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In Iran, the Internet has become largely synonymous with the country’s underground music scene. “MySpace saved our lives,” he deadpans, offering a quick laugh before assuming a deadly serious tone. “There are not many things for young people to do in Iran, so the only thing that connects you to other people is the Internet, and that definitely separates them from the older generation.” He pauses, considering his words. “That’s exactly why Twitter was so important to the uprisings after last year’s election.”
Koshanejad is no stranger to Iran’s hard-line stance on the arts. Weaned on bootlegged black-market Nirvana and Radiohead albums in the ’90s, he taught himself to play a wide variety of instruments before joining the underground group FONT in 2004. As in the plot of Persian Cats, he was arrested in 2007 and imprisoned for 21 days for playing a concert. “Honestly,” he laughs, “it only convinced me I was doing the right thing.”
After being released from prison he met Shaghaghi. The two met Ghobadi in an underground studio in Tehran through mutual friends, and he was so fascinated by their story that he decided to make them the film’s protagonists.
Though Koshanejad shares Ghobadi’s frustrations with the Iranian government, he insists that his group’s music isn’t inherently political in nature: “We’re more about social issues, human relations, peace,” he says. “We don’t do it to make a political statement; the opposite actually. We want to erase all the borders on the map, and just come together as housemates in the same home. The best equipment—the best tool for that—is our music.
“We don’t want to only present ourselves as being representative of Iran. We’re really just like everyone else, we’re all the same, and that’s the exact message we want to bring. It doesn’t matter what your language, your country is. This film shows people that whatever language you speak, whatever you might see in the world media about Iran, the actual people of Iran are just like us, and just like you. The younger generation in Iran is absolutely different.” That zeitgeist shift was likely unavoidable: A large percentage of the country’s adult men died in the Iran-Iraq war, and the ’90s postwar population boom left present-day Iran with a population in which more than two-thirds of the country is under the age of 30.
Koshanejad personally sees Take It Easy Hospital’s music as more of a statement on the shifting sensibilities of Iran’s youth population than a political polemic: “The Iranian people are changing because generations change, and no one can stop that change,” he says. “I can’t predict what will happen tomorrow, or even next year. The current government might be in power for several years more, but it’s really only a matter of time.”
I’ll tell you the truth,” a man tells an unseen government official, as Koshanejad watches through a slightly ajar door. “Please sir, help me out. I admit it—the movies are mine. I’m really passionate about films and music. But there’s nothing objectionable about them. I’ve got Muslim films, religious films… Christ, Moses, Noah, all of them.” His pleas are ignored, so he begs: “On the life of Imam Hossein, please don’t give me 80 lashes!”
When I ask Ghobadi about his hopes for the role his film might play in presenting a new perspective on Iran to the rest of the world, he demurs: “There is a tale I know from my grandfather, from his grandfather, and so on. A tale that is in the bosom of every person who lives in the Middle East. When the great powers, the Western countries, came into the region, they were absolutely indifferent with the welfare of the people. Any kind of meaningful reform or supposed help was never substantial enough to lead to progress and reform. So for the last century, Iran has been at odds with indifferent superpowers that act primarily to serve their own interests. And at the same time, Iranians are now faced with the absolutely dictatorial, oppressive behavior of the current Iranian regime and individuals in it.”
As a measure of his conviction in confronting that regime, Ghobadi allowed the film to remain in public domain so that anyone in Iran can watch it online, circumventing the country’s censors. “It’s a way for me to fight an unjust and corrupt system,” Ghobadi says. “I refuse to be at the mercy of the Iranian government, who have total control over which movies can be shown and which can’t. And I will continue to fight for the sake of myself, for all artists and for the Iranian people, so that we may have a freer exchange of ideas across borders.”
Indeed, in Ghobadi’s film, Iranian underground cinema and music are a new and vital rallying cry from Iran’s youth against their government. In a nation where artistic expression is tightly controlled by the government, the country’s youth are supporting and identifying with dissident artists as a form of protest. Music, specifically Western music, has become a catalyst for Iran’s cosmopolitan young.
“Through this music,” Ghobadi says, “I wanted to show what is happening in Tehran. What the real face of Iran is. This is the first time that a filmmaker like me can make a film about music, after 31 years. I couldn’t before, because I was afraid of the government. But these young people in the underground music scene, they taught me to not be afraid. They’re the ones who are going to change Iran, and change the world.”