Why not everyone is gonna watch Persepolis.

Marjane Satrapi is a living talent. In my lifetime, there has never been an animated film – and never a motion picture itself – as satirically biting as her beloved ‘Persepolis’. What makes it exceptional lies on her ungodly experiences she herself had tasted through the tumultuous periods of life. She is not only doing her own tale-telling; things go deeper in the entirety of the 95 minutes Persepolis offers you. Deeper in her soul, she tells a fairytale about a polity imprisoned by its own isolationist regimes.

The story began with a young woman, that is Satrapi herself, undergoing a watertight immigration check-up upon her arrival in Charles de Gaulle International Airport, Paris, 1994. She later went into a toilet, and saw one French woman viewing her – and her headscarf, a must-have item for women in today’s Iran – with full suspicion. In no time, the scene moved into Satrapi sitting in a cafe, while a cloudburst was taking place outside the airport, at the same time contemplating about her gruesome past. There, we began to see a 9-year-old Satrapi, bigotric of Bruce Lee, Che Guevara, and revolution. A 9-year-old who was full of beans on revolutionary hopes instigated by the 1979 revolt which ousted the dictatorial, heavily anti-Communist Reza Shah Pahlevi. Life became more exuberant after her uncle, Anoush, was released from the prison after having been behind bars for 9 years, due to his Communist-inspired rebellion against the regime. Little Marji was overwhelmed by hopes, dreams, and ambitions (one of which was to become a prophet) by the outcome of the revolution; societies cherished the collapse of the regime of terror, which Satrapi indirectly implied as ‘teddy-bear of the West’.

However, it took not much time to grab every smiling face from virtually every citizen of the country. As soon as the Islamic Fundamentalists, those led by similarly brutal, sadistic, and savage Ayatollah Rohullah Khomeini, led a victory landslide with an overwhelming 99.9%, Iran was back into another regime of terror, but this time, on the behalf of ‘Islamic Republic of Iran’. Women are no longer allowed to adopt Western styles of fashion outside their homes; every woman was required to wear hijab, otherwise they might be alienated by surrounding societies.

Her uncle – also her very own source of inspiration for her exuberant life, Anoush, was all in a sudden captured by the regime due to his ideology, and was subsequently executed by a firing squad. Iran was preparing for a war with Iraq, a war in which would later claim more than 1 million lives, and lasted for 8 years. Almost every single day was spent with overwhelming fear, due to the high possibility that Iraqi forces would fire missiles into their apartments, and blow their bodies apart. Millions of men and women were recruited in self-defense jihad units, in which they sacrificed their lives by crossing through the heavily landmine-infested Iran-Iraq borderline. To make things more miserable, Satrapi put a scene in which her mother was involved in a conversation with their neighbor, who had lost all her 5 sons in the war, and instead having them ‘rewarded’ with a government-made plastic key, which symbolizes ‘path to heaven for courageously expelling the kafirs’.

All the situation had its own immediate effect on Satrapi. There was much personal tumult she had to struggle. All sorts of Western art were prohibited – and are still in effect until this day. That means obtaining them would be a grueling process; even vendors of pirated DVDs on American movies would have to put their eyes all the time on to anticipate any unexpected raids that may be conducted by some kind of local sharia patrolmen. She expressed all her concerns on the loud, banging, explosive sounds of heavy metal bands, notably Iron Maiden (her lifetime idol), listened vividly to Michael Jackson’s songs (often mis-spelt in Iran as Jichael Mackson), and wore a denim jacket with signs written out ‘punk is not ded’.

Her personal struggle escalated after she was moved to Vienna, Austria, in 1983. She lived in a rented house under the strict supervision of Catholic nuns, but in her schooling life, she befriended a group of punk, anarchy-minded Bohemians, and frequently attended underground, death-metal concerts. She fell in love with one of them, but the relationship ended off in no time after the man declared openly he ‘is a gay, and is proud of it’. Having fallen headfirst into desperation, her relationship with the Catholic nuns deteriorated, and she was expelled after a rabble-rousery fracas, which ended up by snapping at the nuns as ‘prostitutes’. Most of her time in Vienna was spent bohemianly, where she had to move from her friend’s house to her friend’s house, again into her friend’s friend’s house, again into her friend’s friend’s house, and even had to stay 4 all-gay couples for some time, before she found a brief period of tranquility staying in a philosopher’s house. She fell in love with a freelance playwright, but she even fell headlong, deeper into the valley of stygian desperation, after finding out her lover was having sex with another woman.

