblog/2010/dec/21/jafar-panahi-iran-director-ahmadinejad?INTCMP=SRCH accessed on 30.04.2012

Corner, J (1996) The Art of Record: A critical introduction to documentary Manchester: Manchester University Press

Nichols, B (1994) Blurred Boundaries: Questions of meaning in contemporary culture Bloomington: Indiana University Press

NOKAPC Behind the Scenes (2009) ‘Behind the Scenes of No One Knows About Persian Cats’ on No One Knows About Persian Cats [DVD extra feature] Network Releasing

Renov, M (2004) ‘The “Real” in Fiction: Brecht, Medium Cool, and the refusal of Incorporation’ In Renov, M (ed) The Subject of Documentary Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press pp21-42

Ridgeon, L (2003) ‘The Islamic Apocalypse: Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Moment of Innocence’ in Plate, S.B. (ed) Representing Religion in World Cinema: Filmmaking, Mythmaking, Culture Making Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan pp145-158

Sadr, H.R. (2006) Iranian Cinema: A political history London: IB Tauris

Winston, B (2000) Lies, Damn Lies and Documentaries London: British Film Institute


[1] Ghobadi declares in the DVD extra feature ‘Behind the Scenes of No One Knows About Persian Cats’ that he didn’t obtain any authorisation for the film. Although the perils of being caught doing this are great – as will be explained in this essay – he declares that ‘in this one I didn’t encounter even a twentieth of the anxieties… I enjoyed myself because I didn’t have to worry about getting authorisation’ (NOKAPC Behind the scenes, 2009).

[2] The film focuses on the cracking of the enigma code during the Second World War, and depicts US forces leading the efforts to capture the enigma cipher machine aboard a German U-boat. The action that this is based upon was in fact undertaken by British troops prior to the US joining the war. This type of rewriting history in favour of the values dominant at the time of its creation is in fact the opposite of the type of oppositional texts examined in this essay.

[3] This character is acknowledged as being the closest to a fictional scripted character. Yet Behdad  himself sings in a band in Tehran, which is also featured during the film (See NOKAPC Behind the scenes, 2009).

– Mike McKenny, Minicine Co-Director

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