If you haven’t yet read Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis books, you now have the chance to see it on the big screen. The two graphic novels detail her life growing up in Iran during the Islamic revolution as well as her schooldays in Vienna at a French lycée. The film was produced in France (Satrapi’s adopted country) and has English subtitles.
In Persepolis the film, nothing from the original books is lost. The stark black and white images are cleverly reproduced on the big screen. The whole film is hand-drawn, not computer generated, and you can tell.
I would say that the film enriches the books. And music, which plays a big part in Marjane’s youth, brings depth to the story. Watching prepubescent Marjane listen to black market heavy metal tapes produces a moment of cognitive dissonance that is simply priceless! Fluid movement boosts the emotional meanings of Satrapi’s images. The scenes where she floats towards God and Karl Marx to discuss her dreams and disappointments are particularly moving, in both senses of the word. When her father attempts to right her formal education about the Shah, Satrapi animates the historical leaders of his tale as mechanical marionettes, giving visual representation to the idea of “puppet dictator”.
But really, as I’m not an artist and I know nothing about how animation is achieved, I really can’t debate the technology of the film. All I know is that it looks and feels genuine. But as a feminist, I CAN debate how the film represents women. (Take that, all you family members and friends who wonder what skills my women’s studies degree has wrought upon the world!!!)
What I really love best about this film are the Iranian women characters. Western media bombards us with images of passive and helpless veiled Muslim women, especially those living in repressive regimes (like in Iran under Ayatollah Khomeini). These characters are all wily, well-spoken and intelligent women. I particularly love the way they joke about their bodies, busting open this Western feminist myth that veiled women are estranged from their bodies. In the first party scene, women joke about the pencil test for their boobs. Then Marjane’s grandmother tells her secret of putting jasmine flowers in her bra. I also love when Marjane is stopped by the police for running down the street because her butt moves in a suggestive way. She smartly replies, “Then don’t look at my ass!!” Repeatedly Satrapi points out the ways that the architects of the Iranian revolution expect women to carry the majority of the weight of Iran’s moral and religious code. Irreverent and hard-hitting, the characters are fighters in their own right.
Last, the film’s scenes of hardship – particularly during bombings, executions, and police chases – are drawn with expert emotion. Never maudlin or overblown, they are a fitting elegy to Iran’s many dead.
Showing a Western audience (particularly audiences in France, where an Islamophobic French state is hellbent on obliterating Muslim identity and culture) that Muslim women are powerful actors in their own right, Satrapi’s Persepolis is emotionally charged storytelling at its best: bittersweet and complex.