Her life became unstable since then; she often had falling-outs with the philosopher, and ended up expelled. For months, she had to wander around the streets of Vienna as a beggar, having survived day to day from the food remainings she found in landfills. In a deep night, she fell into comatose. Someone out there had taken her to hospital. Unable to cope with the emotional pressure she had been facing for months, she decided to return back to her homeland.

Back in Iran, Satrapi again regained her gusto after she dreamt she met God – and Karl Marx, her longtime idol. She enrolled back into academic life, amidst increasing fear about more possible repressions coming up in the future, since the death of Ayatollah Rohullah Khomeini. She openly spoke up about the hypocrisies and all the religious absurdities in symposiums, fell in love with a local man, married her afterwards, and divorced him 4 years later, before she moved to Paris, and lives there until now.

—–

To be honest, Persepolis is many times ‘crunchier’ than any animated films I have ever seen. If there were a measurement unit to calculate how deep these films are from 0 to 10, I would rate most of Dreamworks-produced films on average 5, most of Pixar-produced films on average 7.5, and Persepolis on 10. I don’t say that all Dreamworks- and Pixar-made films are bad, but Persepolis has its own path to interpret about the absurdities of the world in a simplified manner that, if you listen deeply on their dialogues, you will slowly feel it. But not everyone will do it. Only those who are already well-prepared to witness the personal tumults of Satrapi as a woman, and as part of Iranian nation, are permitted to watch Persepolis.

But perhaps the most important theme it wants to emphasize is about the essence of human freedom. Satrapi was once born in a country ruled by dictatorial regime, and once had to overcome all the challenges imposed by another, religion-based regime who continues to rule Iran iron-handedly until this second. Once she was set free, she had made one mistake, and had learnt it: the metaphorical wired fences of harsh rules had ‘forced’ her to dream and seek her very own utopia, a realm of absolute freedom. But the world out there never permits, and is always absurd. Only the resilience and fortitude of hearts of man in seeking human freedom itself that will set themselves free, not the elusive, imaginary pledges of utopia. That had ruined her life once. And she realized she must not make another mistake like that anymore.

This is a film to commemmorate everyone who dreams of being ‘set free’.

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Sailing through a sea of tumults

SATURDAY, 10 SEPTEMBER 2011

Perhaps this is a sequel of the longest, perhaps-most-tedious note I ever wrote approximately two and a half months ago (read: The days I had in SEALNet).

In my lifetime, over 16 years and almost 9 months, I had always thought of how exhilarating it was to become a leader. I always imagined myself being a leader would be, to a lesser extent, at least, not too difficult. You’ve got quite many staff to help you out. Everybody would respect you with the new position you’re entitled with. If you could solve a problem or answer a challenge, your dignity would raise to the seventh heaven.

But compared with feeling it, thinking was metaphorically only one-thousandth the tense of true feeling, assume there were international approval upon setting up a new unit or denomination on the size of ‘feeling’ itself. Unless you have experience, you won’t really feel it. Thinking is just, always and as always, the mere surface of the reality. The deeper you go into the core, the more you will feel how reality actually is.

And that’s what I’ve been going through in nearly three months since the designation of me as a leader.

My senior, Edric Subur, had put up his decision to elect me as the next President of SEALNet Medan Chapter. Beforehand, many of my friends who joined the prior program had forecast about me leading this youth-only organization. At first, I thought of that idea as unacceptable. After the third workshop was over (for more details, just read the previous note), one of my mentors, Ricky Chen, joked that ‘I would be the next President after Edric.’

“You’re just joking, anyway,” That’s what I told him.

