A film co-scripted by U.S.-Iranian journalist Roxana Saberi premiered at the Cannes Film festival Thursday, and her partner — the film's director, Bahman Ghobadi — flew from Tehran to the French Riviera for the red-carpet premiere.
"No One Knows About Persian Cats" looks at the risk of censorship and prison faced by Iranian musicians — and other artists, as Ghobadi and Saberi know all too well.
Saberi, who worked for news outlets including U.S. National Public Radio and the BBC, was freed from an Iranian prison Monday after serving four months of an eight-year sentence for allegedly spying for the United States.
Ghobadi announced last month that he is Saberi's fiance. Her family did not confirm the pair were engaged but said they were close friends.
The filmmaker said Saberi was saddened not to be in Cannes with him but was worried about her parents, who had traveled to Iran from their home in North Dakota while she was imprisoned. He said the family hoped to fly out of Iran for the U.S. as early as Thursday night.
But in Iran, Saberi's father, Reza, and one of her lawyers, Abdolsamad Khorramshahi, denied the family was leaving Thursday night. They reiterated that the family planned to depart in the next few days.
Ghobadi attended the film's red-carpet premiere with cast members, including Negar Shaghaghi and Ashkan Koshanejad — Iranian musicians who play fictionalized versions of themselves in the film.
The director paid tribute to the cast for helping him regain his creative energy after a long-planned project was blocked by Iranian authorities. Ghobadi has also had previous films banned in Iran.
He said he met the two musicians while he was jamming in a recording studio in a bid to lift his gloom, and they taught him "how I can make a film without permission, like underground music."
The resulting film was shot covertly in just 17 days.
"I was very apprehensive during the filming," Ghobadi said in an interview released by the film's producers. "We had no permission. The scouting was done using two or three motorbikes and we began filming without any real preparation. The scenes had to be shot at high speed, so the police couldn't spot us."
The crew was arrested twice during the shoot, but Ghobadi said they managed to bribe the police with DVDs of his previous films.
"I feel as if I aged 17 months during the 17-day shoot," he said.
The result of the undercover filming is a fast, often funny film set amid the highways, high-rises, run-down buildings and basement dives of Iran's sprawling capital.
The film centers a pair of indie musicians who have both spent time in jail for running afoul of Iran's conservative cultural guardians. It follows them as they assemble a new band while trying to acquire the vital visas and passports that will let them leave Iran for Europe.
Performed largely by nonprofessional actors, the film winds a lively path through Tehran's diverse music scene. We meet rockers, rappers, crooners and a heavy metal band that rehearses in a cowshed.
The characters are memorable, from the young musicians, with their Joy Division and Kurt Cobain posters, to a movie-mad DVD bootlegger with pet birds named Scarlett and Rhett.
They make their music on rooftops, self-built shacks and soundproofed rooms to evade the authorities, who have declared many forms of Western music in violation of the country's strict Islamic Sharia law.
Nevertheless, a music scene thrives in Iran.
"There are 2,000 rock groups in Iran," one character in the film says, while perusing a list of banned singers.
Ghobadi, an Iranian filmmaker of Kurdish origin, has won several prizes at European and Asian festivals for his films, which include 2004's "Turtles Can Fly" and 2005's "Half Moon."
His debut, "A Time for Drunken Horses," won the Camera d'Or award for best first feature at Cannes in 2000.
Despite his growing international acclaim, Ghobadi said, "I'm 100 percent sure this film won't be released in Iran."