Saturday, February 09, 2008

Persepolis, more than a Memoir

I have done everything else other than what I should have. I know I will do it eventually. But to get there, to do it and get it over with, is a long mental process. I will not do what I should, I believe, if I do not force myself to sit down and write. I wonder what is it that I am running from? Am I running from my memories? If yes, it is hard to admit it, since that means I am actually escaping myself. After all what am I, what are we without our memories?

All this escaping has nothing to do with Persepolis and yet I realize it has everything to do with it. Persepolis, a popular autobiography comic book, was written by Marjan Satrapi, an Iranian book illustrator. In 2007, the book was adopted to an animation picture with the same title, written and directed by Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud. It was hard for me to hold my tears back, three years ago when I first read Persepolis. It was hard to hold my tears back last week when I finally saw Persepolis in the darkness of Kendall Square Cinema in Boston. It is hard for me to hold them back now that I am re-membering the movie.

The opening sequence silently follows Marjan in her mid 20s in the airport waiting for her flight to Tehran. There she gets cold feet and backs out of the line. From here on we enter her thoughts and she narrates her life story for us. The rest of the film is not silent at all. By each sequence we enter yet another phase of Marji’s life. The story covers the period between 1979, the year of the Islamic revolution, to 1994, when Marjan leaves Iran for the second time. Marjan was ten when the Islamic revolution happened in Iran. So the issues and the logic behind them would be attractive and understood for a 10 year-old girl. It is funny when the 10 year-old Marji informs her leftist parents by repeating what her teacher has taught her at school “Shah was chosen by God”; the shocked parents correct her of course and by their explanation we get to know her leftist family who are also the descendants of the Qajar dynasty. A Communist Prince, a mélange that is not rare in the country with more than 2500 years of monarchy rule and a fast pace modernization. The title, Persepolis, refers to the capital of the Persian Empire in 560 BCE and is another reference to Iran’s history.

No matter how much one was against the Shah’s regime and in favor of the revolution, after a couple of years, being a Marxist was not in the list of things that would help you to have a better life. So Marjan’s family suffers the consequences of their beliefs; her uncle Anoosh, a political activist is executed under the false accusation of being a Soviet spy. When Marjan gets older, her parents send her to a French school in Vienna. There, Marjan is like any young girl who is experiencing an independent life, far from her family and her country. As an immigrant away from all familiar things, Marjan starts to make new friends. Then she falls in love and a broken heart follows. After a nervous breakdown Marjan goes back to Iran but it is not forever. The second part of the film starts by Marjan’s return to Iran and finishes by yet another departure.

Persepolis does not claim to be a history book; it is an autobiography and I admire it for being an accurate one. Of course, there are important historical events that are left out; there are no pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini or any other Islamic clerics in the movie. Satrapi’s presentation of the Iranian government and its guardians are some bearded men who are faceless and unspecific. The major historic events are shortly mentioned in the course of the story, the 1988 mass executions of political prisoners and the Iran-Iraq war. But the real attention is paid to people’s daily struggle to survive a war and the aftermaths of a revolution. Persepolis depicts the little changes in the society, the empty supermarkets, the packed hospitals and unreasonable regulations in schools and streets, little things that affected people’s lives and have been usually considered insignificant in other narrations. My admiration for Satrapi’s work (both in the book and the film) is not for the parts that she does not mention or for the events that she mentions briefly; it is for what she portrays as sincerely as possible. Persepolis is the life of real people.

Satrapi’s simple and childlike drawing technique repeats itself in the animated film. Its essentially plain movements are as minimal and as genuine as the figures themselves. The white lines of the drawings radiate against the dark, blackboardish background. Depending on the events of the story, the background sometimes changes into white. More than Satrapi’s childlike drawing style, it is the boldness of her forms that strangely remind me of Henri Matisse’s works. The Cinema screen adds another element to this contrast: Depth. The depth that in Matisse’s works drives from its lively, vivid and wild colors, in Persepolis (the movie) comes from the big dimensions of the cinema screen, when the blackness of the drawings moves out of the screen and into the viewer’s seat. The obvious difference between their works – Matisse and Satrapi – seems to be the colorfulness of Matisse’s canvases. His use of strong color brought him the title of the Fauve, a French idiom for Wild Beast. I think the bold contrast between black and white in Satrapi’s drawings makes her as Fauve as Matisse.

For many, Satrapi’s style – boldness in form and the impression of her story on the reader/viewer – is similar to Art Spiegelman. Satrapi herself proudly acknowledges the impact that Spiegelman had on her choice to tell the story by drawing and to choose graphic novel as her medium.*

As Marji of the movie promised her uncle Anoosh to remain as honest as possible, Persepolis remains as one of the few stories that stay close to the reality of Iran in the course of the Islamic revolution. As a proper depiction of one’s biography, a family history and a country, Persepolis has particles from lives of all who lived through that period in Iran, so that everyone can relate to it in one way or the other. A reminder for any Iranian viewer and a tale about Iran, never said like this before, for people from other parts of the world; A story of a child growing up in the midst of a sociopolitical upheaval, a heartbroken teenage girl and a young immigrant; a story that describes details of life in a changing country. If you have not experienced a “Wild Life” as Momo in the movie describes, you still enjoy it for Persepolis goes deeper and touches you in a more humane level. If you have not experienced a revolution, if you have not survived a war or have not lived with leftist open-minded intellectual parents who are losing their hope for a better future under a totalitarian religious government, Persepolis easily shares all these with you under the shade of humor.

