Saturday, January 26, 2008

Persepolis: animated feature about coming of age in Iran

Tonight (Jan. 26) I migrated to the other end of Sony’s indie film world (from last night), Sony Pictures Classics, which in this film was displayed on a black, rather than the usual blue screen with the white letters. That’s because this remarkable animated film "Persepolis" (a kind of Persian "Metropolis" -- Tehran) is in mostly in black-and-white, except for a few scenes at Orly Airport in Paris where Marjane Satrapi (narrating voice is Chiara Mastroianni; her mother’s voice is Catherine Deneuve). Marjane created the comic upon which this film is based, with the screenplay written with Vincent Paronnaud. Most of the film’s events occur technically as a “flashback” from her eventual settlement in Paris, and are shot in black and white. The animation style is relatively simple (compare it, for instance, to "The Triplets of Belleville"), and the drawings of, for example Tehran remind one of the drawing style of Hendrik Van Loon in The Story of the Bible (1928). The film is in French, with subtitles (and a little Farsi).

Marjane comes of age during the years of the Iranian revolution, with the fall of the Shah in 1978 and the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini. She is sent to Vienna to the French school, where, with her newfound freedom for a “frivolous existence,” she meets a number of characters: first an attractive young man who says he is homosexual, and then a (straight) man (unfortunately with B.O., like Jack Nicholson’s character from “The Witches of Eastwick”) who claims to be a writer and types a play in front of her, which makes her vomit when she reads it (that’s a trick in animation). She eventually wants to go back home, which she does, and her family agrees not to ask her about her life in Wien.

In the meantime, the Iran-Iraq war has occurred, an event very little covered in film so far. Navy Petty Officer Keith Meinhold (one of the sailor who challenged the military ban in the 1990s) told me once that he flew missions over the waters near Iran during that war. Saddam Hussein lobbed a lot of hardware on Tehran, and the destruction is shown cleverly in the animation. At the end, there is peace, but no freedom, and Marjane talks about walking through Tehran as like walking through a cemetery. At various points, she struggles with and argues against the dress code for women in the “revolutionary” Islamic republic. In the West, she celebrates her "freedom" by using depilatory strips on her legs (again, weird to do in animation).

The film does give some insight into radical Islam, which in its Shiite version here sounds similar to what we hear about the (Sunni) Taliban in Afghanistan of about Sunni Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia. Of course, Muslims make much of obeying the dictates o Allah (as in the memorized Koran), but there has to be a psychological explanation for this kind of fervor; it must fulfill some kind of need. The emphasis on such strict control of women seems designed to support a patriarchy and a world in which men believe that they can “function” within a family unit. To a westerner that sounds “selfish” or like it is about “men controlling women.” But in a deeply tribal society as in that part of the world, people see it as a means of collective survival, and as a social system that guarantees some kind of meaningful life (in religious terms, at least) for everyone in a world filled with enemies and dangers. Authoritarian societies are always paternalistic (or maternalistic) and do not like the idea of letting individuals fall through the cracks. Yet, somehow, this has morphed into an incredible loss of respect for human life as we now understand it in the West. That is hard to explain.

One may want to check the remarks by Ahmadinejad about women and homosexuals at Columbia University in September 2007, here. Check also this with discussion of “Nina’s Heavenly Delights” (link) which is in Save status on Netflix.


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