Marjane Satrapi: Persepolis

The animated feature film based on the autobiographical comic book of the Iranian artist.
By Amin Farzanefar | Nov 2007

Today, filmed comic books are an inflationarily used genre in which the protagonists are usually superheroes or cute little animals and in which the truly surprising is seldom presented. So a jury prize in Cannes and then an Oscar nomination are unusual honors. But the model for "Persepolis", a book published in 2000 by the Iranian Marjane Satrapi, was already considered high culture. At the Frankfurt Book Fair, she received the "Comic of the Year" award. The two volumes have received many prizes, sold more than a million copies, and been translated into 25 languages. They narrate more or less well-known things about the first years of the Iranian Revolution: the toppling of the Shah, indoctrination in school and society, the virtue guardians’ increasing control of public space, and mass executions.

For almost three decades, such facts have shaped Iran’s image as a sinister mullah republic. But the way Satrapi conveys this has nothing to do with the familiar clichés of a synchronized, religiously euphoric one-dimensional society.

Inspired by Art Spiegelman’s minimalist Holocaust comic "Maus" – also expounded in black and white – Satrapi calls her narrative technique "Autofiction": held close to her own life story, though not all details were experienced this way. In 1984, the parents of 15-year-old Marjane send her to a Viennese boarding school, out of the country, which had been devastated by war with Iraq. She returns to Iran, marries, and divorces, and then emigrates again to France, where Satrapi completed her studies and has lived since 1994.

Revolutionary tribunals, war, then exile: "Persepolis" depicts the "great" events from the frog’s-eye view of a youngster who wants little more than to live the life of a normal teenager: a little pop culture with the Bee Gees, Iron Maiden, and Kim Wild. But she is constantly prevented from doing so.

The book and the film both counter the mandatory revolutionary pathos with private interior views and worlds of value: the humanism of her beloved Uncle Anuoche, who pays for his liberal convictions with his life, and the individualistic worldview of her unswerving grandmother. When Marjane fears societal ostracism after her failed marriage, the grandmother consoles her: "Just a divorce? I thought someone must have died." Then she tells her granddaughter her own story.

Likeable mentors like these are symbols of another, freer Iran and, as representatives of an intellectual, cosmopolitan bourgeoisie, they offer an antidote to persistent stereotypes about Iran that are nourished by simplistic Western media reporting, an offensive Iranian president, and the often exaggerated folklore of poverty staged in Iranian cinema.

The formal design of "Persepolis" also maintains the level of the book it is modeled on. While recent animated films are usually populated by the tiniest of living creatures, Satrapi and her co-director Vincent Paraunaud bring back clear form. The medium’s seductive possibilities for boundlessly leaving reality are used sparingly, with discipline, and appropriately: when the body of the vehemently adolescing Marjane contorts, forms, and bulges in spurts of growth and when the radiant dream man suddenly looks like a drooling creep after their separation, then the concept of the "subjective camera" takes on new meaning. The animation of the only seemingly naïve black and white format is unmistakably inspired by the filigree style of the silhouette masterpieces of Lotte Reininger ("The Adventures of Prince Achmet", 1922). This design – "old-fashioned" in the best sense of the term, fantastical and authentic at the same time – and the tragicomical narrative tone effect an empathy with figure and plot that the flood of virtual details in productions by Pixar or Disney cannot match.

More than a million moviegoers in France; showers of prizes; and enthusiastic reviews all over the world: "Persepolis" tells a universal story of growing up, persecution, homeland, and exile that transcends the specific context. The re-politicization, the return of clichés came immediately: only recently, Iranians at home and abroad were in an uproar over the crypto-fascist historical action film "300", claiming to make out anti-Iranian and even racist aspects in the richly bloodthirsty, special-effect-heavy Hollywood battle epic, pepped up with special effects. Now, on the occasion of "Persepolis’" Cannes premiere, Iran’s state film support company Farabi submitted a protest note to the French culture attaché. It accused Satrapi’s films of "falsifying" the "achievements of the Revolution". The film itself is forbidden in Iran, of course.

 

Amin Farzanefar

Works as a journalist, primarily on films from the Middle East, and attempts to approach the social reality of the region via this medium. He has published a book in this area, "Kino des Orients" (Cinema of the Orient).

Persepolis

By Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud

96 Minutes
France 2007


The animated film is based on the autobiographical comic book of the Iranian artist.

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