Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Persepolis

Written by Susannah Wexler

Charles Baxter once said that a good writer makes the familiar seem unfamiliar and the unfamiliar seem familiar. If true, this observation clearly explains Marjane Satrapi’s success.

Satrapi’s new film, Persepolis, written and directed with Vincent Paronnaud, begins with a showering of flowers. The camera swirls above an urban cartoon landscape, floating as though mounted to a Tilt-A-Whirl on Theraflu. Donning a red coat, Satrapi’s adult cartoon self orders a ticket to Tehran, sits down, lights a cigarette and reflects on her childhood in Iran. Suddenly, like Dorothy’s Kansas, everything is black and white.

  Charles Baxter once said that a good writer makes the familiar seem unfamiliar and the unfamiliar seem familiar. If true, this observation clearly explains Marjane Satrapi’s success.

Satrapi’s new film, Persepolis, written and directed with Vincent Paronnaud, begins with a showering of flowers. The camera swirls above an urban cartoon landscape, floating as though mounted to a Tilt-A-Whirl on Theraflu. Donning a red coat, Satrapi’s adult cartoon self orders a ticket to Tehran, sits down, lights a cigarette and reflects on her childhood in Iran. Suddenly, like Dorothy’s Kansas, everything is black and white.

This small gesture announces the film’s emotional landscape. The film is based on Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novels Persepolis and Persepolis II. Told through Marji, Satrapi’s youthful cartoon alter ego’s point of view, the first half of the film chronicles war-torn Iran—from the 1979 Islamic Revolution to the constant sparring between Iraq and Iran. Her childhood perspective captures pain, tragedy and humanity.

In an October 2007 NPR interview, Syrian camp counselors noted that Iraqi children play rougher than other kids. As the old adage implies, violence begets more violence. By portraying the perceptiveness and confusion of a young girl living in Iran during the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, Satrapi renders this sentiment beautifully and humorously. In one scene, Marji convinces her friends to attack a boy with nails. “His father killed millions of people,” she tells them. Her mother catches them and explains that a son cannot be held accountable for his father’s sin. The next day, Marji tells the boy that she forgives him. She understands that it is not his fault that his father is a murderer.

Marji, this scene reminds us, is a child. She has great big eyes, toddles behind adults and puts her foot in her mouth. Instead of playing school like the other kids, she plays protest. She marches around her house shouting, “Down with the shah! Down with the shah!” When her parents ask her to go to bed, she marches away, whispering, “Down with the shah,” in a sing-songy voice. This discrepancy between Marji as an adorable youth and someone familiar with aggression pierces the viewer deeply. It begs complex emotions, is humorous, sharp and raw.

While the first part of the film focuses on Satrapi’s childhood, the second part chronicles Satrapi’s adolescence shuttling between an oppressive yet familiar Iran and a liberated but lonely Europe. Through Satrapi’s eyes, we view the trials of immigrants abroad, as well as those of individuals living beneath an oppressive regime. At one point in the second book, Satrapi notes of herself and her veiled classmates, “The more time passed, the more I became conscious of the contrast between the official representation of my country and the real life of the people, the one that went on behind the walls.” And—to a very large extent—both the books and the film successfully reveal this contrast. In Persepolis II, this quote lies on top of silhouetted images of lipstick, women in their underwear, and people laughing. Satrapi deconstructs the conventional image of covered, devout and supposedly “radical” Iranians and exposes people who are smart, thoughtful, and above all, human. Through witty, heartfelt scenes—with even her art school models forced to remain covered, Satrapi compares her figure drawing education to learning to draw drapes—she poignantly questions the impact fundamentalism has on individuality and she offers the world an authentic Mid-Eastern voice. Her deft observations, rendered humorously, remind us of how incredibly human we all are.

 

 

 

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