“What if you are really elected?” He replied.

I used to believe his words, and almost everybody’s words, that they were making a caprice. Even my English tuition teacher, Miss Erica, joked that someday I would become the ‘next president of Indonesia’. (will a Chinese be voted by the majority, anyway?) When I went home and told my mom about this so-called ‘prophecy’, my mom strongly advised me to turn down this offer, but in the long run, she said, the final decision was up to me.

“Being a president will never always be as easy as a piece of cake,” She told me. “You don’t really have any gifts of the gab. Just tell them to turn down this offer, and as a form of compensation, you can help them by volunteering in the organization.”

“But this program is based in MIT and Stanford, ma.”

“Oh, yeah? Really?”

“Edric even told me there are SEALNet chapters in NUS and NTU. Who knows my position as a president will ease me up to get admitted in these world-hailed universities?”

“Just go ahead, then.”

To heal the tedium, let me just simply push forward 72 hours later. All of us, except our mentors, were waiting in a garden outside one of our friends’ house (Wilbert’s house, to be precise). Only after this minute, I began to realize that indirectly, our future was being decided by our seniors. I stared at the night sky, wondering around the stars, shop-houses, vehicles passing by, and a few apartments. Only a few minutes after, things would have all changed. Until they ordered us to get inside, that’s where Edric executed his decision.

At first, 18 persons were elected to fill in their positions, to each his own. Unlike other organizations, SEALNet always makes use of its so-called ‘bi-presidential system’. As if a country were ruled by two different presidents. There were me and Claristy, having been appointed in the same position. But I found the structure was a bit queer: two presidents with only one secretary? It’s normal if you conceive an idea of ‘one president, two secretaries’, but this is so highly quizzical that one secretary has to single-handedly assist two presidents at the same time. The latest must-teach management structure model in business schools, if I can guess. Here was Adriana Salim, our so-called ‘underling’.

6 Project Managers (Anthony Morgan Tjoe, Budi Andoro, Handoko, Sevien, Winnie Jesslyn, and Wilbert R.A.), 6 Publicity Managers (Davin Wijaya, Eldson, Erick Chandra, Hartono Wijaya, Leonardy Kristianto, Mauren Tanaka) , 2 Recruitment Managers (Julie Christine, Megawati Wijaya), and 1 Treasurer (Jennifer Lie) were each appointed by our seniors at that time. Until this minute, 3 of them had already resigned: Julie Christine, Hartono Wijaya, and Sevien. Elvira Yunitan in the end became the sole Recruitment Manager, having to toil with me, Claristy, Adriana, and the entire Publicity Managers, together with some from Project Division to help recruiting members throughout the Senior High School. Besides doing all the tasks adjusted to their divisions, all of us are also responsible as mentors as well.

Soon afterwards, as soon as we handed in the proposal on establishing SEALNet as the latest extra-curricular program to our school principal (actually he’s the one who introduced this program to our school), in less than one month until we closed the registration date on 1st August, almost 170 students had registered for the program.

I had no idea what the world, or the fate, or the destiny, was trying to undertake at this program – it only started in no more than a month, and soon afterwards, with so much indirect promotion conducted by teachers, and particularly, our school principal (he even asked students to be ‘socially active’ by joining SEALNet, once in a speech conveyed during a school ceremony). In no more than an hour, two dozens of students had already registered their names to Adriana. It was a virtue, but it was a defiance, as well, all at the same time. Teaching almost 170 students while we even had never had first-hand experiences in teaching? I kept on asking this question until now.

The first challenge is providing them with enough teaching modules. The problem is we do not have enough materials to convey our teaching modules. That’s our first weakness. The second challenge, facing some of those who are extraordinarily mischievous. Particularly those from the First-Grade. The third challenge, we lack of mentors. This was added with the fact that after more than two months getting entangled in the program, Sevien decided to resign, only one day before we started the first workshop, that was on 27th August.

“President, I’m really sorry, but I want to resign.” She blabbered, in front of us, while I was copying the teaching modules to others’ laptops. I became dumbfounded in no time.

