BluRay/DVD Reviews

PERSEPOLIS

By • Mar 18th, 2009 •

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The American news refers to Iran as a grave threat to our nation and to the democracy and freedoms of the world. Its people are usually depicted as bloodthirsty, hurling anti-American sentiments at any video camera that will give them airtime. Is this a true depiction of its people, or is it American media propaganda? Visiting the Tehran Film Festival years ago, Roger Ebert reflected upon its people and stated, “Iranians are no more monolithic than we are…”

I am fortunate enough to be on a first name basis with the great wrestler, Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri, better known as The Iron Sheik. As a former bodyguard to the Shah of Iran, he gives testimony that the people of his homeland are under great duress and do not spew hatred for America. The Sheik’s love for America is unbridled, as he loves his mother country, its people, and his religion.

This autobiographical tale of a young Iranian subjected to derision is an empathetic tale. Similar to Anna de la Mesa in Julie Gavras’ BLAME IT ON FIDEL! the character is thrown into the very adult world of politics and its effect on their youth and their families.

The film’s animation is not comparable to any Pixar picture or LES TRIPLETTES de BELLEVILLE. PERSEPOLIS is based on Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novels and it is akin to recent Frank Miller films. Such works have done quite well at the box office. Miller’s SIN CITY and 300 raked in over $600 Million worldwide. Although Miller’s characters are the bearers of death and do battle in such grand style, Marjane, the central character, battles against the oppression of the shifting governments in her homeland. Marjane is a young girl who takes to heart the imprisonment of various people including relatives by different factions of the ruling parties in Iran through the years. Always voicing her opinions and resisting the radical impositions, her outward ways prove to be a risk to her well-being. She can be found buying forbidden music such as Iron Maiden, wearing make-up, or being seen in public with a boy. For her safety, her parents send her to Austria where she finds lodging with nuns and then a crazy woman. The autocratic rule under both homes is on a par with the Iranian ruling party. At first she is dazzled by the supermarket, reminiscing what her homeland once had. Becoming a young woman in the western world facing the grimaces of bigotry and the pitfalls of romance, Marjane eventually returns home to Iran. Sadly, the country is in a tighter grip. She thwarts certain arrest or detainment by the watchful eye of police for wearing make-up by falsely implicating a man on the street as “bothering” her and makes a run for it. This incident is revealed to her grandmother with a bit of zeal that angers the old woman into expressing disdain for the act and questions whether or not Marjane’s uncle had gone to prison so that she can act cowardly and falsely accuse for her own gain. She marries because appearing in public with a male is a harrowing task. However, her marriage isn’t one of fairytales and she divorces. Ordered by her family to find a home in the free world in which she belongs, she is set free at the airport to join the western world.

The film’s illustrative style is inked in stark black and white and gray as the main character recollects the past. The color segments delineate the present. The B&W results in engulfing the viewer in the dialogue and narration. This effective technique was used in many British films in the 60’s when dialogue was the preferred element. Mike Nichols directed WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? and filmed it in black and white because it was decided that Elizabeth Taylor’s eyes would take away from the scripted words. It could also be argued that the use of B&W in PERSEPOLIS is due to hindsight being 20/20. With such an argument it would stand to reason that the present day setup would be in color.

This film is still enjoying a successful run at the awards circuit around the globe. In 2007, it triumphed at The National Board of Review by winning The Freedom of Expression Award. The same year it tied with RATATOUILLE for Best Animation at the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards and took the Jury Prize at The Cannes Film Festival.

Accompanying all the accolades was an underlying force attempting to stop it in its tracks. The ruling political party in Iran did not favor PERSEPOLIS. The Iran Farabi Foundation had sent a letter to the French embassy in Tehran with this statement: “This year the Cannes Film Festival, in an unconventional and unsuitable act, has chosen a movie about Iran that has presented an unrealistic face of the achievements and results of the glorious Islamic Revolution in some of its parts.” The 2007 Bangkok International Film Festival removed the film from its line-up after it was pressured by the Iranian embassy. Chattan Kunjara Na Ayudhaya, public relations director at the Tourism Authority of Thailand said, “We have withdrawn PERSEPOLIS … on the request of the Iranian embassy…”

With such a backlash against her work and views, can Satrapi return home to Iran to see her family? Sam Leith reported that,

“Satrapi now lives in Paris and hasn’t been back to Iran since 2000, when the first volume of ‘Persepolis’ was published. She says that “not one” of her childhood friends still lives in Iran…Since its translation into English; ‘Persepolis’ has acquired a readership in Iran. Satrapi is satisfied her parents are in no danger, but she says that because Iran is “not a state of law”, her own treatment on return would be subject to the caprices of the officials she came across.”

There are many Iranian filmmakers in the US and abroad who wish to have their films seen and their voices heard. In efforts to get a better understanding of who is the Iranian filmmaker I asked Saeed Shafa of the Iranian Film Festival and the Tiburon International Film Festival. He stated, “There are two groups of Iranian filmmakers. Those who make their films in Iran and those who make them outside Iran. They are both Iranians, but their films and way of thinking are different. Most of those making films outside Iran are born in various countries and are not familiar with the culture inside Iran. Therefore, their films have a different look and angle. And those who make their films in Iran are divided into 2 groups too. First group who makes films for the local market, inside the country and for the people of Iran. The second group who make their films for a foreign audience, outside Iran, mainly for the western audiences.”

Of the women filmmakers living in Iran, do their films resemble the tone of Marjane Satrapi and address similar types of struggle?

“To answer to your question…they know they have to follow some guidelines otherwise they will not be able to make their films. I don’t think the identity is the issue here, even though they set their tone on women, but not necessarily about their struggles, which will bring a lot taboos that they have to deal with. Because of these concerns, their films lack a deep sweep in the society and the issues the Iranian women face today. They try but with a lot of caution. This naturally effects the language and the vision they use in their films.”

Not all films strike out against the powers that be. Jafar Panahi is an Iranian born filmmaker. The Iranian government also forbade his films, THE CIRCLE and CRIMSON GOLD. Yet, he is also responsible for lighthearted fare. WHITE BALLOON is a delightful film about a young Iranian girl in need of a fat goldfish for the New Year celebration. She and her brother finagle their mother’s last bit of money. On the way to the store the money is lost to a street performer and once it is retrieved it is again lost elsewhere. The children make a valiant effort to get their money back.

Iran offers the world such a bountiful cinema that it is shameful that in this country foreign films have such a limited appeal. If one is not in New York to go to the Sunshine Cinema or a comparable venue, or does not subscribe to IFC, the Sundance Channel or a specific international channel, these films go unseen.

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