Marjane Satrapi's "Persepolis"

Stars and Bombs

Marjane Satrapi's graphic novel "Persepolis", about her childhood in Iran and growing up in Europe, made her world famous. The film version is banned in Iran but now showing in cinemas across the globe. Petra Tabeling reports

​​The film opens with stars falling from the sky, landing softly on the Iranian countryside, drawn in black and white with a few flashes of colour. This is the world in which little Marji (alias Marjane Satrapi) grows up in the 1970s.

She lives with her parents in Teheran, where protest against the autocratic Shah is growing on the streets. Defiant, precocious and politically minded, Marji is inspired to emulate the grown-ups, imitating the revolution in her childhood games.

But it's not long before the Shah's security troops fire the first shots, and Satrapi's magical autobiographical cartoon "Persepolis" paints the tragedy and reality of the world in black and white, in seemingly banal but nonetheless convincing strokes. Buoyed up by Marji's dialogue with God, who appears at her bed by night like the genie in Aladdin's lamp.

Satrapi's first feature film based on the comic of the same name, "Persepolis" starts with the 1979 revolution, the subsequent murderous Iran-Iraq war and the budding dictatorship of the Islamic regime, with its bombs, persecution and executions.

Marji's beloved Uncle Anusch, her absolute hero because he was tortured in the Shah's prisons for his communist beliefs, is executed under the Mullahs. The killing marks the end of Marji's enchanted childhood, sparking off a lifetime of protest.

"Laughter is the most subversive weapon of all"

But humour is the best resistance, and the narrator Marjane accompanies the film of her life story with witty and ironic comments.

​​There are hilarious moments, like when two Iranian moralists in their long chadors bend over little Marji, about to punish her for her western clothing ("Punk is not ded"). Or when Marji's childish body undergoes the wild metamorphosis of puberty into the adult Marjane.

Or when her first boyfriend, who she is absolutely infatuated with, turns into a useless nose-picker, his face suddenly sprouting boils. These scenes really work best in cartoon format, and it is particularly important for Satrapi to make sure her message comes across. "Laughter is the most subversive weapon of all", says the Iranian graphic artist.

With apparently simple strokes, Satrapi gives us everything we love about cartoons: childishly exaggerated and overdrawn versions of a complex reality that make it easier to understand.

Brave personal revelations

At times, the film also offers more content than the comic, for example when Marjane's parents send their teenage daughter away to school in Vienna.

​​But Marjane lives the life of an outsider, feeling like an alien from another planet as an Iranian in Austria, experiencing her first parties and her first joint, but plenty of disappointments as well. In the end, a failed relationship and a row with the landlady land her up on the street.

These are the sad and silent moments in the film, when the shadows get longer and the grey tones step over into cold, threatening scenes, in which a freezing young woman walks through a wintry Vienna and has to scrabble for food in trash cans, ashamed of herself and her predicament.

While her family and friends in Iran are suffering, Satrapi experiences the dark side of the wealthy west, the coldness of society:

"I had lived through a revolution that had cost me part of my family. I had survived a war. But a banal love story had almost killed me." A brave personal revelation on Satrapi's part – this is not fiction, it is her life, which she now lives as a successful graphic artist in Paris.

Award in Cannes – Oscar nomination

It was this authenticity that made Marjane's graphic novel "Persepolis" a resounding success in France, several years ago now. The story of her childhood and adolescence in Iran and Europe has sold millions of copies and been translated into various languages.

Hollywood producers came knocking on her door, but Satrapi rejected their offers to make a film of "Persepolis". Her strategy seems to have paid off – Satrapi and her co-director Vincent Paronnaud won the Prize of the Jury at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, and "Persepolis" has even been submitted for the Oscar nominations in 2008.

A universal story of love and hate

"Persepolis" – the title of the comic and the film evokes the ancient ruined capital of the Persian Empire that was once supposed to become the centre of the world – is not a story about Iran and the "axis of evil".

​​What it is, is a story about initiation, a story about love and death, about true and false love, about role models, and about the search for the right way to live, which Satrapi reflects in her grandmother's repeated words: "Integrity, Marjane, integrity! You must always be true to yourself."

And Marjane Starapi has remained true to herself, just like little Marji says at the beginning of the film: "I loved French fries with ketchup. Bruce Lee was my greatest hero. I wore Adidas and I wanted two things above all: to be able to shave my legs and to become the last prophet in the galaxy."

At 37, Marjane Satrapi still loves Bruce Lee, and never tires of telling the story of her country and its people, a universal story. The film should gain her an audience of millions, even though it won't be shown in Iran.

Petra Tabeling

© Qantara.de 2007

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

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