Monday, July 6, 2009

"Persepolis", Marjane Satrapi, and Iran

I hadn't heard of Marjane Satrapi or her most widely recognized work Persepolis until the film adaptation of it began to catch people's attention in the U.S. sometime last year. Naturally, because it was animated, I was beside myself to see it, but had to wait for the DVD release to do so, since the odds of a foreign, animated film, not made for children coming to my small town were about nil. The first time I watched it, I was a bit disappointed; I'd had serious expectations going into it and the film didn't follow the sort of formula I'd been expecting. To say that this is a work that breaks with conventions is an understatement. It's an autobiographical account of a woman's life growing up in Iran during and just after the revolution in the late 70s, and into the war with Iraq. Because of the subject matter, politics are involved, but they aren't the main part of the story. Persepolis is, before anything else, about the very human people Satrapi was surrounded by during this time, as well as her own accounts. It's a sad story, frightening at times, but it's also humerous, touching, inspiring, and most certainly thought-provoking. In fact, this film has made me look at my own perceptions of the Middle East, its culture, and the people who live there, and do some serious re-evaluation, which is the primary point of the film.

It's unusual to get a glimpse of life in a culture that seems so closed off from an inside source, but that's exactly what Satrapi sets out to provide. She lived in Iran for approximately thirteen years, then lived in Vienna for about three, then moved back to Iran for an amount of time I'm not entirely clear on, then moved to France. She not only has the perspective of a native Iranian, but that of an outsider in Western culture, and it's that perspective which she has endeavored to show. It's a chance for a Western audience to see beyond 'the veil' (as it's often referred to) of Iranian culture and see the sorts of real people that live there, as well as a chance to view Western culture through the eyes of an outsider. The people depicted in Persepolis are basically the same sorts of people you'd find anywhere in the world, and to try and categorize everyone from the region under one type of persoality or one sort of belief system is as pointless as it is anywhere. It is, above everything else, a humanistic story, and I am so grateful to her for choosing to tell it to as many people as she can. It is a beautiful graphic novel, it is a beautiful film, and it has created in me an incredible consideration and fascination for the culture and the people and the country that she clearly loves.
Of course, the recent events there with the election and the protests are part of why I felt the need to revisit this particular film; I can't help but draw parallels between parts of the story and images in the news. But I also wanted to mention it as a great film on its own terms. It's honestly one of the most beautiful films I have in my collection, and it's widened my perspective and conceptions of a place that I really had very little interest in beforeheand.

It also comments on the effect that media can have on our perceptions of foreign places, whether it was purposeful or not. Marjane and her grandmother had just gone to see a Godzilla movie in Tehran, and as they leave the theater, the grandmother comments that all the Japanese ever seem to do is gut themselves or create monsters. Of course, to someone looking at popular Japanese media, that could be a pretty common conception of the culture, since they're some of the more popular images. But then, to look at Iran through the lense of the media from around the world, Iran would seem to be a place where the women are all submissive, the men are all abusive, everyone is a religious zealot, and most people are probably terrorists. Neither view of either place is fair or accurate, and Persepolis aims to present a view of Iran that defies these stereotypes by using the very form of communication that perpetuated the stereotypes in the first place. I love that scene for precisely that reason because it gets to the very heart of why Satrapi felt the need to tell her story in the first place.
The reasons I had been initially disappointed with the film are among some of the strongest reasons I love it now. I love it because it defied my expectations, because it didn't follow the formula I had anticipated, and most especially because it forced me to think about my perceptions of a place I rarely gave a thought to at all, or when I did, it was mostly in terms of what I'd heard from the news. Marjane Satrapi loves Iran-- not the government that runs it, but so often we confuse the governmental policies with the country itself. She has no love for the government there, but she loves the land, the people, the food, the history, and everything else that makes a country what it is. Looking at this place through her eyes, it's not difficult to imagine why. Her longing to see it again sparked a longing in me to see it at all, which is something I honestly never thought I'd say about anywhere in the Middle East. Not everyone who sees the film will feel the same way, of course, but if nothing else, it might make them view the nightly news differently. I know I sure do.
I was going to wait to write about this film until I got my other pending articles posted, but I saw today that Satrapi has written an op-ed piece for the New York Times, and I didn't want to let that pass by. Ever since the protests in Tehran started being covered in the news, I had wondered what she must have been feeling about it. I'm really glad to see her answer: I Must Go Home to Iran Again.

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