The animated art of Persepolis

Despite its stark monochrome look and potentially sombre storyline of growing up in revolutionary Iran, the animated film Persepolis has all the makings of a classic. Narrowly missing an Oscar adds to its credentials, says Nargess Shahmanesh-Banks

‘I like Toy Story,’ says Marjane Satrapi. ‘But computer-generated animation only works if you have a huge budget. Besides, the hand can make something the machine can never do. Traditional animation like the Jungle Book has a special charm,’ she smiles. ‘And, if I devote three years of my life to making a movie, I don’t want it to date.’

Satrapi is referring to her critically acclaimed, feature-length animation film Persepolis, which won the special Jury Prize at Cannes last June, was nominated for an Oscar in February, and is finally on general release this month in the UK.

Written and directed in collaboration with Vincent Paronnaud, the film is an adaptation of the two-volume, black-and-white graphic memoir of the same name, written by the Iranian-born Satrapi.

It tells the story of a young girl growing up in Iran, living through the 1979 revolution that saw the establishment of the Islamic regime, followed by the imposition of the veil, political unrest, a devastating war with Iraq, and then her exile in Austria and Paris.

In keeping with Satrapi’s graphic novels, the film was also hand-drawn in traditional 2D animation and, like her memoir, it has been illustrated largely in stark black and white, with moody shades of grey.

The project relied on the skills and dedication of its 20 animation artists. It was a lengthy process that involved the author physically acting out scene after scene for the illustrators who used this, combined with the pre-recorded voices, to draw the characters’ each and every movement. At best, they managed 40 seconds of animation per week. ‘And this was pre-editing,’ she notes.

Each frame was then retraced using a special felt-tip pen to give the organic feel of the book. For this, the film-makers sourced the only French hand-inker, and wooed him to Paris from Lyon to train the others.

Not surprisingly, Satrapi is a Fritz Lang fan. There is no mistaking the homage to early German Expressionist film, especially Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920). ‘Nothing has been made more beautiful in black and white,’ Satrapi agrees.

She explains that, as the story is from the viewpoint of a child, anything the heroine cannot see or understand is shaded. Plus, the historical sequences are created like an old-fashioned puppet show, whereby the layered effect allows for long stories to be told in a shorter time span.

Unusually, the only splashes of colour in Persepolis are in the scenes of exile that introduce and end the film. The vivid colour, Satrapi explains, represent loneliness. ‘I wrote the book as a reaction to how we [Iranians] were being portrayed in the 1990s, but I made the film in Paris, in exile, when I was feeling homesick.’

The film has now been dubbed in English with Sean Penn voicing the father and Iggy Pop the uncle.

Persepolis may have lost in the 2008 Oscars’ Best Animation Feature Film category to Disney’s big box office Ratatouille, but like Art Spiegelman’s graphic memoir of the Holocaust, Maus, it belongs to a genre of essentially intelligent adult animation that, like it or not, captures the harsher realities of our times. l

Persepolis is on general release in its original French language version and also dubbed in English from 25 April

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