More than a black-and-white story

The screen adaptation of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis intelligently shows us the impact of the Iranian revolution on one bright, ambitious girl.

Alka Sehgal

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Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s debut movie, Persepolis, is moving, entertaining and ultimately life-affirming. This largely black-and-white animated movie has been nominated for a series of prestigious awards, including an Oscar, and it won well-deserved prizes at several festivals, including in Cannes and London.

Based on Satrapi’s eponymous autobiographical graphic novel series, the film tells her story of growing up in Iran during the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq war, her exile in Vienna as a teenager, her return to Iran, and, finally, her move to Paris as a young woman.

Persepolis could have simply been a sweet coming-of-age tale or a worthy Third World film, but Satrapi and Paronnaud (who is also a comic-book artist) manage to avoid the generic limitation of both thanks to marvellous animation and wit. Satrapi’s four comic books combined political history with personal memoir, all illustrated in thick black-on-white ink. Satrapi’s artistic influences range from classic comic strips to German expressionism, Persian miniature painting and shadow puppetry, and together with Paronnaud, she has flawlessly transposed this eclectic yet clean-cut style to the moving screen.

The influences from East and West that the young Marjane experiences growing up in an upper middle-class family in Tehran and as a young exile in Europe are embedded in the book – and now in the film – itself. The pared-down, black-and-white graphics suggest an earlier age and are wholly appropriate to the film’s content. Only a framing story of an older Marjane waiting for a Tehran flight at the Orly airport in Paris is in colour. Though the dramatic swathes of black-and-grey shadows and looming buildings that appear throughout the rest of the film are, indeed, reminiscent of 1920s German Expressionist cinema, unlike the films from that era, Persepolis expresses the supremacy of the human spirit rather than its decline.

I was a little wary of the film at first, having heard it described as a tale of ‘one woman’s fight against women’s oppression’. I feared it might be just another of those Third World ‘issue films’ that usually end up confirming agendas created in the West. I need not have worried. I was intrigued by the depiction of the characters more than anything else, who are depicted with neat drawings and sophisticated, dulcet voices. (Catherine Deneuve and her daughter Chiara Mastroianni provided the voices of Marjane’s mother and Marjane.) While Marjane and her family are rooted in, and proud of, Iranian culture, they are also very recognisable to foreign audiences.

While the film centres on the extraordinary events of recent Iranian history, the characters never feel distant or unfamiliar. For example, the young Marjane’s response to learning how her uncle was tortured in prison is to act out what she has heard in games with her friends, with her and her mates pretending to be torturers hunting the son of a local policeman. Anyone with the slightest familiarity of children’s behaviour will recognise how true to life this is.

In the film, the young Marjane’s partial understanding of the world is visually expressed through using extreme close-ups that literally prevent a fuller picture being shown. As the bombings of the war increase, instead of cowering under the bed, Marjane jumps around her room with Iron Maiden blasting out of her stereo. The scene expresses both the intensity of her experience and her means of coping with it.

Another refreshing aspect of the film is how it manages to depict a brutal regime and its impact on the everyday life while avoiding crude stereotyping or demonising a whole people. Satrapi has pointed out that she wanted her books to challenge the simplistic image of Iran as populated by a bunch of backward fanatics.

The idea of European society being a safe haven is also shown to be simplistic. The rebellious Marjane may be safe from imprisonment and bombs when she is sent off to Vienna as a 14-year-old, but the lack of peers who have any idea of what her life was like back in Iran also takes its toll. However, on her return to Iran, the stifling effects of a society where drinking alcohol at parties really can mean death, she realises, with the support of her parents, that the scope for individual freedom is greater in Europe.

Persepolis is less about one woman’s fight against oppression than about an individual who is too intelligent and feisty to wholly accept the restrictive circumstances she finds herself in, whether these are of living in war-ravaged Iran or hanging out with the pretentious, privileged and nihilistic youth who befriend her in Vienna.

Near the end of the film, Marjane says she feels like an exile both in Europe and in her native Iran. This is a common feeling amongst immigrants and refugees; Satrapi’s great achievement is in being able to use this tension to create such an interesting, intelligent and poignant film that speaks to audiences across the world.

Alka Sehgal is reading for a PhD in the disappearance of British identity.

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