12th 10 - 2015 | no comment »

CIFF 2015: Dégradé (2015)

Directors/Screenwriters: Arab Nasser and Tarzan Nasser

2015 Chicago International Film Festival


By Marilyn Ferdinand

When most of the world hears about Palestine, it’s usually in connection with military or police actions, not for anything to do with art and culture. Indeed, for many people, it is hard to conceive of something resembling daily life, let alone artistic expression, in a country so battered by external and internal war and political strife. But, of course, life does go on for the people who make their home there whether by choice, necessity, or simply the inability or lack of opportunity to go anywhere else. With Dégradé, twin brothers Arab and Tarzan Nasser have offered the rest of us a window into what it’s like to live in a battle zone.


All of the action takes place inside Christine’s Beauty Salon or on the wide, dirt street that fronts it. Christine (Victoria Balitska) is a married Russian who has lived in Gaza for 12 years and has a 10-year-old daughter (Nelly Abou Sharaf) whom she keeps shooing away from the window to do her homework until her father comes to pick her up and take her home. The salon is stuffed with a dozen women waiting their turn with Christine or her assistant (Maisa Abd Elhadi). Christine is working on the hair and make-up of a young woman (Dina Shebar) who is to be married that very evening, and the assistant spends most of her time on her cellphone, crying and arguing with her boyfriend Ahmed (Tarzan Nasser), a gangster standing just outside the salon with his automatic rifle and a lion he has “liberated” from the zoo to serve as his pet. Night will fall without a single woman walking out the door with a new look.


As the women swelter all day in the salon—use of the fan is too much of a drain on the three hours of power the area gets each day—the inevitable arguments become the focus of the story. The mother (Reem Talhami) and mother-in-law (Hude Imam) of the bride clash about whether Christine should cut or put highlights in her hair, taking up their posts in the traditional war zone of familial merger. A chain-smoking, middle-aged woman (Hiam Abbas) who could have been inspired by the lyrics of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” keeps her scowl trained on the other women and especially on the assistant who is supposed to be giving her a full beauty treatment for her date later that night with the man to whom she coos seductively into her cellphone. A religious woman (Mirna Sakhla) trades barbs with a potty-mouthed woman (Manal Awad) stoned on Tramadol who may be her sister. What that pair is doing in the salon is anyone’s guess, but without their terrific comedy act, the film would be humorless and possibly unwatchable. To top the ensemble off, a woman days away from giving birth walks in with a friend or relative to add her imminent contractions to the party.


If this film had been made in almost any country other than Palestine, I would be trashing it for its sexist set-up and unoriginality. However, radical Islam is highly sexist, and the beauty salon is one of the few places where women can go and where they can dress as they like. Every time one of them leaves the salon—and that only happens two or three times in the film—she must put on a head scarf. The assistant dons a burka as well to tell Ahmed to move his lion away from the shop, only to get scolded for not completely covering her hair. We don’t learn the names of any of the characters aside from Christine and Ahmed, which emphasizes the marginalized position of native women in Palestinian society under Hamas. What a waste of human potential!

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Nonetheless, the Nassers give voices to the voiceless. The religious woman is no supporter of Hamas; she thinks that one ruling power is as bad as the next and that Hamas is not truly adhering to the ideals to which she has dedicated herself. Christine, interestingly, says she’s gotten used to life in Gaza, that it’s not much worse than Russia and much less expensive. The potty-mouthed woman can’t seem to stop talking and talking, saying one rude thing after another as her foil tells her to shut up, and finally assigning each of the women to a ministry in the government she would run if she could. The assistant is besotted with her gangster boyfriend who makes her miserable, but she can’t seem to give up on him—a metaphor for the desperate Palestinians who cling to hope through Hamas.

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The women’s endless wait to be served by Christine and her assistant seems a sad commentary on the failure of Hamas and the world to bring stability and a measure of freedom to Palestine. In fact, the salon will find itself in the middle of a firefight as Hamas attempts to retake the lion from the street thugs. What insanity is it to carry out a war in the streets to save face over the theft of a single animal! In the end, drunk on its own power and anger, Hamas destroys what it says it wants to defend. This film is not a pleasant one to watch, but it does put one’s own troubles in perspective and evoke a certain admiration for the people who carry on and have hope in the face of overwhelming misery.

Dégradé screens Thursday October 22 at 6:15 p.m., Friday, October 23 at 8:30 p.m., and Wednesday, October 28 at 12:30 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

Chronic: Compassionate, unflinching look at a home care nurse who treats dying and gravely ill patients as he begins to come to terms with his own terrible loss. (Mexico)

Clever: A divorced martial arts instructor pursues the reconstruction of his ego with a custom paint job on his car in this knowing comedy about human foibles. (Uruguay)

Adama: This ingeniously animated coming-of-age story takes a West African boy from his sheltered village to the very heart of darkness—the battlefield of Verdun during World War I—to bring his older brother home. (France)

How to Win Enemies: On the eve of his brother’s wedding, a lawyer is drawn into investigating a theft that hits close to home in this comedy set in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires. (Argentina)

Women He’s Undressed: Renowned director Gillian Armstrong offers an entertaining, partially dramatized documentary about Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly, who dressed some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. (Australia)

20th 01 - 2008 | 5 comments »

Persepolis (2007)

Directors: Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud


By Marilyn Ferdinand

I admit I have a lot of trouble writing about animated feature films. For me, art is an interior experience, a far more subjective exercise in viewing and absorbing than looking at a movie with real settings and live actors. Animation gives me complete access into the writer/illustrator’s vision—no famous faces and places mitigating that experience—and that fact puts another layer of contemplation into how I see these movies. I welcome the challenge, however, when the film provides me with a rich and honest canvas of images and emotions.

