During its late 2007/early 2008 American release, Marjane Satrapi— the cartoonist/creator of the graphic novel and co-writer/director of the animated film Persepolis—was in Minnesota on a speaking/promotional tour. While I did not find out about it until after it happened, fortunately some friends of mine were in attendance. Despite Satrapi’s fascinating talk about her life growing up in Revolutionary Iran in the late 1970s and early 80s, my friends told me the most interesting part of the talk was when the Iranian cartoonist literally excused herself halfway thru the presentation to go smoke for 10 minutes. Yes, it is one thing to be an addicted chain-smoker, but it takes a whole different brand of hutzpah to walk out on an audience to tend to your habits. That said, this defining moment in time in Minnesota where Satrapi decided heaters trumped crowd-winning, I think perfectly sums up Satrapi and the work she’s created both in print and on film. She says and does what she wants, she has little fear of repercussion, and rules are things to be broken and bended if not outright ignored.
Persepolis is an animated film (LITERALLY hand animated 2D–a sadly dying trade) that tells the tale of little Marjane Satrapi growing up at a time when the Shah of Iran is on the brink of being disposed. Marjane grows up in an upper-middle class family who, despite having embraced the Shah’s westernization of Iran, want equality for all in their homeland and not a ruling despot. Her parents identify as Communist. Not the Red Menace kind of Communist, but the idealized version of Communism that never seems to work out in practice. When the Shah is eventually exiled her parents and family find themselves in a dilly of a pickle as it becomes the Islamic Extremists who gain foothold on the Iranian government, returning Iran to a stricter, dogmatic, west-hating state. (See: Argo. On second thought, don’t. Ever.)
But young Marjane, having grown up with western freedoms and sensibilities, can’t bring herself to conform. She speaks blasphemously out of turn in school. Her now State-Demanded head scarf (cause she’s a woman and all and if you saw her long, putry hair you’d just assume she was begging for sex. Oh, you wacky Islamics!) is punctuated with denim jackets and hoodies that promote her love of Punk Rock–which at the time meant ABBA or Iron Maiden or whatever the kids could get illegal bootlegs of.
After a series of incidents which lead her parents to correctly assume Marjane will find herself in dissident prison before she even has time to fully comprehend the permanent meaning of her actions, she is sent, alone, to finish her teen years and schooling in Vienna. There she hooks up with “real” punks, drinks, drugs, sexes, smokes, and speaks her mind freely until within a few years’ time she has burned all her bridges and finds herself homeless and nearly dies.
Now of college age, Marjane returns to Iran after her bought of near-death to get her college education. But forced to wear a head scarf or not, Marjane is still Marjane and ends up hanging out with the dangerous set (they have mixed co-ed parties! She wears make-up! Drinking! Banned music!). All is tolerable enough to Marjane in this Islamic Police State until a raid on one of these parties results in a friend of hers dying attempting to flee authorities by leaping rooftop to rooftop. I probably don’t have to tell you he didn’t have a Batarang handy when he could have used it most.
Marjane does manage to finish college, but after a one year failed marriage she knows Iran is not the place for her. Now fully grown, she leaves her family once again, possibly forever, for the forgiving and liberal bosom of France, where she continues to live until this day.
Persepolis, the animated feature, clocks in at 95 minutes, whereas the EXTREMELY text heavy collected Persepolis comic is 310 pages. Needless to say, a lot had to be cut for this adaptation, but the jist and very important moments from the book are all in the film. But forget thee not—it’s an ANIMATED film and it takes full advantage of that fact! It has some unparalleled sequences even the most brilliant cartoonist couldn’t begin to be able to render in a single panel or page. Persepolis, the film, like the comic is presented in black and white and greytones, aside from a few “modern” moments which are in color.
So, how does such a rabble-rousing, hand-drawn, black and white film even get made in these modern times? Well, as I said earlier Marjane Satrapi is the both the co-writer and co-director of the film. It is truly her vision being brought to the screen. In an age where every third movie released is a comic book adaptation where creators visions and rights are all but ignored (enjoy your millions, Stan Lee!) Satrapi has created a unique comic film adaption that is not only original, but lushly beautiful in its animation, and heart-wrenching in its tale. Oh, and it was made in France. They can pretty much get away with anything over there.
I own Persepolis on Blu-ray, and while the high definition of such technology does not get so close you can see brush strokes on an animation cell, it does come with an array of interesting and must-see special features on the making of Persepolis, especially if you’ve never read the book. (Plus, it’s only a dollar more used on Amazon than the DVD, so why not?)
*Danno Klonowski is a cartoonist and co-host of the Wayne Gale Variety Hour podcast. Both of which you can see/find links to at his site*