London Film Festival: DIY

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Burning Down the House

Directed by Mandy Stein

No One Knows About Persian Cats

Directed by Bahman Ghobadi

cbgb-burning-down-the-house-2009Teheran, Iran and New York aren’t obvious kindred spirits and unlikely to be twinned in any civic program any time soon, but two music-related films at the festival point out how underground culture can act as the heartbeat of any metropolis and, indeed, keep its independent spirit alive in the face of crushing obstacles. The 1970s weren’t kind to New York, with bankruptcy, strikes and urban decay depressing the city. Yet, from this squalor sprang the misfits who gravitated to Hilly Kristal’s shabby Bowery hole-in-the-wall, CBGB. Burning Down the House, Mandy Stein’s documentary on the club (which closed in 2006 after a protracted dispute with the landlord) provides the usual, if well-executed archive-photo-soundtrack-talking heads (and, indeed, Talking Heads) formula, with Kristal, Debbie Harry, Sonic Youth, Patti Smith and Little Steven all making appearances, but also makes a more grave point: if “progress” means driving out the scruffy, unwanted elements of society, it also risks producing a homogenized culture. An end credits sequence showing a succession of Starbucks facades makes this point implicitly.

1770_photo1_enMeanwhile, back in Teheran, just being in a band without official sanction is grounds for arrest and harassment and in No One Knows About Persian Cats, Bahman Ghobadi has assembled a collection of CBGB T-shirt-clad metalheads, NME-reading indie rockers, and other musicians just waiting for their chance, building makeshift rehearsal spaces, putting on word-of-mouth gigs under the noses of the authorities. Their motives are a mix of ambition and creative energy: some want to emigrate, others just want to play without restriction, but they display extraordinary resilience: one band rehearses in a cowshed. Shot in secret, the film is a fictionalized version of reality, with non-professional actors playing the musicians, but the behind-the-scenes story is probably more dramatic: credited as co-screenwriter and -producer is Roxana Saberi, the Iranian-American journalist who was imprisoned earlier in the year for alleged spying. She certainly won’t be heading back to Iran anytime soon, but, as one rapper explains, he wouldn’t leave Teheran even if he were allowed; his city is his inspiration. As in NYC, the sounds of the streets are the conscience of any metropolis.

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