My colourful life in black and white

By Helen Barlow

Persepolis draws a vivid portrait of the life of its Iranian creator, writes Helen Barlow

Given the advances in 3D animation - whether from Hollywood giants DreamWorks or Pixar - it seems strange that such a fuss should be made of a 2D animated black-and-white French film called Persepolis. Once you've seen it you realise why.

It's because the seemingly simple visual style delivers a lot of heart as it tells the autobiographical story of its Paris-based Iranian maker, 38-year-old Marjane Satrapi.

Her four original comic books on which the film is based touched some high-profile movie women who helped her bring her story to the screen - French screen icon Catherine Deneuve and producer Kathleen Kennedy, who has worked on Steven Spielberg's films for over 30 years.

"When I read a book I like, I also have the good fortune to be able to pick up the phone and ask the writer if they'd like to make a movie," Kennedy said. "I was really moved by Marjane's story and felt she was somebody quite extraordinary. I tracked her down in Paris and she was very interested in putting together an animation company and so we did."

The resulting film, which premiered in Cannes last year, ended up being Oscar-nominated alongside winner Ratatouille and Surf's Up.

Satrapi grew up in Tehran where she attended the Lycee Francais. She studied in Vienna and, after returning to Iran, settled in France where she was accepted into the Atelier des Vosges, a collective of comic book artists.

It was there that she met Vincent Paronnaud, her eventual co-director on the film, which follows her life during the tumult of the overthrow of the Shah, the outbreak of the Iraq-Iran war and culminates with her exile in Austria and her return to Iran.

Paronnaud said writing the screenplay with Satrapi was difficult.

"It was like walking on egg shells, as Marjane was still under the influence of certain events," he said.

Satrapi had to view the film as a kind of fiction for it to work.

"We're not necessarily looking at reality here but at the same time we're trying to get as close to the truth as possible," she said. "Reality is what you should see in the press, on radio and television. My job is to tell a good story and to do that as precisely as possible."

It helped that she enlisted a stellar voice cast. The mother-daughter team of Deneuve and Chiara Mastroianni recorded the voices of Satrapi and her mum in both the French and English versions, while in the English version Sean Penn voices her father and Iggy Pop her uncle. A huge hard rock fan, Satrapi was ecstatic at enlisting Mr Pop himself.

"I love Iggy's music. He has this wonderful deep voice and he's so virile," she said. "It was easy to work with him because he's one of the sweetest people."

The drive of Deneuve though was hard to surpass. "I'd asked Marjane if she would write a comic strip for an issue of Vogue I edited three years ago," the French legend recalls. "I'm attracted to her world as she deals with serious subjects in a way that is light-hearted and serious at the same time. There's emotion in her stories because the characters exist and that's something that's quite rare."

For Satrapi her homeland is now out of bounds. "No, I don't go back to Iran. I've been told all sorts of nasty things would happen to me if I did. Since I wish to preserve my freedom I avoid it. My links with the country are still very deep-seated but one can't live one's life foregrounding one's past all the time.

"I'm certainly not complaining. I've been able to do exactly what I want to do, I'm living with a man I want to live with in the place I want to live and I'm doing the job I want to do.

"I think one should live life with a smile and my job is to make other people laugh. In fact laughter is a very subversive weapon."

What: Persepolis, acclaimed animated feature about the life of Iranian-born graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi.
When & where: Screening Auckland International Film festival, Friday July 11 (Civic 6.45pm); Sat July 12 (Civic 4pm); Sunday July 13 (Lido 6.30pm); Monday July 14 (Bridgeway 6.30pm).

- NZ Herald

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