March 2, 2008

Persepolis: Animated Identity Crisis

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Persepolis, taking its name from the ancient Persian capital, is Marjane Satrapi’s charming — though tormented — search for self and home amidst Iran’s troubled political and social past. Illustrated and narrated by Satrapi herself, Persepolis is the touching autobiography of both an Iranian and Western identity.
Persepolis begins with the young Marji at ten years of age, dreaming of becoming the last prophetess of the galaxy. Marji, the brilliant, inquisitive and defiant child of two leftist politically active Tehran intellectuals, is enraptured by the sensational and exciting atmosphere of revolutionary Iran. But as Iran becomes increasingly more oppressive, the young Marji is sent to Vienna to study. There, Marji struggles to negotiate her Iranian identity in the Western world. After a breakdown in Vienna, the now twenty-year-old Marji returns back to Iran only to find that her home is no longer there.
Graphic novel turned animated film, Persepolis reifies the alternative comic as an art form that innovates the narration of “mature” and, at times, grim subject matter. The aesthetics of Persepolis approach a rather common coming of age tale with a poignant and refreshing style. Unlike the trend towards ultra-digital animation, the simple and light-hearted direction of Persepolis allow Satrapi’s pedagogical story to become more personal and complex. Satrapi’s style is quite understated, lending the characters of the film to become people we all know and love — the moral grandmother, the favorite uncle and even Marji herself are familiar figures. The artistic sequences of young Marji’s perspective, mostly in black and white, are touching and possess a truth and innocence perfectly conveyed in such a basic representation. The music and casting of Persepolis is often humorous as well as touching, without attempting to be cathartic.
The complexities of an Iranian identity manifest themselves in several ways for Satrapi. Rocking Nikes and a jean jacket, the Kim Wilde-obsessed Marji turns to Iran’s dangerous black market to purchase illegal Iron Maiden tapes. In Vienna, Marji struggles in different ways to assert an Iranian identity that is both proud and independent.
Much of Persepolis details Marji growing and facing the frustration that undoubtedly accompanies dating. When drinking and dancing at a bar, the twenty-year old Satrapi is asked where she is from, and shamefully lies that she is French. At this point, Satrapi is visited by a memory of her grandmother reminding her to never forget who she is and where she came from.
Indeed, the tension of an Iranian and Western identity is Satrapi’s chief conflict. Throughout her experience in Vienna, Satrapi encountered much racism and prejudice. And upon returning to Iran, Satrapi laments that she was a stranger in Austria and now a stranger at home. The sentiment at the end of the film is that Satrapi’s home is neither in Austria nor in Iran. Satrapi asks if Iran will ever be home once again, the classic toll immigrants must pay when leaving their country.
Persepolis contemplates freedom throughout the film, like when young Marji idolizes Che, hangs out with hip anarchists or succumbs to oppression in Iran as an adult. Realizing the price of freedom, Marji recognizes that Iran is fundamentally at odds (after the revolution) with the person she wants to be.
Interestingly, Satrapi currently lives in France, and the graphic novel series of Persepolis was originally written in French. In an interview, however, Satrapi remarked that “France is my wife and Iran is my mother,” and that she “could cheat on [my wife],” but will always be loyal to her mother.
Satrapi’s discussion of being a girl — and the trials of becoming a woman — in Tehran as well as the Western world is an auxiliary conflict of the film. Unquestionably, Satrapi’s identity is largely shaped by her gender in Iran. Following the Iranian revolution, all women were forced to cover their hair. The repressed Iran that Marji, as a child did not understand became toxic for her when she returned as a young woman.
In Vienna, however, Marji struggles with being a woman in a different manner. She is completely broken when she discovers her first love has been cheating on her. At this point, Marji has nowhere to go and takes to the streets as a lonely vagrant. The hardships of being a woman, in general, seem to underline much of Marji’s discontent wherever she is. Marji is a feminist character —but one who truly fought to preserve a dignified sense of womanhood. Being a “free woman” required self-awareness wherever Marji was. In this sense, much of Persepolis advises on the strife of womanhood in any society.
With the intensified tumult and conflict in the Middle East, Perspepolis desperately reaches out to a Western audience, guiding us away from prejudice and hate. As Marji’s grandmother tells her before she first leaves Iran, “nothing is worse than bitterness and vengeance.”