“Are you really joking?” I was too surprised to hear that.

“I’m admitted to Accelerated Class, and I don’t have much time for it.”

Truth be told, Anthony, Wilbert, and Eldson were admitted to Accelerated Class as well. But they do not resign at all. Perhaps the only cause was Sevien’s over-ambition in achieving everything. After further talks, as I gave her two options whether to proceed in SEALNet or quit, she opted the latter. There, I was really down. For some time, I felt it a bit reluctant to let her go. She has the gift of the gab, she is sweet-tongued, but why must she resign only because of ‘not-much-time’ reason? But, at some points, I realized there was no use of forcing her to come back. She had had the path by herself. And she had the rights to do it. All I could do was just to let her go.

The first workshop was a bit failure. Many of the students protested because we divided them into classes based on alphabetical orders. As I heard from the mentors’ confessions in our BlackBerry chat group, the majority of them showed off their discontented faces. That was the first reason. Second, they seemed to have no idea what we were actually teaching about. I was actually intending to show them 3 videos of TEDTalks by Adora Svitak, Hans Rosling, and Terry Moore, to show them ‘the basic methods of public speaking without too much theoretization’. In the long run, they ended up confused, as I showed them Terry Moore’s video: how to tie your shoes. Their expression was like: what’s the connection between leadership workshop with tying your shoes correctly? Thank God there were Winnie Illona, Jesselyn Angellee, Imelda Junaedi, and Claristy who saved my day. Rather than remain stock-still or ‘frozen’ as stiff as terracotta statues, they switched the originally silent atmosphere into a vibrant one. We played human knot, and everyone bursted in exhilaration. Not much success, as of my opinion.

Regarding to outreach matters, we returned back to Panti Asuhan Pelita Kasih. We did the outreach for 2 days, and in fact, many things that we did there were in all conscience beyond our initial plans we had discussed in many meetings prior. And that was the most expensive outreach we had ever done, and we suffered total deficits. The week before we did the outreach, only 35% of the students managed to pay the registration fee (which we charge at Rp 20,000 per person) and the monthly fee (Rp 2,000 per month straight. Actually I planned to set it at Rp 5,000, but after further lobbying efforts to our school principal, he remained insistent on the 2000-a-month idea). The amounts of money collected were at that time 1.17 million more or less, and we spent almost 1.67 million on the outreach. The bulk of the costs came particularly from transport, in which we had to rent 4 different school buses for 2 days (the first day’s buses cost 600 thousand, the second’s 550). To be honest, many of us had cars, but the main question was: who’s going to drive the cars at the same time our car drivers were homecoming, because we did the outreach during the Eid holiday? One lesson learnt: to organize an outreach during holidays on special occasions would hurt your financial expenditure. For the second day transport costs, some of us had to crucify our money, under the terms of ‘bailout’.

On the first day of outreach, we brought only 12 students to the orphanage. I was pretty much oblivious on the routes heading to the orphanage, but thank God after we spent a few minutes stopping by to ask people the direction to the place, in the long run did we manage to reach it. I was so ashamed. Thank God Handoko has a bit photographic memory. As soon as we reached the orphanage, I could see their expression was a bit different. Half of them remained unchanged as usual – whenever we came, they would greet us and say hello. But many of them were really surprised when they saw us returning back to the orphanage. Some of them, as seen from their mimics, felt like: why on earth are you coming back?

On that day, we focused on another issue besides sanitation: the danger of dengue fever. We divided ourselves into 4 posts (we had never prepared that in our meeting before), each cellotaped with one poster I and Adriana drew together, and we divided the students as well into 5 groups. Each group contained more or less 10 children and teenagers, and they traveled round the orphanage, listening on our explanation. Only did half of them seriously take the notice on our exegesis. Some were like, to be honest, empty-minded. It was of pretty much success, even though it’s not as magnificent as Edric had brought up in the past.

They missed one of the students the most: my long-time ex-classmate, Evando. Despite the fact that this person is really very mischievous, he had very good interaction with the children and the teenagers.

