New York–Musicians in Iran must navigate a minefield of Islamic censorship. They risk being sentenced in Revolutionary Court to years in prison if they perform and distribute “Western” genres of music–especially if their lyrics criticize the regime.
Visiting Iran as a tourist two weeks before the election, I wanted to meet up with some Tehrani Hip Hop musicians in Laleh Park. Sadly, it was too risky. They were being monitored. But later, other members of the Iranian artistic underground that I met online enabled me to interview filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi in person, in New York. This was his first interview with American press after leaving Iran.
Ghobadi chose to speak in English, without a translator present. Although, Ghobadi did call Roxana Saberi, his girlfriend and co-screenplay writer, for the translation of a Persian word he repeated with glee. “Tajrobi” means “experimental.”
What was it like shooting your film about the underground Iranian music scene, Nobody Knows About The Persian Cats?
BG: This was small and fast shooting. This film was shot in 17 days with a small camera and a very small crew. We did not have permission to make this film, so we felt distress. We were so nervous–maybe the police were coming and we would get caught. You can feel this from the way the camera looks around.
You include tracks by the rapper, Hichkas, in this film. Fred Khoshtinat made Hichkas’ “Ye Mosht Sarbaz (Bunch of Soldiers)” video.
BG: Fred helped me a lot with his good ideas and with his editing. He’s so fresh. I told my editor we needed Fred’s video clips in the film. Fred edited all of the music video clips.
Mahdyar Aghajani, the musician who produced Hichkas’ album, Asphalt Jungle, told me he’s also working with you.
BG: I am so happy I met Fred and Mahdyar. They’ve influenced my film with their music. They have given me a new window. They’ve given me a gift.
Maydyar is producing your album?
BG: Yes, and he makes big changes to my music. Mahdyar breaks everything and puts it back together in an experimental way. I tried to make music with the ‘best composer’ in Iran. But Mahdyar is so tajrobi. My music is like that–experimental. Just go and sing. Roxana, my girlfriend, encourages me. She told me, “Just play the music. Don’t be sad.”
I am also finding a new window with painting.
Some of the best filmmakers have shown an interest in paintings. Antonioni also did.
BG: In school in Kurdistan, I made figurative paintings. I went to the mountains and painted. My paintings are not professional. They are so tajrobi.
Your films have great compositions within the frame of the screen. I love the scene in Half Moon where you show only the legs and feet of a man and woman who are dancing together behind a school bus, and then they kiss. The gestures–the position of their legs and the way her extended leg begins to shake–communicate the kiss. It’s much more subtle than a Hollywood kiss, and in a way, far more intense–although, filming it that way may have been the result of repressive censorship.
BG: Since I was 18 years old, I’ve been making films. I was nervous 90% of the time about censorship. When I was writing a script, my mind was not free. Every day I had to go to the Ministry of Culture. For 10 hours, I was waiting at the Ministry of Culture. I was not thinking about the storyboard of the film. All of my time, I was like a soldier in the Ministry of Culture. I’m sick, I’m angry about that. All of my films, I was angry. I’m so sad. I didn’t know a happy time in my life.
Musicians in Iran are also monitored by Ershad, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. How did you find the musicians for Nobody Knows About The Persian Cats?
BG: I met Babak Mirzakhani. He has a band, Mirza. He found Ashkan Khushanejad and Negar Shaghaghi, who co-founded the indie rock band, Take It Easy Hospital. Bobak was like a flashlight, finding musicians for me. If you go to Tehran, most of them stay underground and play their music. They don’t send their music over the internet.
Not only may musicians be arrested and imprisoned in Iran for performing forbidden genres of music, it is illegal for women to sing solo publicly before a mixed audience of men and women. That would make things difficult for Take It Easy Hospital, since they are performing “Western music” and the lead singer, Negar, is female.
BG: Ashkan and Negar left for the UK. A thousand bands live in Tehran. Many of them want to leave. They have a dream to go to the street and play the music–to have that freedom. That would be better for them.
Your girlfriend, journalist Roxana Saberi, was imprisoned in Iran earlier this year on accusations of espionage. She was released from Evin prison after she went on hunger strike, you sent a letter pleading for her release, there was an international outcry, and concern was voiced by President Obama and by Secretary of State Clinton and the U.S. State Department. Is it true that the Iranian government put you in prison after they released Saberi?
BG: At Cannes, people said, “Don’t go back to Iran.” And my next film project is in Germany. I had to find locations in Germany, casting in Germany. Why would I go back to Iran? I wanted to learn English–go to London, go to New York. Two years ago, the American government gave me a green card, making it legal for me to work in the United States.
Before, Iranian government officials told me in the airport, “Come to my office.” Another day, Ettela’at, Iranian Intelligence agents, confronted me and said, “Why do you give interviews to foreign press!?” I told them, “This is normal. When you make films, you give interviews.” They told me, “Leave this country forever.” I told them, “No, this is my country. Why do I have to take my suitcase and go?”
On June 2nd, my friends said, “Don’t go through the airport.” I wanted to visit my mother, and friends. I went into Iran from Kurdish Iraq. I got 200 kilometers into Iran, but near Kurdistan the Ettela’at got me. They covered my eyes and put me inside a truck. I think I was in Hamadan, then Tehran. I believe they wanted to keep me hidden because they were afraid that if the Kurdish people knew I was there, it might cause problems with some plans for the presidential election.
So you were detained for more than a week, but not officially imprisoned?
BG: They can’t send me to jail.
Why not? They’ve sent a lot of people to jail.
BG: (Ghobadi smiles, and his eyes sparkle, but he does not answer.)