Saturday, September 28, 2013

Film Review : Persepolis (2007)

Persepolis weaves a rich tapestry of family stories and personal angst against the backdrop of war-torn Iran. In a genre dominated by 3D animation powerhouses like Shrek and Toy Story, Marjane Satrapi’s deliberate choice of a low-tech animation techniques and a mostly black-and-white execution allows the human story to unfold.

The result of a collaboration between Satrapi and her creative partner, Vincent Paronnaud, Persepolis is based on Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novels by the same name.The story opens on a depiction of Satrapi’s halcyon youth. The only child of radical parents, she blossomed in a home environment that was sociable and relaxed. Occasionally stories of persecution and torture at the hands of the ruling regime at the time would intrude on this enviable private life, but were dismissed in the belief that the repressive regime was only temporary. Soon the individual incidents of repression (and public opposition to the acts) snowball into the 1979 Iranian revolution.

Iranian society undergoes massive change – the new laws and watchful eyes of the citizen ‘Guardians of the Revolution’ become so invasive that the Satrapi family’s radical behaviour at home starts to collide with public expectations. Satrapi’s independence and forthrightness, encouraged by her radical parents and grandmother pre-revolution, sees her expelled from numerous schools in Tehran. Her parents, concerned for her safety, send her to attend high school in Vienna.

In Vienna Satrapi tries to assimilate but is caught in the crossfire between Iranian and Western cultures. She makes friends, but misses the intimacy of her family and is betrayed by her first love. She can’t find a stable home and moves through a series of beds and houses, eventually ending up on the street. Despite her objections to the oppressive public regime at home, she returns to Iran to be with her family. She readjusts to Iranian culture and gets married, and is exposed to an entirely new set of problems.

Iranian-born Satrapi wrote and drew Persepolis as a way of processing her identity as an Iranian woman, to write a love letter to her family and to reconcile the dichotomy of the public and private lives in which she grew up. She also wanted to humanise the monoculture stereotype that the media perpetuates about Iran. On her Persepolis website she writes ‘If Western audiences end up considering Iranians as human beings just like the rest of us, and not as abstract notions like ‘Islamic fundamentalists’, terrorists or the ‘Axis of Evil’, then I’ll feel like I’ve done something.’

Technically Satrapi opted for traditional hand-drawn animation techniques because she felt that using modern 3D techniques would bring a mechanical, automated feel to what is a story about people – their feelings, faults and dreams. The simplified style allows the audience to focus on the story rather than being distracted by constructed and detailed scenes. Televised depictions of conflict end to sensationalise the events, but in Persepolis it is the lack of sensationalism that allows the human narrative to be told.

Stylistically Persepolis takes cues from the post-war film schools of Italian neo-realism and German expressionism with simple interior sets and candid street scenes. As an artist, first in Iran and later in Paris, Satrapi became obsessed with the German and Italian films and felt that they depicted the sense of hope felt by people who had lived through war.

Persepolis’ message changed with the adaptation of the original text to film. The internationally-awarded film takes Satrapi’s tender narrative to a global stage, with Hollywood actors like Sean Penn and Iggy Pop contributing as voice-overs in the US version. While the graphic novel was the work of Satrapi alone, the film is a collaboration, translating the original text into one that is more internationally palatable.
In the animated work, key events in Satrapi’s emotional history are condensed in the interests of keeping the narrative moving at the pace at which a film audience expects. Her emotional response to the stories she heard of family friends being tortured and killed is trivialized in the film by depicting her direct translation of the stories into playground games, bypassing Satrapi’s intense emotional response that is shown in the graphic novel. As a medium that requires a two-way dialogue, the graphic novel treats both the author and reader’s emotional responses with respect. The animation, for all its motion and speed, operates emotionally much like a still photograph - a snapshot of her reactions, depicting highlights or main events but little of the feeling that gives the graphic novel such rich texture.  

Satrapi’s goal in the creation of Persepolis, as both a graphic novel then a film, was to dilute the mono-culture stereotype of modern Iran. Both texts achieve this, but take the audience on different journeys. Persepolis feels like such a big story that while the film skims the surface, the novel takes us well and truly behind the veil.

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