On the second day, there were more or less 22 other students. When we arrived on the orphanage, most of the children asked, “Where is Kak Evando? We want to go on playing soccer with him.” While things ended up very serious on the first day, the atmosphere on the second day was filled with much fun; self-inflicted fun, if I could say. They did the singing, they did the dancing, and I saw that half of them were puzzled by the lyrics; almost everyone was singing Taylor Swift’s You Belong With Me. Probably they even never knew that there is someone out there named Taylor Swift. But when it came to singing Michael Jackson’s Heal The World, all of them had already been familiar with it. I saw contentment among the mentees, but I didn’t see so much fun among them. That’s what I myself witnessed.

The second workshop was on today, and it was almost total failure. Beforehand, we decided to divide the students no longer based on alphabetical order; all students of the same grade (except if there are too many) are accommodated into one class. The problem is, many of the mentors forgot to bring their laptops. Adriana actually brought a laptop, but the problem is, there were no special cables which could connect the projector with Macbooks. Afterwards, I lent my laptop to Handoko and Erick, who taught second-grade students just now, before they passed it to Wilbert, Budi, Eldson, Adriana, Elvira, and Davin, who handled first-grade students. I borrowed Leonardy’s laptop, and Leo himself could not teach on Saturday because he also teaches on another extracurricular program. I myself and Jennifer handled third-grade students, and only 8 of them, out of 30, that were coming. I spent much of the time having interaction with these third-grade students (all of them are from 3-Science-01, and I know some of them pretty well), telling them our experiences. The bulk of the problem was when Leo’s laptop suddenly automatically turned off. When I turned it on, here it went.

It needed a fingerprint identification system. Only Leo is the sole individual who could access it. And he was at the same time teaching other students.

I had to wait almost half an hour for him to come and have his fingerprints scanned. Even after we successfully entered the access and showed them our main materials (that was watching Steve Jobs Stanford Uni. graduation speech), there were technical problems with the execution of the video. It walked down slower, slower, until it stopped.

And the class filled with tenth-grade students was almost like a wild jungle when I entered it. I saw some of them were sitting on tables, laying on them, and walked around doing the talk. The mentors had difficulty in controlling them. And they had to ask my help.

Beforehand, I had asked Winnie Illona for help. I also asked her to bring her laptop so that we could watch the video altogether. And she came after the workshop had ended for almost 10 minutes.

There were actually 3 additional mentors (our mentors) who would also help us, and they are Jesselyn Angellee, Imelda Junaedi, and Yolita, but they are still having their student orientation in USU (University of North Sumatera).

Duh.

I was speechless to see the situation. Out of 3 classes, only the class filled with second-grade students which managed to have the workshop conducted well. I saw Handoko and Erick asked all of them, one by one, to express their opinions in front of the public about the video. My class’ students were doing the homework while waiting for the video. And I sat there, contemplating.

Out there, I still remembered what my mom said. You don’t really have any gifts of the gab. Just tell them to turn down this offer, and as a form of compensation, you can help them by volunteering in the organization.

There was one third-grade student who could console me. That’s Ellora. She clapped my arm while I was desperately looking at the laptop, and said, “Come on, it’s just the beginning! Don’t get discouraged!”.

Resign? That thought had come across in my mind more than dozens of times, but still I insisted on saying ‘no’. I was reminded of a story when Hernan Cortez was on his quest to conquer Aztec-ruled Mexico in 1519. Once, all the ships transporting them from Spain to Mexico were destroyed by a raging storm. At the same time, they had pretty much limited time to repair the ships, and the Aztecs were hunting their heads. Deep in the stage of desperation, he ordered his men to set all the ships on flame, and continued with their quest, despite limited numbers.

In the end, you could see the result. And is this going to succeed? Only fate can decide.

Briefly, a few minutes after getting elected as the new President, I had told the mentors, “I never promise success, but I’ll do my best.” But it seems that only a few of them – perhaps, none of them – really paid the attention to what I am saying about.

Let me end this note with another saying: things that have started must be finished. I can’t desert them in the middle of the road. We are sailing together, through a sea of tumults.