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24 Mar

Director: Marjane Satrapi (2007)

One of the things that struck me about Persepolis, in addition to its fearless portrayal of typically controversial and overlooked Iranian politics, was the fact that unlike the plethora of unconnected novel adaptations, this film was not only based on a graphic novel but written and directed by its author.  While Satrapi is obviously not the only author to go on to direct his film, it is a rarity and, in the case of Persepolis, it is even rarer that he captures the unique essence of the novel in each and every frame of the movie.

Perseoplis begins with adult Marjane in an airport, hesitating at the check-in counter to board a flight to Tehran.  Her hesitancy sparks a flashback to 1978, back to Marjane, or Marji, as a young girl of 9 living in Tehran, a typical child enjoying the freedoms of childhood, playing with friends, loving life and Bruce Lee, meanwhile Tehran is bound by the corrupt grip of the Shah of Iran. Marji’s middle class family pride themselves on their strong political views about their country and the role and rights of the Iranian people the Shah’s government seems to have neglected yet rather than use this as a spring board for polemic tirades, Satrapi gives us the chance to understand this complex and involved period in political history through the eyes of a child. Uncle Anouche, voiced by the surprisingly wonderful Iggy Pop, provides Marji’s main insight into the life of political rebellion. Returning to the family home following his release from prision, Anouche tells Marji about his life in exile for his Communist beliefs which inevitably led to his arrest.

Meanwhile, the Islamis fundamentalists win the election resulting in Iran being ruled by the oppressive Khomeni, leader of the rebels who overthrew the Shah. Women must wear hijabs and the men, including Uncle Anouche, are once again hunted as a result of their political beliefs. However, the focus remains on Marji and her experiences growing up, staging her own kind of rebellion in the shape of denim jackets over her hijab, buying Iron Maiden records on the black market and voicing her distaste for the scripted teachings in the classroom. Fearing their daughter’s outspokenness might result in the same fate as her uncle, her parents decide to send Marji to live in Europe. It’s these moments, where we see Marji merging her Iranian identity with the lures of the Western culture that I found the most poignant and stand out in the film. Her unrelenting schism between who she wants to be, or rather who she thinks she wants to be, and her heritage is described to us by her adult self sat in that airport contemplating her return to Tehran, telling candid tales of pre-marital sex, fashion and drugs – a world away from Iran.

Persepolis is both visually and ideologically stunning; yet at the same time, it manages to be a harrowing and heart wrenching account of one of the most politically turbulent periods of time in Middle Eastern history. Quite an achievement for a cartoon. But apparently not enough of an achievement to avoid losing out on the Best Animated Feature Oscar to Ratatouille… seriously?


My Neighbour Totoro

4 Aug

Director: Hayao Miyazaki (1988)

This is a prime example of one of those films I had almost convinced myself that I had seen and most likely raved about how wonderful it was to people when in actuality, I had not. Until now.

I must admit, I’ve not really delved too far into the world of Japanese manga; there are several reasons for this, one of which being something which is exemplified in the opening credits of the film. Namely the childish, borderline terrifying bubblegum flavourings of Japanese pop music that it is perfectly acceptable for adults to enjoy.

This adult does not.

So as the shrill jubilations of the opening track played out I started to fear that perhaps this may have been a mistake. However I persevered and oh how my soul is glad.

The Kusakabe’s, made up of Satsuki, Mei and their father, have moved to the country to be closer to their mother who is in hospital recovering from some elusive, unnamed illness. Their new house, complete with mysterious Camphor tree, becomes a veritable haven for the eager and imaginative young girls who spend almost the first 30 minutes of the film galavanting around chasing ‘soot sprites’- black dust creatures who live in the rafters of the old house. Their (somewhat creepily reminiscent of the witch in Snow White) surrogate  Granny from next door informs them of the existence of such spirits and tells them not to be afraid.

Probably a good job considering these teeny bundles of dust are the least of their worries in terms of their supernatural cohabitants.  Tiny Mei, whose adorable little face and over enthusastic demeanour soon transcends from irritating to endearing, befriends some aforementioned spirits in the garden and does an Alice, following the rabbit like creatures through a briar patch and down the roots of the Camphor tree where she meets Totoro- a huge rabbit with a snoring problem. A beautiful friendships ensues. One that made a part of me wish I had a lovely rabbit mattress at the bottom of my garden- and this is coming from a girl who does not enjoy joy (apparently).

And that is essentially what the film is about. A simple and endearing friendship between two sisters thrown into a strange new place and their adventures as they settle in, make new friends and deal with the sometimes harsh realities of life. It is about exploration, exploring new places in both the physical real world but also inside our imaginations. There is not really any plot but it is hard to notice this lack when you too are mindlessly flying around paddyfields with Totoro and his little umbrella or riding (what might be the most disturbing) catbus around the town.

Sometimes we need a lovely animated film in our lives and My Neighbour Totoro is one you certainly do need in your life. Painting an enchanted pastel world on our screens and in our imaginations, imbued with traditional Japanese culture, the film’s lack of plot is easily eclipsed by our own eagerness to join the girls’ adventures and embrace the simple joys of life. Like running through the forest chasing huge rabbit creatures who don’t mind it when we use their stomachs as trampolines.