Bust Blog Interview: Roxana Saberi, Iranian-American Journalist and Screenwriter of No One Knows About Persian Cats

by Phoebe Magee

Artistic expression requires a certain kind of bravery.  But “courageous performance” takes on weightier meaning in today’s Iran, where young people, with access to the internet, Vans sneakers, and their own wells of energy are by religious law prohibited from (among other things) starting their own rock band.  You think it’s hard to make it as an indie band?  Try it in Tehran.  That city, and it’s earnest, defiant, and illegal underground music scene, is the focus of Kurdish-Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi’s latest film, No One Knows about Persian Cats.  Shot without permission in the Iranian capital, the film captures, and celebrates, such forbidden activities as hosting a concert, and allowing a woman to sing alone in front of an audience.  At the center of the film are Ashkan and Negar a boy-girl self-proclaimed “indie rock” duo in search of other musicians, and a way out of their country.  Ashkan and Negar are played by two young Iranian musicians named Ashkan and Negar (Ashkan Kooshanejad and Negar Shaghaghi, of the group Take it Easy Hospital), and in general what happens in Persian Cats is all too close to real.  Of shooting the film, Ghobadi has said: “I had to be hidden like the people in the film.  Because I was making a film about a hidden subject, so I had to follow the current… Every location that I entered I tried not to go there again.  Because I didn’t want [Ashkan, Negar and the other musicians] to be in any kind of trouble.  I didn’t want the places that they had organized for themselves with such difficulty to be in any kind of risk…I was always fearing for the kids.”

            Ghobadi has gone to great lengths to let the world see a variety of Iranian talents, but by far the most recognizable name associated with the film is its screenwriter Roxana Saberi, who knows a good deal about courage herself.   The American journalist and former Miss Dakota was captured and sentenced to eight years in Iran’s Evin Prison last year under accusations of espionage, and in her plight attracted international attention and support.  Ms. Saberi co-wrote the screenplay for Persian Cats while she was still living and working in Iran.  She was arrested in her home a few weeks after shooting had finished, and was released one hundred days later.  Banned from reporting in Iran for the next five years, she has returned to the United States and is speaking up for the voiceless, using her visibility to attract attention to human rights violations in the country she left behind.  Here, she talks about Persian Cats, her recently completed book, and understanding a different side of Iran.

BUST:  How did you get involved with No One Knows About Persian Cats?

Roxana Saberi:  I knew Bahman [in Iran], and I’d seen him over several months having a lot of trouble getting permission from the government to make the film he wanted.  He was getting very depressed, and one day he got this idea to make a [different] film about underground music.  I thought it was a great idea.  I had also been working on a book at the time about Iranian society, and one of the sections that I was researching was the cultural sphere: musicians and artists and filmmakers.  So I asked, can I be a part of this too? And he said yes.  Along with Hossein Mortezaeiyan and Bahman I worked on the script.  We also had a friend who is in the film– he’s got a great voice, he sings “Tonight”.  [This friend] knew a lot of underground musicians and bands. According to some underground musicians there are two to three thousand underground groups in Iran, although its hard to say exactly how many.  So he introduced us to several groups…and we would listen to their music and decide which ones we liked and interview with some of the musicians.  We would go to where they practiced and see what the environment was like, and ask them what their lives were like: how do they practice, what limitations do they face, do their neighbors rat on them, what keeps them going? Because they can’t have permission from the government to put on public concerts, or to release albums officially, so what is it that keeps it going, this love of theirs? Based on their stories we got the idea for the film.  Especially after we met Negar and Ashkan.  When they said they wanted to go overseas to put on a concert, in real life, we thought: “this is a good idea for the movie, too.”

That line between fact and fiction in the movie is a bit blurry.  As a writer how did you approach that?

Basically the story is based on these underground musicians. And Ashkan and Negar in particular. In the movie the storyline is that [Ashkan and Negar] are looking for different musicians to join their band, to put on a concert, [and then they plan to leave Iran to put on a concert in London].  And [in real life] they said “we’re going to have to go at a certain date, we have to leave the country for a concert.”  And so we had to finish the filming by that date, because they wanted to go (laughs). 

            Overall, we wanted to show viewers the vast variety of music in Iran, and maybe a side of Iranian society that people don’t usually see.

