'Persepolis' pushes perceptions of reality
By G. Michael Dobbs
When I had the opportunity of speaking briefly with Marjane Satrapi earlier this year when she appeared at Smith College I told her she was robbed. Satrapi's animated feature based on acclaimed semi-autobiographical comic books, "Persepolis," lost the "Best Animated Feature" Oscar to "Ratatouille."
With the upcoming release of "Persepolis" on DVD, people can see what I mean. While I enjoyed "Ratatouille," it was not a film that advances the art of animation. It didn't push boundaries or perceptions of the storytelling ability of animation.
"Ratatouille" was another well-made computer animated film from PIXAR that could inspire a bunch of merchandising. "Persepolis" is a film that can challenge your ideas about a country and people most of us know little about -- Iran -- and yet tell a universal story about growing up under difficult circumstances with both humor and humanity.
What I loved about the film is that Satrapi co-wrote and co-directed it. Seldom has a cartoonist had such control over the adaptation of a property to film. The movie truly captures the flavor of the books and yet is as cinematic in ways only animation can be.
The DVD includes some great extras on the making of the film including a documentary with Satrapi leading a tour of the animation studio and explaining the purpose of each department. It also shows her very deep involvement in the development of the film.
The film is presented on the DVD in both its original French language version with subtitles and in an English dubbed edition with actors that include Gena Rowland, Iggy Pop, Sean Penn and several of the original French cast. Satrapi directed the English recording sessions herself.
"Persepolis" is based on Satrapi's four-volume graphic novel or as she prefers to call it, comic book. When she appeared at Smith -- her books were chosen by the college to be required reading for the incoming first year students -- she quickly dismissed the idea of any elitism.
She said that in press tours for the theatrical release of the film journalists kept asking her why she elected to produce comic books.
"Whatever I don't write I draw. Whatever I don't draw I write," she said.
She believes that comics should be read "without shame," and the medium makes "art available to everyone."
Satrapi undoubtedly surprised her audience by not only rejecting the label of "graphic novel" but also saying she didn't like the word "feminist." She would rather be called a cartoonist and judged equally on her work.
"Persepolis" tells the story of a young girl growing up in pre-revolutionary Iran and the impact of the fall of the Shah and the rise of a Muslim fundamentalist government had on her and her family. To escape the oppression at home, her family sent her to France and Austria to live and go to school. Her misadventures in Europe and her efforts to adjust to a new way of life at home make up the core of her comic books.
Satrapi didn't expect the success her books have enjoyed.
"I thought 300 French who feel guilty about the Middle East would buy the book," she said.
"The reason it became a big hit, besides that I am very talented," she added with a smile, "is it was written from a personal point of view.
"When I wrote the book in 1999 I learned to be less angry, more civilized. I realized that anger was not going to solve any problem," she said.
She didn't grow up with comic books. She recalled with a laugh that American comic books were available in Iran and because she had lived in Europe her friends thought she could read English, which she couldn't. When they picked up a copy of a comic book with Dracula as the main character, Satrapi simply made up the dialogue she couldn't read. She and her friends decided if they ate raw chicken they too could become vampires, but all they developed was the mumps.
When she moved to France again in 1994, she was given a copy of Art Spiegelman's groundbreaking graphic novel "Maus."
"It was a revelation in my life," she said. Comic books were for children, she thought, but here a cartoonist was writing and drawing about the Holocaust.
Despite the often-grim sequences in "Persepolis," Satrapi said that it is "important to tell a story with humor."
"Laughing means understanding of someone's thinking," she said.
Recounting her story in the form of comics also "helped me to use a sense of humor without falling into cynicism," she said.
Initially she didn't want to be involved in a movie because she views film as a passive medium while reading comics is not.
Eventually she decided to take up the offer of a group of producers and started in the process with fellow cartoonist Vincent Paronnaud, who had made some short films.
She admitted filmmaking was "very hard."
"There were 100 people involved in the project. I hated them so much in the beginning. They wanted to draw like me, do everything like me. I got used to them. They brought so much to the project," she said.
"It's the story of life -- you never love the people when you have them," she added with a laugh.
She never wanted to film to be live action because she said that drawing is an abstraction to which anyone can relate.
The choice of traditional two-dimensional drawn animation came from her lack of experience. As a cartoonist she understood how to produce drawings rather than computer generated images.
Like the books, the film doesn't shy away from the recent history of Iran, its impact and the perceptions Americans and Europeans have of the country. She sees the world press dehumanizing people and making an abstraction of the Middle East.
"Abstractions are extremely dangerous as that is the beginning of fascist ideology," she said. "Instead of asking where terrorism comes from we fight a war against them."
She believes the world is in much more danger from the policies of the Bush administration that of the current Iranian government.
"Democracy," she said, "is extremely fragile."