Islam dunk

Okay, so Persepolis originally came out in 2007, which makes it odd to call it “movie of the year” in 2009, but it has unfortunately taken that long to reach our screens.

Persepolis was the ancient Greek name for the capital of Persia, in the area of what is now Shiraz in Iran. Alexander the Great, when he conquered the region, razed Persepolis to the ground. The name is obviously being used in the film as a reference to Tehran, present-day capital of Iran, where author Marjane Satrapi grew up, but for me at least it also carries the resonance of a long and violent history, of civilisations rising and falling.

This is appropriate, because Satrapi’s story takes place in the last years of the Shah and into the new theocracy set up the Ayatollah Khomeini after the 1979 revolution.
The Shah, in league with the capitalist West, tried to build a monarchy with an echo of the glorious Persian past; the Ayatollah harked back to another past, that of the Muslim conquests of large swathes of the Middle East, a thousand years before his own revolution.

The film is Satrapi’s own story, which she wrote and drew as a two-volume graphic novel; now it is a film directed by her and Vincent Parronaud. It’s a growing-up story, or a coming-of-age tale, though to call it that is like calling War and Peace a war story or Don Quixote the tale of an old man.

The young Marjane is the child of intellectual lefties who, naturally, oppose the Shah’s repressive monarchy; they are Westernised, reasonably well off and enjoy the good things of life. Marjane is a fan of kung fu and Western music, a loyalty she will not eschew—even years later, when the Islamic state has banned such things. And she’s pretty ecumenical, too: she likes Iggy Pop as much as Michael Jackson (and wears pop T-shirts under the swathes of chaste black cloth required by the Ayatollah’s Revolutionary Guards).

People such as Marjane’s parents and their friends welcome the revolution only to find that the Ayatollah—until then mostly seen as a figurehead—would swiftly form the Revolutionary Guards and give them the task of annihilating his former allies, the communists, unionists and liberals. For such people, who wanted a constitutional republic, the Ayatollah had staged a coup within a revolution, and his regime was even more repressive than the Shah’s—especially for women.

This is the world in which Marjane is growing to teenagehood. Her parents send her to Austria to be further educated and to escape Islamist repression, but she finds the West traumatic in other ways. She makes an ambivalent return to Iran.

Satrapi’s stark and simple but elegantly fluid drawings translate wonderfully to the screen. Her graphic characterisations of her family, particularly the grandmother, are a joy of precise economy and feeling. There is a scene in the streets of Tehran where burqa-clad women loom over her like creatures from an expressionist horror movie. The images of the devastating war between Iran and Iraq are presented in brutal silhouette. Hilariously, Marjane’s first boyfriend in Europe is presented first from her rosily infatuated viewpoint, then reality breaks in.

Such self-aware humour tints Persepolis all the way through, without blunting its political edge or detracting from its moving human story. Marjane’s relationship with her ageing grandmother brought a tear to my notoriously dry eye, and the film as a whole left me feeling that this is the kind of movie South Africa needs: personal but political, rich with life and laughter amid all the contradictions, the complexities, and the bad stuff. Actually, no—this is the kind of movie the world needs.

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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