By David D'Arcy
Who would have thought that the official knots of rhetoric about Iran, one of the three legs of the "Axis of Evil," and about France, the eternal scapegoat for American politicians, would be undone by a film adaptation of a comic book?
Persepolis, the new film by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, won't bring us world peace, but it brings us a piece of the world that ideologues have been trying to reshape in the service of American foreign policy for decades. To say that the animated film version of Satrapi's now famous autobiographical comic has more true emotion than blood revenge live-action epics like The Kingdom is, of course, faint praise. It may be more to say that this is an animated film that goes far beyond anything childish or grotesque - whether the grotesquery is the testosterone violence infusion of Beowulf or the grotesquery of White House talking points, even if Iran's threat has now been brought down a notch or two from the peak it'd hit just a few months ago.
Persepolis takes on a simple story that gets complicated as one enters – nothing if not the classic approach of the Persian or Arabian tale. Young Marjane is a tomboy enamored of American culture in the Iran of the Shah, in which family and friends who show disloyalty or opposition are persecuted. Her grandmother is s constant source of comfort and advice. When the Islamic Republic replaces the Shah, things get even worse, and the young girl is sent to school in Austria, where she experiences extreme mal du pays with boys and loneliness and the perennial xenophobia that one tends to find in German-speaking countries. Back in Iran again, Marjane and her friends try to live normally in a state run by religious zealots, and innocent people are persecuted once again. It's another version of the coming-of-age story, but one in which police conduct house to house searches for partying youth and models in art school classes pose covered from head to toe.
If ever a subject needed levity, this was it.
Satrapi is one of the many comics authors around the world who has been inspired by Maus, Art Spiegelman's comic about coming to terms with the Holocaust and his father's years in Auschwitz. Iran isn't Auschwitz, despite the apocalyptic threats against Israel made by Iran's leader and despite demonology by the Bush administration. Yet Satrapi echoes Spiegelman in the way her characters' lives are ruled by an absolutist regime, and in the small ways that they try to find refuge in a society that they can't escape.
It's a hard story to compress down to 90 minutes, or to reconstitute out of whole cloth, as Satrapi and her collaborator Vincent Paronnaud say they have. You can see why Spiegelman has been reluctant so far to adapt Maus.
It's an odd coincidence that, at the end of the year, we're reconsidering Persepolis, a tale about Iran in French, with the Hollywood version of things French in the mildly funny and vastly over-praised Ratatouille. If they are vying for awards in the field of animation, it's no contest.
It's less of a coincidence that Persepolis is sharing the honors of being one of the year's best films with the extraordinary Offside, Jafar Panahi's film about girl soccer fans in Tehran who dress as men and risk arrest to sneak into the stands to watch their national team play. Some of the girls even dress as soldiers. Each of the films stands nationalism on its head - Persepolis by personalizing a character's affection for family and home, Panahi's by examining persistent national pride and the way it gets expressed - obliquely, to put it mildly - among girls who have been legislated into second-class citizens. Put both on George W. Bush's Christmas list. To be fair, I think he'd like both of them if he had the discipline to sit through them. Neither is an "art film" or an agit-prop tract.
Another suggestion - see the French version of the film with voices done magnificently by Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve, Danielle Darrieux, and the great Simon Abkarian. I'm sure the American cast with Sean Penn and Iggy Pop in the version to be released widely means well, but Satrapi's story was written and published in French.
I spoke to Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud when they were at Persepolis's North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. Most of that conversation was in French, so I've included the original French words or phrases in parentheses when they were difficult to translate or when the original would be familiar to an English-speaking audience.
Why did you decide to tell your story in images, and not, as one might say, normally?
Marjane Satrapi: I couldn't do it any other way. I think in images. I love to draw. There was no other way. It's a bit as if you were asking a singer why he sings and doesn't dance. That's what I know. It's impossible for me to write without using images. I can't separate them.
How does that fit into the Islamic prohibition of the image?
Satrapi: In Iran, in Shiite Islam, you have a whole range iof imagery. It's not like Sunni Islam. where you don't have the same representation of things in images. In Iran, the imams were depicted, the prophet was depicted - it's not at all the same culture. I studied art, and we drew from models, we made drawings, we made sculpture. It had nothing too do with those other Islamic countries.
We know that the comics strips and books of Persepolis reached an audience in France and other countries. How did the film happen?
Vincent Paronnaud (co-director, co-screenwriter): At first, there were producers who proposed it to Marjane. So then, as we were coming from the independent milieu of comic books, we accepted, because we thought it would be a good toy to have fun with. That's it.
Was this your first experience with filmmaking?
Paronnaud: With feature length, yes. I had made some shorts, but this was the first time at this length. So we accepted, and then we wondered about how useful it might be to make a film. The book was a success, and we started thinking that it would be a bad idea to try to adapt it. We thought a lot about how to adapt it, how we would move ahead, and we put a huge amount of work into the script, and into research. The film and the book - it's the same story, but it's not at all the same project.
So was the real challenge compressing the book into the film?
Paronnaud: No, it's wrong to see it that way, because we added scenes that were not in the book. We had things to say, and we were just looking for the best appproach to saying it. It was a film of an hour and a half - we couldn't make a 25-hour film.
Did you ever think of approaching this as a series of nine or ten episodes, each of 55 minutes, for television?
Satrapi: We don't like series. I hate series. And I also don't like films that are number one, number two, and so on.
Vincent: We saw this as one entire single work, so it wasn't just a version of the book. As I explained, we took the book, and we put it to one side, and this was a diffrerent project.
How does your family feel about being depicted in the book or the film?
Satrapi: It's up to them to say that. I don't want to put myself in the place for speaking on behalf of other people.
Was anyone in your family or among your friends critical of the book for exposing any aspects of their private lives? What about Marcus, the Austrian boy who betrays you?
Satrapi: I don't say much about anyone's private life. As for the other people who are in the film, whether I'm being nasty about them, you never see their faces or know their names. I changed everything - not because I'm afraid of them, but because I have a point of view. Take my boyfriend in the film, Marcus. I do get a little nasty with him, and show him to be nasty. But from his point of view, he's a 19-year-old boy whom I ask to be everything for me, and he couldn't be that. If I were to ask for his point of view, he would say that I was being nasty. The only thing is that I have a means to express myself in the book and the film, and he has no means to express himself. Here I'm treating him badly, showing from my heart that he doesn't have a heart, which isn't exactly fair play.
Paronnaud: It's wrong to assume that we are looking for realism here. And that's the reason why we worked in animation. Before anything, it's a story. We're approaching it the way we would a work of fiction. The characters existed, but its not exactly the way they were. The streets are there, but they're not the same.
Satrapi: As soon as you have a script, there's a fictional side to it. You have to betray things. It's not a documentary on my life. It's story, and you should never forget that.
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