Go See Persepolis!

PersepolisI didn’t think Marjane Satrapi’s coming-of-age-in-Iran memoir could be much improved by animating it, but having just seen the Oscar-nominated film Persepolis, I realize I was wrong. I described it to a friend interested in viewing it thus: a black-and-white, animated film in French with English subtitles about a young girl growing up in revolutionary Iran. That description sets up a number of obstacles to a mainstream American audience. But Persepolis is absolutely worth watching. About 10 minutes into the film, you forget it’s black and white, you forget it’s animated, and you forget it’s in French. Satrapi’s story is honest and authentic, personal and political, all at once.

The type of story Marjane Satrapi’s weaves about her life is too often told by Western storytellers who can’t help but exoticize, trivialize, and patronize readers in the telling. So many things about her experience reminded me of my own: figuring out how to be a “normal” kid in a fundamentalist culture, grappling with the alienation of being a foreigner, suffering the pain of separation from one’s family at a young age. So, when I first came across part 1 of Satrapi’s deeply moving graphic novel about her early years, I read it in one sitting. I read part 2 in the book store before I could even finish paying for it.

The women in Persepolis, like the storyteller, are strong-willed, real women who struggle for their rights heroically. Satrapi’s relationship with her smart-talking grandmother is central to the film. Her grandmother teaches her to believe in herself, scolds her when she is selfish, and reminds her to take a principled stand in all things. It’s an image of Iranian women we rarely see in Western media.

The simple lines of her pen convey volumes about family, society, war, and religion and are a testament to her artistry, both as a story teller, and a graphic artist. It would almost have been too easy to make a traditional film based on her books, complete with actors and location shoots. In translating her graphic novels into an animated film, she chooses to keep her story in a realm that is one step away from reality: just like our own memories.