Persepolis, an animated film of the autobiographical graphic novels by Marjane Satrapi, is a truly extraordinary anime in the spirit of adult anime we have come to associate with the Japanese. Satrapi is an Iranian who has been living in self-imposed exile in France for some time. Persepolis was the ancient capital of Persia (now Iran) that was sacked by Alexander the Great in 331 BC and now lies in ruins. The film chronicles Marjane’s life in the current capital, Tehran, under the Western-backed Shah, through the Islamic revolution that deposed the shah and on to the strict Islamist government that replaced it. The journey on which Satrapi takes us is both back in time through her life as told in voiceover flashback, and to the echoes of ancient Persepolis and its sad fate repeated again in the 20th century AD.

The film begins at an airport, where an adult Marjane (voiced by Chiara Mastroianni) is asked for her passport and ticket. She looks dumbfounded at the ticketing agent, then adjusts her veil on her head and walks away. She sits and the full-color illustration turns black and white as Marjane reminisces about her life.


As a child, Marjane (voiced by Gabrielle Lopes) is exuberant and outspoken. Her hero is Bruce Lee. So is her grandmother (voiced by Danielle Darrieux). Her parents (voiced by Catherine Deneuve and Simon Abkarian) are against the shah, who imprisoned Marjane’s Uncle Anouche (voiced by François Jerosme) for being a communist. When the shah is overthrown in 1979, the Satrapis and most of the rest of the country rejoice, including Anouche, who has been freed from prison.


Unfortunately, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism brings a different kind of repression to the country. Not only are communists persecuted, but also anyone who challenges the authority of the mullahs and the fundamentalist Muslims who take over the instruments of government. When Marjane’s aunt applies for an emergency visa for her husband, who desperately needs open-heart surgery in Europe, she complains that her former window washer turned her away, saying only that if Allah wishes it, she will have her visa. Marjane’s uncle is buried three weeks later. Anouche, as a former communist, returns to prison and eventually is executed.

Marjane, still outspoken, takes risks to preserve her former way of life as best she can. She borrows money from her mother to buy Western music from black marketers who are standing along a street. As she walks among them, she hears whispers of “Michael Jackson,” “The Beatles,” and finally the one she wants, “Iron Maiden.” Marjane takes a jacket, paints “Punk Is Not Ded” on the back, and dons it over her chador. Two teachers accost her and warn her parents that all will not be well if they don’t bring their daughter into line.

Eventually, worried for Marjane’s safety, her parents decide to send her to stay with a cousin in Vienna. After their tearful farewell at the airport, Marjane walks away; she turns back in time to see her mother collapse in her father’s arms and be carried away. Once in Vienna, Marjane is quickly sent from her cousin’s home and to a convent school. Her uneasy stay comes to an end when, after the nuns have used a racial slur against her, she says, “Is it true that all nuns are prostitutes first?” Marjane bounces from home to home and finally ends up in with an older woman and her dog, Muki, the latter of which humps Marjane’s leg at every opportunity.


Confused and longing to fit in, Marjane takes up with a group of punks. Through them, she meets her first love, but finds him in bed with another woman one day. Depressed, she rejects him in her mind in a series of riotous fantasies of him covered with pimples, picking and eating his snot, and slavishly giving in to his mother. Marjane goes home and throws herself on her bed. When the old lady gives her a hard time, Marjane explodes. She insults the woman and her dog and leaves. She decides to return to Iran, but once there, she feels like an alien in her own land. She remains outspoken as ever at her university. In the end, Marjane leaves Iran for France, probably for good.

I had a leg up in understanding Marjane’s story because I had read the remarkable memoir of these very times, Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi, an educated woman and university professor who described poignantly the lot of women under the mullahs and the variety of choices they had to make depending on their level of devoutness and Westernization. None of the horrors Nafisi described are missing from Persepolis. Satrapi describes the waste of the 8-year war with Iraq, the bombed houses, the executions. A particularly affecting story has Marjane’s father try to secure a fake passport for Anouche; later, he and Marjane learn that the forger’s residence has been raided, his equipment trashed, and a woman he had been hiding arrested. We see the woman in silouette standing in front of a hangman’s noose, awaiting execution. The forger flees the country.

We also get a bit of a history lesson about the first and second shahs, whose deals with the West to modernize Iran included persecuting dissidents against democracy and Western influence. Although the repressions were often brutal, they also were contained; the imprisonments and executions increased 100-fold under the mullahs.


Perhaps surprisingly, the film is also quite lighthearted. We laugh when Marjane and her friend make fun of an ABBA album in class. When Marjane illustrates her growth spurt, with each part of her body suddenly ballooning and toppling her one way and another, it’s a true revolution in the depiction of puberty. The absurdist-humanist eye that started when Marjane doodled her first caricature is fully developed in the straightforward lines and painful memories she creates for Persepolis.


For Marjane, honesty is the most important value. She betrays that code to save her own skin at one point, bringing down the wrath of her grandmother. “Always be yourself, know yourself,” admonishes her grandmother, who says it’s the only way to endure the lousy facts of life. This sounds like good advice, but to a woman trying to make peace with living in another country that is somewhat hostile to Muslims, clinging steadfastly to her Iranian identity is no small feat. The shock of her ordeal stays with her, a rip in her heart over her lovely, lost land, hidden but never healed. She never wanted to be a citizen of the world and still seems to feels adrift, as this honest interview she gave to Bookslut in 2004 demonstrates. As long as Marjane continues to write and draw her simply wrought, honest graphic novels, we’re sure to learn how her grandmother’s advice plays out in the long run. Personally, I can’t wait to find out.

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