The Iranian Revolution, In Black-And-White

A scene from the 2007 animated film "Persepolis." Sony Pictures Classics

Thirty years after it began, the story of the Iranian revolution is now being retold in an intriguing way. It's a remarkable tale of survival from the perspective of one remarkably talented woman ... a woman our Serena Altschul has been to meet:


So what do you do with a black-and-white, French-language animated feature film about an Iranian girl?

How about give it an Oscar nomination? Or film critics' awards in New York and Los Angeles? Or the jury prize at Cannes? Featuring stars like Catherine Deneuve and Sean Penn, Marjane Satrapi's film "Persepolis" is a hit.

"When you have, you know, this recognition, it's like being blessed," Satrapi said. "It's incredible."

Recently, an English language version of the film was released nationwide.

It is the story of a young girl coming of age in the middle of Iran's Islamic revolution.

"I wanted to show, as an insider, how I lived it," Satrapi said, "without wanting to make a lesson of history or of politics, or whatever. Not at all. Just to say, in my life, from my point of view, that is the way I lived the thing."

It's very much Satrapi's own story of growing up in a complicated, aristocratic family who opposed the Shah but then became disillusioned with the revolution.

There's her doting grandmother: "There's nothing worse in this world than bitterness and revenge."

And her fearful parents: "The boy shot next to us wasn't even 20. What's happened to this country?"

The film is based on Satrapi's graphic novel, also called "Persepolis." Her combination of bold black-and-white imagery and imaginative storytelling became a bestseller.

It was not Satrapi's own idea to turn her graphic work into a film. "From the beginning, I was like, no, no, no."

But then idea of an animated film replicating the novel's bold black-and-white imagery took hold, and she joined forces with a friend at a studio in Paris.

With an offer she couldn't refuse, she assembled a team of animators to begin the old-fashioned technique of drawing all the animation by hand. She even acted out all the parts - from the dog to the old man, her grandmother, herself.

To voice the parts of Marjie and her mother she got a famous mother/daughter acting duo: Catherine Deneuve and her daughter Chiara Mastroianni.

"I didn't choose them," Satrapi said, "Chiara chose me. My dream was to have Catherine Deneuve involved, so we sent the script to her, and Chiara, her daughter was familiar with the book. She went to see her mother, and she saw the script, and she's a very shy person. And she called to say, 'Can I give a try?'"

And indeed Mastroianni understood just what Satrapi was looking for. She even sang off-key on purpose.

For the English-language version, Deneuve and Mastroianni re-did their roles. Sean Penn provided the voice of the father, Gena Rowlands the grandmother, and Iggy Pop her imprisoned Uncle Anoush.

Her family's story, with some relatives executed by the Shah and some by the Islamic revolution, has been denounced by the Iranian government. In Tehran today, a censored version of her film has had a few screenings, but the whole film could be found on the black market, quickly.

"The movie came out in France on the 27th of December," Satrapi said. "December 30, a friend of mine called: 'Guess what? I bought your movie with Persian subtitles.' That was three days after. So it goes very fast!"

Though Satrapi's parents still live in Tehran, she hasn't been back in eight years. "Since I wrote the book I didn't go back. We didn't think it was a wise idea to go back."

Exiled from her homeland and now living in Paris with a Swedish husband, Satrapi remains an optimist willing to take on authority.

"We don't have the right to become cynical
As her grandmother says in the film, "Fear is what lulls our mind to sleep and makes us lose our conscious; fear is also what turns us into cowards. But what you did took courage, I'm so proud of you …"
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