The eye of the tiger

This year’s Cannes International Film Festival mesmerized viewers with a simple black & white animated French produced film by Iranian born Marjane Satrapi entitled Persepolis. Amidst an international selection of heavy weight feature films by such greats as Quentin Tarantino, Wong Kar Wai or Gus Van Sant, an outspoken cosmopolitan duo (Iranian Marjane Satrapi and French Vincent Paronnaud) of first time directors seduced not only the Cannes Jury but also the audience with their astonishing movie, the theme of which, resonated not only with our Post Sept 11th troubled times, but was also a historical reminder of a nation’s struggle to survive.

The screening of the film, at the 60th annual of the most prestigious film festival in the World, was immediately followed by a 20 minutes standing ovation for the cast and crew. Marjane Satrapi thanked chocked by emotion before tearfully hugging her co-director Paronnaud. Selected for running in several categories including the Palme D’Or and the Jury Prize. The reaction of the audience signaled the film’s great chances in this year’s particularly tough competition.

Finally it was the Jury Prize that was conferred ex-aequo to the talented duo as well as to Carlos Reygadas the Mexican director of Silent Night. It was however Persepolis that truly stole the show when Miss Satrapi dedicated her “universally themed film” to “All her Iranian compatriots Worldwide”. A victory indeed for Satrapi whose film is no other than the animated version of her already internationally acclaimed comic books Persepolis.

A dark autobiographical comedy about a girl’s growing up in Iran at the wake of the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the Shah’s downfall. The film offers a unique perspective on the social and historical changes in Iranian society spanning over 3 decades with insights on the Iran-Iraq War as well as on the personal challenges of an outspoken Iranian girl growing up in exile. However the power of the film certainly resides in it’s universal poetic approach that combines the esthetics’ of traditional animation (so characteristic of the early Disney cartoon’s ) with black & white contrasting shades so vividly portrayed in Fritz Lang’s German Expressionist Cinema and Roberto Rosselini’s Italian Neo-Realistic films both of which are greatly admired by the creators of Persepolis. Thus the film transcends the initial Persian cultural context and its political dilemma’s and reaches out to a much larger and less selective audience.

What the late Edward Saïd would have considered as “Oriental” paradoxically finds echoes in Satrapi’s description of her school days in Vienna as opposed to her less exotic, actually, Western-Oriented life in the post-War Tehran of the 1990’s. Persepolis even through the choice of it’s title challenges the often biased outlook of Iranian’s born into a brutal theocratic regime they never aspired too while being unjustly dubbed as being part of an Axis of Evil by a War mongering US President.

We are introduced to daily life in Iran with it’s share of restriction’s on individual freedom, the absurdities in blindly applying religious doctrine’s in every aspect of life which only have generated opposite results. The movie underline’s the schizophrenic pattern of life in Islamic Iran. Through humor and acute observation’s Satrapi denounces Iran’s “Gender Apartheid”. How for instance can an Art or medical Student study anatomy by observing a veiled model ? Why is a Women who is wearing her veil loosely a threat to social order and morality but a boy of the same age in the University can wear tight Jean’s and not be annoyed? … On the surface everyone abide’s to religious dogma particularly Women whose gender is by Law worth “half that of Men” but also in turn by Men who are encouraged to shout religious slogan’s and beat their chests at Friday prayers. In private however people organize party’s where prohibited alcohol and drug’s flourish, where sexual promiscuity abounds, and Western music or Hollywood film’s replace daily religious rituals.

The revolutionary zeal of the early day’s has gradually given way to bewilderment, in a society where Women constitute 70 % of the population and whom for the most were not even born at the time of the Revolution. Challenging religious authority has become a national sport for boy’s and girl’s who openly flirt in the streets and sometimes with dramatic consequence’s as shown in one of the film’s highlight’s: Revolutionary Guards having broken into a party pursue the participant’s on Tehran’s rooftop’s until one young boy trip’s and mortally fall’s down a building.

If imposed religious orthodoxy is blamed for the mounting problem’s of Iranian society, Satrapi avoids to judge or admonish those who by faith or tradition respect it. On many level’s the film is actually a tribute to spirituality but in a secular form. All the positive character’s in the film such as Satrapi’s outspoken Grandma have strong moral and humanistic values that guide them in their lives and which ultimately will also serve Satrapi in her educational exile to Austria and inner journey of self discovery. This journey will also expose her to other challenges often with equally tragic and comic twists. She is often a victim of sheer indifference if not to racism due to her young age and exotic look’s. Her family upbringing helps her overcome disappointment’s in short-lived teenage love affair’s and abused friendship’s.

The unavoidable clash of culture’s appears in funny circumstance’s when she becomes drawn by marginal’s and outcast’s in her Austrian high school. Paradoxically the culture clash deepens when she return’s to her country to visit family and friends and comes to grips with the patriarchal nature of Persian Society. She realizes that the clichés regarding the West in Iran are as overwhelming as those regarding Iran in the West. This is probably the most interesting aspect in Persepolis: It takes an often raw and unbiased look at both the Orient through Iran (which could easily be replaced by any alien land) and the West which happens to be represented by Austria. She underlines Human “Stupidity”, so often denounced by her beloved and not so old fashioned grandma, as the worst plague and alas common denominator in all civilization’s. Ultimately what is denounced is intolerance and the lack of curiosity in trying to understand other’s and accept differences.

Unjustly deemed “Islamophobic” by the Iranian Cultural Ministry which vigorously protested its screening at Cannes, Persepolis will certainly make its way clandestinely into Iranian household’s. Ironically it may have also placed the ancient city of Persepolis back on the Map of a country, the current leadership of which is on the contrary trying to drown it (**) whilst repeated calls of wiping off another nation from the surface of the Middle East. It is said that in times of intolerance and blind hatred, Art is the last resort for humanity. Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s Persepolis brilliantly prove this point.

Author’s notes:

(*) Starring Catherine Deneuve, Chiara Mastroianni, Simon Akbarian and Danielle Darrieux and co-produced by Kathleen Kennedy for
Sony Pictures Classics. It is selected to August Issue 381

“Stupid people abound in this world, them My Darling, and you will meet a lot of them …” Marjane’s Gradma ( Danielle Darrieux) in Persepolis (*)

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