I wanted to ask you about that, because as an American I was admittedly surprised about how easily I could relate to these characters, how global they seemed, how connected to the outside world; even when their government isn’t necessarily allowing that…

I think more and more young Iranians—and of course the youth make up a large part of the population, its said that about two thirds of the population there is under the age of thirty, so they never saw the revolution—more and more young Iranians are in touch with the outside world.  Because of technology–and many of them are tech savvy.  The government puts filters on websites but a lot of Iranis know how to get around the filters.  Although the restrictions have gotten a lot worse since the election last year.  And they travel abroad, they study abroad, they have family abroad, relatives overseas.

I got the sense from reading interviews with Ashkan and Negar that there may be a sort of generational divide between these young Iranis and their parents, or other older Iranis, over music—that the older generation may somewhat disapproving.  Did this seem true to you?

It depends.  If you’re talking about older people in the government… it really depends. Because I met some musicians whose parents were very supportive of their music.  There was one young woman I met who was a vocalist, and I think her mother had also been a vocalist but she had quit after the revolution because women are not supposed to sing as soloists in public unless they are singing in front of an all woman audience.  But her parents were supportive of her, and she was secretly teaching lessons to other vocalists, and lessons to men–which she was not supposed to do. And she was putting on underground concerts.  So I think it depends.  But Ashkan and Negar probably know a lot better than I from first hand experience.

Given what we usually hear about Iran in the United States, do you think American audiences will be surprised by the Iran they see in this film?

Yeah I think they will be. But I guess it depends on how much they know about Iran already and what kind of media they have been looking at.  A lot of times the media focuses on the nuclear issue, and on political issues.  And so these stories in the film are stories that are important to see, too.  Because we can learn a lot from these kids.  That despite obstacles they face in their lives they can still have hope, and they still have love to pursue, something that they are interested in.  And that’s music.  Which is a form of expression, and they are always pushing for freedom of expression.

Did you have a sense when you were making the movie that it could become a sort of educational tool or a political tool?

…I do certainly think that it could be an educational tool, mainly to show this side of Iran that isn’t usually seen. 

You grew up in North Dakota, but your father is Iranian.  Did you feel connected to Iranian culture growing up? 

I think I was exposed to it through my father and some of his Iranian friends who lived in North Dakota and Minnesota, but I didn’t speak the Farsi language much and it wasn’t until I grew older that I became more interested in my background, my father’s background.  Because as a child I was more interested in fitting in with my friends (laughs).  But as I became more interested, and I also wanted to be a journalist overseas, these two things combined and I thought Iran would be a great place to go to report, and also to learn about my father’s native country, to learn the language and help people. 

When you were in Iran you were studying culture and participating in filmmaking and it wasn’t necessarily… you were almost a little bit apolitical as a person there…

Oh yeah, I wasn’t involved in politics at all.

But then you got thrust into politics after you were jailed.

Politics in a way kind of permeates the lives of most Iranians, whether you like it or not.  Even the social and cultural can be political.  But yeah, I was I think thrust into the political scene with my arrest.

So in the aftermath of that, and now that you have this international attention, where do you go from here?  What do you do with that power?

 I don’t know if you know, but my book just came out: Between Two Worlds.  So I’ll be on a book tour for another month or so, around the United States.  I’m going to continue with that.  I have another book that I was working on when I was arrested and I never finished. That’s the one in which I was looking at the different sectors of Iranian society and I worked a couple years on that.  So if I can I would like to finish that up.  I feel like I’m very fortunate to be free, and to have had a lot of support, support that pushed my captors to release me.  I think this international outcry did have a big role in my ultimate release. But I think that my main message in the book, and maybe in the film too is that…  there are many innocent people who are still suffering (in Iran), and many of them are in jail.  Some of them are in a larger jail, not physical jail, but a more metaphorical jail created by the restrictions they face.  And I hope that similar international attention can be given to those people, and to human rights violations in Iran.

Do you have a sense of what the reactions have been in Iran, to your book or to this film?

The book I don’t know, because it hasn’t been released there. I don’t know if it’s going to translated into Farsi. I hope it will someday.  The film Bahman had released underground.  And I think a lot of people have seen it actually, maybe even more so than if he had released it in the cinemas.  Because it’s so easy to get films on the blackmarket there.  And he also said to Iranians, inside of Iran:  “this is a gift to you, don’t pay anything to watch this movie, but if you see young people around you who need help, young musicians, please help them.”  And so I think its been seen by a lot of people.  I know some reactions are, some Iranians say, “I didn’t know we had such talented kids!”  So I’m glad that they have had a chance to share their music with Iranians, and also the rest of the world.



Photos courtesy of IFC Films and the NPPA

Quotes from Bahman Ghobadi translated by Sheida Dayani





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