October 11, 2007

When I sat down to watch Persepolis, the opening film at the Ottawa International Animation Festival, I was already a fan of the comics it was based on—even though I'd never read them. A year ago Kino Kid introduced me to Marjane Satrapi's work via Poulet aux prunes (Chicken with Plums), another comic set in her native Iran, and it quietly blew me away with its lyrical storytelling. Like Charles M. Schulz's work, Satrapi's style is deceptive: It would be easy to look at its simplicity and starkness (like most of Schulz's work, her comics are in black and white, with no greys) and declare it childish or naïve. It would also be an injustice. With heavy-lidded eyes, wide-open mouths or rubber-hosey limbs, Satrapi's characters convey everything from gleeful, kinetic action to stark terror to heart-rending anguish—which is perfectly fitting for the autobiographical Persepolis.

The movie opens in Tehran, just a few years before the Iranian Revolution. Marjane's educated, progressive and politically aware parents are anticipating the fall of the Shah, and when the demonstrations start they're out on the streets protesting. In the middle of all this upheaval Marjane is starting to piece together her world view in that broad, semi-understanding, somewhat egocentric way that only a child can. As the situation becomes more dangerous (the protests turn violent), then hopeful (the Shah goes into exile, political prisoners are freed), then horribly awry (the rise of Islamic fundamentalism) she's forced to learn complicated, terrible lessons in a very short time.

One of the hardest lessons for Marjane to learn is to temper her smart mouth. A bright child raised by socially conscious parents, she had long been encouraged to question and to speak her mind—not an especially bad thing during the Shah's last days in power, but a dangerous trait in an increasingly restrictive society, and especially in one that devalues its women. When she's fourteen, her parents realize that Marjane can't thrive in Iran, so they send her to a French school in Vienna. It's there that Marjane suffers the trials and confusion of culture shock, racism and adolescence, sometimes separately, often all at once.

I ended up reading the first two collected Persepolis volumes after seeing the movie, and was struck by how w
ell they complement each other. Because of the way comics telescope time, there are some things that the movie compresses, and others it extends. In some cases, it's a mix of both: A scene in which the Guardians of the Revolution, Iran's militia and moral police, break up an illicit party is given more play in the movie, but Marjane's emotional aftermath is reduced to mere moments—and the result is that much more powerful.

The movie, which is co-written and co-directed by Satrapi (along with Vincent Paronnaud), is extremely faithful to her style; though it includes more grey tones to provide some texture, there are only slight concessions to the animated medium. (Again, a comparison to Schulz's Peanuts is apt here). Faithful, however, doesn't mean slavish: rather than using the comics as a literal storyboard, the movie uses them as springboard. As loose as the comics' style is, the movie takes advantage of animation's possibilities, especially with regards to the chadors and habits of the strictly religious Iranian women and nuns who have the misfortune to cross Marjane's path. Bodies bend, curve and coil; rarely to extreme, but often with a liveliness that's just a step above Satrapi's more contemplative comics. Several one- or two-panel elements (or even just speech balloons) from the comic get extended, sometimes hilarious play in the movie, including a whimsical take on the Shah's father's installation by the British, and the best rendition of "Eye of the Tiger" ever.

Persepolis is the cinematic sibling of other autobiographical films that encompass cultures and experiences that most in the West have heard or read of, but only really know superficially, like Barefoot Gen and Grave of the Fireflies; but it's also quite different. There's no singular, epic tragic moment as in Barefoot Gen, nor is there the shadow of death that hangs over Grave of the Fireflies. What we do have is several decades of a life, rather than a tiny sliver; and by observing the growth of that life, we're given a nuanced look at the culture and the people that shaped it. Satrapi's gaze is unflinching as she exposes everyone's good and bad sides; she not only reveals her own failings and hypocrisies, she exposes the good in people it would be easy to write off. When two militia members stop her family late one evening, she and her grandmother try to get to the apartment quickly so they can ditch her father's supply of alcohol. When the grandmother plays at being hypoglycemic for their excuse, one of the guardsmen softens for a moment and says, "Just like my mother. Go on."

This is Persepolis's magic. It presents a complex, layered, compassionate and often humorous look at the people of a country that has been presented only superficially to Westerners, most recently as a member of the "axis of evil" with a lunatic as a leader. It's a shame that the people who most need to see Persepolis likely won't, but in the meantime we can experience the joys and sadness of a life that is at once alien and familiar, in glorious black and white.

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September 18, 2007
Festival madness: Animatu 2007 kicks off its appreciation of digital animation in Beja, Portugal on October 17, featuring shorts like Ark, Codehunters and Guy's Guide to Zombies; in Spain, Animadrid starts off strong on September 28, opening with Nocturna; I'm still a little peeved at Aurora (formerly Norwich International Animation Festival) for dumping the word "animation" from their name because they think it's too restrictive, but damn do they have a lot of cool animation and animators in this year's fest, which starts November 7; Animae Caribe hits the University of the West Indies, Trinidad on October 25 and will feature a history of African animation; and the awesome Waterloo Festival for Animated Cinema returns to the tiny town starting November 15, with an undoubtedly incredible lineup and steady supply of excellent hot chocolate.

