Thursday, May 19, 2011

Keep on Rockin' in the Free World: From Society to Screen

Politically oppressive regimes threatened by the liberating power of rock ‘n’ roll are a key factor in two 2009 films set three decades and 1,500 miles apart. Christian Carion’s Farewell (originally L’Affaire Farewell) is a feature that chronicles a true 1981 cloak-and-dagger tale in Moscow, where a Russian KGB analyst’s teenage son cares more about David Bowie than Karl Marx. Nobody Knows About Persian Cats, a docudrama by Bahman Ghobadi, focuses on the many illicit indie bands dodging authoritarian rule in contemporary Tehran. Both productions make for potent cinema that transcends cultures and continents, much like music.

 The Velvet Underground helped inspire Czechoslovakia’s bloodless 1989 Velvet Revolution, apparently a designation that began to take hold among dissidents when a copy of the Andy Warhol-influenced band’s first album was smuggled into Prague 20 years earlier. In Farewell, French engineer Pierre Froment (Guillaume Canet) smuggles in a cassette of Queen’s News of the World, along with a Sony Walkman, at the request of a KGB mole, Sergei Grigoriev (Emir Kusturica). In a field far from prying government eyes and ears, his alienated adolescent, Igor (Yvgenie Kharlanov), mimics Freddie Mercury’s moves to “We Will Rock You.” 

But Sergei –  code name: Farewell – is less concerned with the tunes Igor likes than with the boy’s future under the dysfunctional Soviet system. An enlightened patriot, he commits treason to help his country change, refusing monetary payment in lieu of a few Western indulgences such as brandy, poetry books and decadent UK entertainment. The reluctant Pierre, on the other hand, has no motivation for participating in this dangerous scheme other than pressure exerted by France’s intelligence service. Neither man keeps his wife informed about the clandestine activities that imperil their families. The relationship that evolves through their furtive meetings is testy. How can spies with different ideologies trust each other? But the bond eventually becomes a sort of doomed bromance.

Emir Kusturica and Guillaume Canet in Farewell
The actors portraying the chief protagonists in Farewell are themselves directors. Serbian Kusturica (When Father Was Away on Business, 1985) is hangdog handsome, with an air of existential sorrow. Bearded and bespectacled, Canet (Tell No One, 2006) brings just the right measure of nerdy unease to his role. This odd couple keeps the suspenseful thriller in high gear, despite not a single car chase or explosion. A desperate dash for the border at a pivotal moment doesn’t quite qualify as a Hollywood action sequence.

Carion (Joyeaux Noel, 2005) also recruited an international smorgasbord of actors for the other characters: Fred Ward appears as President Ronald Reagan, who is busy watching The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance whenever his top aide (David Soul) wants to consult him on pressing global policy issues. CIA director Feeney (Willem Dafoe) is depicted as ruthless, reportedly not unlike that era’s actual top spook, William Casey. France’s leader, Francois Mitterrand (Philippe Magnan), navigates the competing or confluent interests with his American cowboy-wannabe counterpart. The wives of Pierre and Sergei – respectively, played by Alexandra Maria Lara and Ingeborga Dapkunaite –  are long-suffering. Europeans stars Benno Furmann and Niels Arestrup are also on hand with smaller speaking parts. Diane Kruger, Canet’s ex-wife, has a wordless cameo.

Sergei is a fictionalized version of Vladimir Vetrov, who managed to unearth a shocking list of spies who had infiltrated U.S. companies and bureaucracies to pass technological secrets to operatives behind the Iron Curtain. At one point in Farewell, it’s discovered that the enemy has even gotten hold of the schematics for Air Force One. This man’s sacrifice may have contributed mightily to perestroika, glasnost and the overthrow of communism by glam rock.

Unnamed hippie rcoker in Nobody Knows About Persian Cats
Gravel-voiced lead vocalist and guitarist Babak Mirzakhani explains that his band Mirza doesn’t indulge in politics or violate the Islamic moral code. But they sure can belt out the blues, as evident in “Emshab” on the Nobody Knows About Persian Cats soundtrack. The film includes several other dynamic tunes, even if many of them don’t have English lyrics. Foreign language is irrelevant when Rana Fahran (who emigrated to New York in 1989 and performed at the Toronto Opera House last year) delivers a sizzling, jazzy  “Drunk with Love” like a cross between Janis Joplin and Nina Simone. Back home, women are not allowed to sing solo in public.

In the film, Fahran is among the many Iranian artists seen at numerous underground recording studios, clandestine rehearsal spaces and jerry-rigged venues. The premise is that a young couple, Negar (Negar Shaghaghi) and Ashkan (Ashkan Koshanejad), hopes to obtain passports, visas and additional musicians so that their pop group, Take It Easy Hospital, can get to a promised London gig. They are given a tour of the outlawed indie scene by Nadar (Hamed Behdad), a fast-talking fixer who know his way around Tehran’s black market for banned goods and forbidden services. He’s cockeyed optimist, a CD and DVD bootlegger, a movie buff with pet birds name Scarlett and Rhett, but his bipolar intensity seems destined to be gone with the wind before long. Meanwhile, under Nadar’s tutelage Negar and Ashkan observe a cross-section of the rappers, folkies and heavy metal dudes who risk everything to pursue their dreams when secular creativity is discouraged with an iron fist.

Ashkan Koshanejad (in red) & Negar Shaghaghi (in polka dots)
Ghobadi (Turtles Can Fly, 2004) co-wrote the loose-knit script with his fiancee Roxana Saberi, a journalist and former Miss North Dakota who was imprisoned for three months in 2009 on a charge of espionage. Working without a permit, his methodology for Persian Cats was to shoot on the run using a little digital video camera as the cast reenacted real events. This guerrilla film-making bestows verite authenticity on a saga about people forced to live in the moment. Unfortunately, he cuts away from every performance to offer music-video montages of pulsating reality on the city’s streets. Probably for her own protection, Fahran is kept unnamed and out of focus during a brief snippet of “Drunk with Love.”

As in all those old movies with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, the Persian Cats kids decide to put on a show. This effort requires sprucing up someone’s apartment, which they guess would fit a crowd of about 400, and rounding up a plethora of candles to stand in for stage lights. In 2007, police arrested hundreds of enthusiasts in the town of Karaj for a similar act of defiance. Needless to say, such concerts are considered sinful in a land run by Ahmadinejad and the ayatollahs. Ghobadi’s tribute to artistic freedom premiered at Cannes, where it won an award, just weeks before the crackdown on widespread protests of a suspect presidential election. Ever since, there’s been scant news about how the more idiosyncratic citizens of Iran have fared, leaving us to wonder if even Mirza’s disavowal of rebellion could save them from being busted for singing the blues.

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

No comments:

Post a Comment