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Bahman Ghobadi Knows About “Persian Cats”

Bahman Ghobadi Knows About “Persian Cats” (photo)

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You hear people use the phrase “underground music” sometimes. Typically, they’re speaking metaphorically, but in “No One Knows About Persian Cats,” the term takes on an all-too-literal meaning. In modern day Tehran, the Iranian government has banned nearly all popular music, forcing young artists to write and play in secret, often in basements, where they stand their best hope of working free from governmental interference. The barely fictionalized film follows two aspiring Iranian musicians, played by Negar Shaghaghi and Ashkan Koshanejad from the band Take It Easy Hospital, as they try to assemble a new group for a European tour. Along the way they take in — and the movie documents — performances from almost a dozen different bands (from almost a dozen different genres) from the Tehran underground.

Music isn’t the only art form under assault from the current Iranian regime; popular Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi (“Crimson Gold,” “Offside”) has been imprisoned without cause since March 2nd, something “Persian Cats” director Bahman Ghobadi alluded to during our interview. Ghobadi has right to be worried for his colleague, and for himself. I spoke with Ghobadi in Manhattan, where he was joined by translator Sheida Dayani and his “Persian Cats” co-writer and fiancée Roxana Saberi, an Iranian-America journalist who’s had her own troubles with the Iranian government. Last January, she was abducted, accused and convicted of spying on behalf of the United States, and sentenced to eight years in prison. Saberi’s conviction was eventually appealed and overturned, and she was released, right around the time that Ghobadi took “Persian Cats” to the Cannes Film Festival, where it won a Special Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard sidebar.

The film introduces us to Negar in a recording studio, where the engineer tells her about the man who’s in the recording booth at that moment. He’s a film director, struggling with his new project about the Iranian underground music scene. In other words, it’s you. Is that how the project originally started?

It’s exactly how the film came to be. I always loved music and I always wanted to make a film about it, but I could never do it because of the censorship that was around. So when I went to one of these studios and met these kids and the underground music world, I decided this was the right time to do it.

04152010_NoOneKnowsAboutPersianCats3.jpgYou and Roxana are credited as co-writers of the film, but many scenes have an unscripted, documentary feel. How much of the film was scripted?

When we started shooting, we had about 20 or 30 pages of a script. But we kept getting ideas from the kids and the bands that we met. I didn’t change any locations and I didn’t change any people. Everything was real. Ninety-five percent of the time, I was truthful to reality. The other 5% is just humor that I added because I didn’t want the film to be all about suffering.

Given that 95% of the film is truthful to these kids’ reality, did you ever consider just making a documentary about them?

My original plan was to make a documentary. I didn’t do it because in the film world today distribution for independent documentaries is really bad, and I realized that the film itself was not as important to me as getting the voices of these kids out. I had seen some films made about the underground music world in Tehran and most of them were short documentaries about 30 or 40 minutes long. And I always wondered why they weren’t publicized more. Really, their only flaw was they were short documentaries.

I knew this was my one and only chance to make a film about the underground music world in Iran, so it was important to me that I show you as much of it as I could, both of this subculture and of the real Tehran. The film became a medium for exposing the world to these musicians.

04152010_NoOneKnowsAboutPersianCats2.jpgYou shot the movie without permission from the Iranian government, and there’s this palpable cloud of anxiety hanging over the entire movie, as if at any moment the cast and crew could all be arrested. Did you have any real problems with the police during the shoot?

That stress that you’re pointing out was really there. I was very nervous the entire shoot. The film was mostly shot indoors and the two or three times we took the camera outside, we shot those scenes very quickly and hid the camera somewhere it couldn’t be seen. All those sequences were shot with one lens because I didn’t even have time to change lenses.

There was only one time that we were stopped by the police. We were in Tajrish Square and we had to talk to them for a few hours. We had to convince them that we weren’t doing anything bad.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

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IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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