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Persepolis: Marjane Satrapi's subversive masterpiece Persepolis seduces audiences in Cannes.

THIS YEAR'S CANNES International Film Festival mesmerised viewers with a simple black and white animated French produced film by Iranian born Marjane Satrapi entitled Persepolis. Amidst an international selection of heavyweight feature films by such greats as Quentin Tarantino, Wong Kar Wai and Gus Van Sant, an outspoken cosmopolitan duo of first-time directors, Iranian Marjane Satrapi and France's Vincent Paronnaud, seduced the Cannes Jury and the audience with their astonishing movie, the theme of which, resonated not only with our post-11 September troubled times, but was also a historical reminder of a nation's struggle to survive.

The screening of the film, at the 60th Cannes film festival, regarded as the most prestigious event of its kind, was followed by a spontaneous and lengthy standing ovation for the cast and crew.

Selected to run in several categories including the Palme D'Or, the film tied for first place in the Jury Prize category along with Silent Night, directed by Mexico's Carlos Reygadas.

An emotional Miss Satrapi dedicated her "universally themed film" to "all her Iranian compatriots worldwide".

The movie is an adaptation of the first black and white graphic novel by Satrapi. In the book, she describes her childhood during and after the overthrow of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1979, and the strict Islamic theocracy, controlled by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, that came to power soon afterwards. The child Marji, Satrapi's alter-ego, talks about the deep personal and political repression she experienced while growing up in theocratic Iran.

Persepolis offers a unique perspective on the social and historical changes that have taken place in Iranian society over three decades, providing valuable insights into the Iran-Iraq War as well as the personal challenges facing an outspoken Iranian girl growing up in exile.

In the Tehran of 1978, eight-year-old Marji dreams of being a future prophet, intent on saving the world.

Cherished by her modern and cultivated parents and adored by her grandmother, she avidly follows the events that lead to the downfall of the Shah's regime.

The introduction of the new Islamic Republic heralds the era of the 'Guardians of the Revolution' who control how people should dress and act. Marji, who must now wear the veil, dreams of being a revolutionary. Soon after, the city is bombarded in the war against Iraq. With the deprivations brought on by the conflict and the routine disappearances of family members and loved ones, the daily repression becomes more severe each day.

As her environment becomes increasingly dangerous, Marji's rebelliousness poses a serious problem. Her parents decide to send her to Austria for her own protection. In Vienna, 14-year-old Marji experiences another kind of revolution: adolescence, freedom and the dizzy heights of love but with this excitement comes loneliness and the bitter taste of life as an exile.

The power of the film resides in its universal poetic approach that combines the aesthetics of traditional animation (characteristic of the earl y Disney cartoons), with the black and white contrasting shades so vividly portrayed in Fritz Lang's German Expressionist Cinema and Roberto Rosselini's Italian Neo-Realistic films, both greatly admired by the creators of Persepolis. Thus the film transcends the initial Persian cultural context and its political dilemmas and reaches out to a much larger audience.

What the late Edward Said might have considered "Oriental", paradoxically finds echoes in Satrapi's description of her school days in Vienna as opposed to her less exotic western-oriented life in the post-War Tehran of the 1990s.

The movie underlines the somewhat schizophrenic pattern of life in the Islamic Republic. With humour and acute observations, Satrapi denounces Iran's "Gender Apartheid" questioning, for example how an art or medical student can efficiently study anatomy by observing a veiled model?

Why, the film poses the question, is a girl wearing her veil loosely regarded by some as a threat to social order and morality, yet a boy of the same age attending the same university can dress however he sees fit?

On the surface everyone abides by religious dogma; in private, however, people organise parties where prohibited alcohol and drugs flourish, where sexual promiscuity exists and where western music and Hollywood films replace daily religious rituals.

The revolutionary zeal of the early days of the Revolution gradually gives way to bewilderment, in a society where women constitute the majority of the population and, for the most part, were not even born in 1979. Challenging religious authority has become a national sport for boys and girls who openly flirt in the streets sometimes with dramatic consequences, as shown in one scene where Revolutionary Guards, after breaking into a private party, pursue the participants over Tehran's rooftops until one young boy trips, falls several stories, and is killed.

If imposed religious orthodoxy is blamed for the mounting problems of Iranian society, Satrapi avoids judging or admonishing those who by faith or tradition respect it. On many levels the film is a tribute to spirituality but in a secular form. All the positive characters in the film, such as Satrapi's outspoken grandmother, have strong moral and humanistic values that guide them on a journey through their lives. Paradoxically the theme of "culture clash" deepens when Marji returns to Iran to visit family and friends and comes to grips with the patriarchal nature of Persian society. She realises that the cliches regarding the West in Iran are as overwhelming as those regarding Iran in the West. This scenario highlights one fascinating undercurrent running through Persepolis, which 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.

Human "stupidity", so often denounced by Marji's beloved and not-so-old fashioned grandmother, is defined as the worst of plagues and, alas, the common denominator in all civilisations. The movie strongly denounces intolerance and the lack of curiosity in trying to understand others and accept differences.

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 illustrates this point.
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Title Annotation:MOSAIC
Author:Kadivar, Darius
Publication:The Middle East
Geographic Code:7IRAN
Date:Aug 1, 2007
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