Two new additions to our Sites We Like blogroll (over on the lower right sidebar, in case you hadn't noticed): Fill This Space is Patrick Smith's space for ruminating on the art and animation that he makes, and that inspires him; Diego Stoliar's self-titled blog features his personal and creative work. I featured Patrick's Moving Along in our Flicker newsletter a while ago, and praised his Handshake ever so briefly in my review of the second Avoid Eye Contact DVD; Diego was a participant in the National Film Board of Canada's most recent iteration of the Hothouse project, and you can see his contribution, One, along with the rest of them here. They'e both great guys, and I hope one day we'll all share beers together.

In the past we've mentioned the weekend animation workshops that the National Film Board hosts for kids here in Montreal; I should also mention that the NFB in Toronto has been running the same kind of program at the Mediatheque, for budding animators aged 3 to 13. The current program runs through to April 2008, but you can jump in at any time.

The Iranian feature Persepolis has been making the festival rounds for most of the year, but it looks like Sony Classics is giving it at least some sort of a theatrical release. I don't know about the rest of the continent, but Montrealers will be able to catch it in English and French starting January 11.

Speaking of Sony, the company is picking up where Disney left off with direct-to-DVD sequels of its feature properties; the first title is Open Season 2. Fans may howl at the resurgence of cheapquels, but I imagine it's hard for executives to ignore the heaping piles of money they generate.

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April 30, 2007
It's good week to live in France. By that, I really mean it's only good to live in Nantes or somewhere really close by. Amer Beton, the French-subtitled version of Tekkon Kinkreet, opens on Wednesday theatrically in one theatre in that city, quite a few hours away from Paris. Allocine has the trailer and 4 excerpts of the film. Amer Beton was also the French version of the comic from which the film is adapted, and in English it was originally published under the name Black and White.

Now that Sony has picked up distribution rights, many people have been more hopeful. IMDB lists an American limited release for the second week of July, and I have yet to see or read anything for Canada outside of the festival circuit.

Several sites have been repeating that a domestic DVD release is set for the end of September. It seems to have begun with an announcement from Anime News Service, and picked up by several others, including the very reliable Twitch and Anime News Network. However, I have yet to see the date on the Sony website, despite most sites linking back to Sony's upcoming DVD releases, which are only listed until June. Viz is also planning to re-release the comic a few weeks before that, so it does make sense, but I'm still checking.

While all of this TK news is heartening, it bothers me that distributors still don't have enough faith to give innovative features a chance by giving them more theatrical exposure. I can't see it hurting their DVD sales, only increasing them.

At the end of the last week, the English Tekkon Kinkreet website went live, and you can access the trailer from the main page.

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April 2, 2007
Least surprising rebound ever. When DreamWorks and Aardman Features went their separate ways, right-thinking people realized that it was only a matter of time before someone inked a deal with the Bristol, UK studio. While it isn't a done deal as yet, it's looking like Aardman is inking a three-year first-look deal with Sony Pictures.

For my money, if you're Aardman and you've got to pair with someone for features, Sony is the place to go. While it would have been interesting to see Disney enter into a deal (thus covering their bases with hand-drawn, CGI, motion capture and stop-motion), the two companies' styles are so different I'd have howled if the two had even looked at each other coyly. Warner? They can't even promote the films they make themselves properly. And if we're looking at their Cartoon Network/Adult Swim division, then Aardman's relatively quiet British humour seems even more out of place. Same with Viacom—when it comes to features, if it doesn't feature boogers, obnoxious teens or lots of MTV-style editing, I don't think they'd care.

Sony, however, has spent years releasing foreign animated films (most of it their own anime like Steamboy and Metropolis, with the occasional Triplets of Belleville thrown in for good measure), and getting them into decent cinemas. They may not quite dominate the local kajillion-screen megaplex, but they get the movies out there more consistently than DreamWorks did with their anime releases. (Speaking of which, whatever happened to GoFish?)

I'm fixating on smaller releases because, as wonderful as Curse of the Were-Rabbit was, the fact is that it didn't pull the blockbuster numbers that DreamWorks wanted (or, given their investment, needed). Yet Chicken Run has shown that Aardman's got blockbuster chops. What Aardman needs is a distributor that understands that their material isn't necessarily created for an American audience, and while they can sometimes pull in $100 million-plus, that isn't always going to be the case. In short, a distributor who can be flexible. Sony's shown that they can do that.

This rebound relationship just might work out best for everyone.

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