Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical novels Persepolis 1 and 2 have been adapted as the feature film Persepolis. The first book and the first half of the movie focus on Satrapi’s early life recounting her childhood in Iran, the revolution that overthrew the corrupt US-backed Shah and the eight-year-long US-instigated Iran-Iraq war, while the later part of the film focuses on her life in exile in Europe and her teenage search for acceptance before returning to Iran.
While Satrapi has placed herself as the central protagonist in the film, its early narrative is essentially driven by the adults in her family, such as her uncle who discusses his time in prison and her parents, left-wing intellectuals who support the anti-Shah revolution but aid underground movements against Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamist regime. Influenced by her parents, Satrapi begins to develop a more outspoken position against the new regime and her repressive school teachers who seek to convince her class that there are no political prisoners under the new Iran.
Fearing for their outspoken daughter, Satrapi’s parents send her at aged 14 to Austria where she has a difficult time adjusting to her new life and moves through various phases of adolescent discovery. In many ways this section of Satrapi’s life is less political than her childhood. As she noted in a 2004 interview with Powell’s Books: “In the second book, when I go into exile, my will and wish of being integrated into a new culture is so big that I have to forget about who I am and where I come from... If I pretend that I was sitting in a house worrying day and night about my country, that would be a big lie. Plus, when you are a child, you are very much concerned with the same things that your parents are.”
However we still see Satrapi engaged with political ideas, confronting her “anarchist” friends who don’t seem to understand political struggle. But when returning to Iran, the young Satrapi is again confronted with politics, albeit in a depoliticised Iran. As she explains: “[E]verything was settled down. The revolution was far behind, ten years before. The war was finished … We were so fed up with this eight years war; it was so good that the war was finished. People just wanted to live, just to continue being alive. People were just so happy that there were not any more bombs on their heads…
“In the years that I was in Iran, Iran was not political. The young were not political. We were the generation that knew about political prisoners; we knew about the revolution; we knew about the war. We knew that if we’d opened our mouths we could have paid with our lives. We didn’t talk about politics because we were so scared.” However Satrapi has hopes for Iran’s future, saying: “This new generation is different. They haven’t lived what we have gone through. They don’t have the same fears.”
In the film, upon her return to Iran Satrapi has to confront the general acceptance of sharia law, forcing her to veil in public, not having intimate contact with men, etc. She continues to find her place, negotiating her defiance of the authorities with occasional confessional moments where she admits succumbing to dobbing in others to get herself out of trouble. Despite resisting the veil as a sign of oppression, while living in France in 2004 she told Bookslut.com that she condemned the French authorities’ banning of the veil in schools. She said: “All my life I have been against the veil, and now I am the one defending the veil. I hate the veil and what it means, I would never put that thing on my head, but I put myself in their place. It’s a question of these girls’ identity. Their mothers never wore the veil, and so they want to ... [for them] the veil has become a symbol of rebellion. When you are 14 and they tell you not to do something, of course you want to do it.”
The film briefly touches on Satrapi’s religious/philosophical beliefs, as we see her receiving advice in a dream sequence simultaneously from God and Karl Marx. However, the precise nature of Satrapi’s religious identity is one that she chooses to keep private. As she explains to the March 29 British Guardian: “Religion is a very personal affair. It’s between someone and what he considers the god, or the supreme spirit or whatever, and it’s very good while it remains personal. The second it becomes public, it’s no good.”
In that interview, she also expressed her despair at the way the world is heading: “Now China has become capitalist, we are all going in the same direction. I am not defending Communism, but when you have a power that goes in one direction, you need a power that goes in the other direction. Another thing is that for 10 years we have been naming the evil – pointing to the ‘Axis of Evil’. Naming the evil is the most dangerous thing to do; that is the beginning of fascism: If the evil is the people of one place or one country, well, let’s go and exterminate all of them …”
Persepolis is a beautifully crafted animated feature which confronts a wide variety of issues and doesn’t skimp on explaining the richness of progressive Iranian identity and culture, much of which has been suppressed by the post-revolution Islamic republican regime. Persepolis, as a discussion of Iranian politics, has become a thorn in the Islamic regime’s side so much so that it sent protest letters to the organisers of the Cannes film festival calling for it to be banned; it was almost banned in Lebanon and was pulled from the Bangkok film festival.
With Washington and its imperialist allies seeking to present Iran as the chief sponsor of “Islamic terrorism”, the release of an anti-Iranian government film at the moment is not surprising. But what makes Persepolis so great is that it opposes Iran’s semi-theocratic capitalist regime from a left-wing, anti-imperialist stance.