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Around the World in 80 Films: Persepolis

Persepolis is a perfect example of how animated films are not just for children, but can be aimed towards a more mature, adult audience. It is one of those films that I have been meaning to watch, but have never got around to it. And it is an absolute gem of a movie.

Persepolis is based on Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel of the same name. The film was written and directed by Satrapi with Vincent Paronnaud and was premiered at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, where it co-won the Jury Prize. The film is presented in the black-and-white style of the original graphic novels. The animation team made up of 20 animators worked alongside Satrapi to gain a detailed understanding of the types of graphic images she deemed necessary for accuracy.

We begin with Marjane ‘Marji’ Satrapi (voiced by Chiara Mastroianni) in a French airport as looks at the flight schedule; she sees a name that she reconginses, Tehran. She then takes a seat, smokes a cigarette, reflecting on her childhood. As a young girl, Marji (voiced by Amethyste Frezignac) lived in Tehran, wanted to be a prophet. She was also obessessed with Bruce Lee films and liked to partice her martial arts moves.

When the 1979 Iranian revolution against the Shah of Iran begins, her middle-class mother and father (voiced by Catherine Deneuve  and Sean Penn) participate in the rallies. Though Marji herself is forbidden from attending much to her dismay.

Persepolis

One day, Marji’s uncle Anoosh (voiced by music legend Iggy Pop) arrives to have dinner with the family after recently being released from a nine-year prison sentence. Marji is ecstatic to meet him as he is a hero in her eyes. Things seem to be improving in their country, as the Shah is deposed and elections for a new leading power commence. However, things take a turn for the worse for the family, when Islamic Fundamentalists ‘win’ the elections with 99.99% of the vote and start repressing Iranian society, imposing strict Islamic law.

The government forces women to dress modestly and wear headscarves, and Anoosh is rearrested and executed for his political beliefs. Profoundly disillusioned, Marji tries, with her family, to adapt to life under the new regime. The Iran–Iraq War breaks out and Marji sees for herself the horrors of death and destruction. Marji’s parents send her to Vienna, Austria, where she can be safe and free to express herself, but will she be able to cope being so far away from the place she calls home?

Despite there being a great deal of difficulty to have the film made as an animation, the producers followed through with Satrapi’s wishes and focused on interpreting her life story as depicted in her novel Persepolis. “With live-action, it would have turned into a story of people living in a distant land who don’t look like us,” Satrapi discussed during an interview with the Animation World Network.  “At best, it would have been an exotic story, and at worst, a ‘third-world’ story.”

The film is in black and white, and again this was intentional choice by Satrapi, along with the director and animation team, to continue on the path of traditional animation techniques. Despite the difficulties in working with animation film, Satrapi’s drive and determination to make the film motivated the animators to finish each graphic image with full accuracy. Something which was slightly difficult because the lack of traditional animators in France.

Persepolis

I adored this film, it manages to balance both the historical issues of Iran and the personal issues of a young woman growing up. Persepolis has a compelling narrative, with a quirkiness and humour to it, that makes this film incredibly warm, despite it’s very serious subject manner. The characters in the story were all very interesting, and all seemed very real. It was a joy to see Marjane grow from a child to an adult, and seeing her cope with the struggles she went through.

I loved the relationship between Marjane and her grandmother, which is truly beautiful. Her grandmother acts like Marjane’s moral compass throughout the film, and in most cases she did it with a great cynicism and humor that only someone who has lived through so much could have. This brilliant movie serves as a study proving that animation is powerful and incredibly effective in telling a very human story.  Persepolis chronicles, not only director’s Marjane Satrapi own experience, but that of an entire nation as well.

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