As the narrator grows older the humor of the story becomes darker, though you still will laugh to the grotesque turn of the events. As I explained Persepolis has something for everyone, but for me there is more. To my long hidden memory, everything in Persepolis is a tickle. To me Persepolis was not someone else’s memoirs. It was not a story at all. It was my own life. A wakening of memories that I have never forgotten and will never forget, but I am not ready to share. No, I am not ready to share the memories of my uncle Anoosh, yet.

Nonetheless I am more than happy to see someone had the means and the courage to share her memories of Iran in a way that viewers from all over the world can relate to. They get acquainted to an often-misrepresented people, a nation if you please. Persepolis transforms that nation to sympathetic individuals that the observer does not mind the bother of getting close to. The animation that started with a rain of white Jasmine flowers ends with them and we got stuck to the memory of the coolest grandma in the whole universe; indeed Freedom has its price.

* (Pantheon, On Writing Persepolis)

** Persepolis (2007) is in French with English Subtitle. There will be an English language dubbed version of the film. Persepolis is nominated for best Animated Feature Film category at the 80th Annual Academy Awards 2008. In the English version of the film we will hear Sean Penn’s voice for Marjan’s father. Also Catherine Deneuve lent her voice to both French and English versions of the film. Persepolis is now available at theaters in Princeton area.


jeerjeerak said...

tameshk joonam, i'm trying sooooooo hard not to read this post of yours! i mean until i see the film first. why why why do i leave to live in the middle of nowhere where foreign movies don't get a chance to screen!

Esfand` said...

Interresting, tempting review and movie, feel like watching it.

Nazy said...

Salam Tameshk Jan:

What a wonderful and thorough reviw, much of which comes from your kind and knowing heart. The other part, of course, comes from the knowledgeable and expert analyst which you are.

I loved this movie. I cried many times, but laughed more. The art of Satrapi is in making us laugh about something so serious and so sad and with such uncanny dimensions.

Thanks so much for sharing your brilliant mind and your beautiful heart with us.


Tameshk aziz
I enjoyed of your exhaustive and detailed post about Persepolis , obviously ,it shows your knowledge of cinema and I agree with your point of view . I have watched this movie for 2 times, and it was so impressive and commendable for me in both time and like you it was hard for me to hold my tears too. not me not you, every Iranians who I met and they had watched the movie . talking about same thing : IT IS MY LIFE STORY . Satrapi says , if anybody tells himself , it is like my own life ,I will reach my goal . I think she has hit the spot. Persepolis is story of Iranian people , real people who lived in that country in that period of time , because of that we sympathize with her in every scene . have you watched that interview? ( I wrote about that in my blog) . The interviewer asked her (not seriously) : why you try humanized people of Iran? A bitter fact about who love to live free, happy like other nations but these days you see other kind of propaganda about them.
she did a great job. and it was not complicated , A TRUE LIFE STORY OF A NATION.

Nava said...

(How should I discribe a big exhale, showing a relief? maybe "Whew"?!)Anyways, Thank god I saw somebody reviewing the movie from a cinematic point of view, which was also very professional. I enjoyed your post almost as much as the movie itself. And I think one of the best quotes of the movie was actually that last sentence, freedom has its own price, as we have all experienced it in some way. Thanks for your post.

Mersedeh said...

My dear friend,
I told you the first time I read this review, how moving it was but I wanted to save the explanations for here. As you have correctly pointed out, Persepolis, is the people's story...It is the story of the last 30 years of Iran's history told from an inside perspective, as though hearing it from a friend or relative, which is why we recognize, trust and identify with it...this is why we all say it is "our" story.

I think for some of us, however, there are other circumstances beyond just the basics that make it even more "ours" than that. I have a feeling judging from what you have written and from all the tears I shed start to finish in that movie-theatre that we both fit in that category, so for us, and those others like us, it was an even bigger journey. A little painful at times, but very beautiful, very sweet and very real!

You did a wonderful job reviewing something no doubt difficult and I hope one day soon, you will be able to share your memoirs because by then (and hopefully through doing so) it will help heal some of those old wounds.


Tameshk said...

Jeerjeerka Joonam,
I hope you see Persepolis sometime soon. It is a smart Animation.

Dearest Esfand
Thanks for your comment; I know one other Esfad. He is a very dear friend but he lives back home, in Iran.

Nazy Joonam
Thanks for your flattering comment. I am so glad you liked the review. You are right: Persepolis has lots of funny moments. And I don't think its sad moments make a non-Iranian viewer cry, And that is good. In fact I get really angry at myself when I cry in a movie; So Not Professional of me :(

My Dearest Bayramali
Thanks a lot for your comment, and Thanks for your funny post on Persepolis; I found that interview through your blog.

So far Persepolis is the only Animation I like to own on DVD. Everyone knows that I love Animation features, but Persepolis was something els.

NAVA Joonam
Thanks for your encouraging comment. I enjoy hearing/reading what others think of the movie and your post gave me a very interesting insight.

Mersedeh Joonam,
I was so excited to read your comment. We both know that we are not finished with Persepolis.

jeerjeerak said...

Loved the film, and loved your post.
Just back from the theater.