Drawing the past

It is unusual for the French press to agree on anything, divided across the political divide as they are. But when it comes to hailing Marjane Satrapi’s new animated movie, ‘Persepolis’, they speak as one. From the right wing newspaper ‘Le Figaro’, to left wingers ‘Humanité’ and ‘Libération’ and centrist ‘Le Monde’, all have hailed Satrapi’s movie as a work of pure excellence and highly successful in breaking down stereotypes on Iranians and Iran. Gloria Steinem has even gone so far as to proclaim that with this film, Marjane Satrapi “may have given us a new genre” while ‘USA Today’ called it “a mighty achievement”.

Ironic then that the very country this feature – based on Satrapi’s two best-selling graphic novels ‘Persepolis’ and ‘Persepolis 2’ – throws light on in all its complexity, has sounded the only bum note in the film’s reception. Amid press reports that the Islamic Republic of Iran had summoned the French ambassador to object to the movie’s screening at the Cannes Film Festival, branding the film anti-Iran and demanding its withdrawl from the competition, Satrapi, known for her uncompromising views, kept her cool. “It’s good to put things into context,” she said at Cannes, “because after the protest by the Iranians, they (meaning the press) made it a big deal, like a war was going to happen. It’s nothing like that. The Ministry of Culture sent a letter to the French Embassy in Iran and that was it. It’s nothing bigger.”

But the Islamic Republic did not give up. It was recently announced that, after complaints from Iran, the film has been dropped from the opening ceremony of the Bangkok Film Festival. “The movie offers an incorrect and fake image of Iranians,” said a cultural official at Iran’s embassy in Bangkok. “The producers of the movie … picture Iranian people as disappointed and unsatisfied with the Islamic Revolution.”

The film, as with the books, presents a very personal point of view, the view of a child growing up in turbulent times, through Iran’s revolution of 1979 and the subsequent eight-year war with Iraq. “It’s not a political film,” Satrapi insisted in an interview with AFP. “It’s a universal film touching on events that have occurred in countries right across the world.” The first book hit the shops in 2000, initially in France, where Satrapi has been based since 1997. They then took the whole world by storm.

In France Satrapi’s cartoons – if you can call these stark, stylized and highly sophisticated drawings by such a childish name – the sales of Persepolis 1 and Persepolis 2 (published by L’Association) and Persepolis 3 and Persepolis 4 (so far only serialised in the newspaper Libération) have exceeded 400,000 copies; worldwide, over a million have been sold, translated into more than 20 languages. In the US the books are required reading for students, having made it onto syllabuses of over 160 high schools and universities last autumn. And in bookshops, it’s not the literature or art or comic book sections that display them, but the shelves for books on politics.

Marjane Satrapi was born in the north of Iran in 1969 in the coastal city of Rasht, on the Caspian Sea. She grew up in Tehran where she attended the Lycée Français, before leaving for Vienna and, later, Strasbourg to study decorative arts. Her books, a form of graphic memoir, tell the story of her childhood and youth from 1978, when, as a child of 8, she witnessed the unfolding of the Revolution that ousted the last Shah of Iran and established the Islamic Republic. Drawing vividly a life suddenly overtaken by momentous events, she tells with great charm how she and her family adapted to the new regime, the intense hope of freedom that followed the departure of the Shah and the horror of watching a repressive theocracy take his place.

Living through the subsequent war with Iraq and grappling with her outspoken nature, the child Marjane as depicted in the books illuminates these historical events with humour, sadness and a playful feel for the concerns of children. The books follow her progress as her parents send her to Vienna as a teenager, fearing for her safety in light of her independent spirit, and her depiction of life in exile and the homesickness she experienced again bear her trademark poignancy and humour.

On moving to Paris, Satrapi joined the Atelier des Vosges, home to many of France’s celebrated ‘new wave’ of comic book artists. There, after hearing the amazing stories of her family and seeing her drawings, her colleagues kept asking why she was waiting to put her life in the pages of a comic book. Thus ‘Persepolis’ was born.

‘Persepolis’ was published in four volumes in France, where it met with enormous critical acclaim, garnered comparisons to Art Spiegelman’s ‘Maus’ (a graphic novel dealing with the Holocaust and its consequences) and won several prestigious comic book awards before seducing the rest of the world. Marjane Satrapi’s other books include ‘Embroideries’ and ‘Chicken with Plums’. She is also the author of several children’s books, including ‘Monsters are Afraid of the Moon’ and her form of graphic memoir has even spawned its own genre: ‘autographix’.

Persepolis the movie amalgamates the books and has taken three years to make, for a tiny sum (by Hollywood of $8million. Vincent Paronnaud is Satrapi’s French co-writer/director and 80 people worked on the film to bring Satrapi’s distinctive drawings to life, including France’s last working animation tracers, armed with felt-tip pens. Throughout the process of making the movie, Satrapi’s blog detailed the challenges of the work and was characteristically frank in speaking about how much she hated and loved her colleagues at the same time. Although the film is often referred to as an Iranian film, in reality it is entirely French in production and the voices are provided by luminaries of French cinema as Catherine Deneuve, Danielle Darrieux and Chiara Mastroianni as the grown up Marjane. The English language version will be dubbed and includes the voices of Gena Rowlands with Deneuve reprising her original role in English.

In spite of Iran’s objections, the movie did premier at the Cannes Film Festival, and the audience of journalists, critics and the public gave it a 20-minute standing ovation. It was later named as joint winner of the Jury Prize. Accepting her prize, a tearful Satrapi dedicated the film to the people of Iran.”

“The film’s about being true to yourself, it’s about humanism,” she said in an interview. “It’s a story about a life, a film that pleads for love and for peace. After seeing this film you don’t want to make war – or revolution either.”

Meet Iranian Singles

Iranian Singles

Recipient Of The Serena Shim Award

Serena Shim Award
Meet your Persian Love Today!
Meet your Persian Love Today!