Persepolis: Iran through a rebel’s eyes

Directed by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, Now showing

WITH US-LED military threats against Iran showing no signs of abating, the release of Persepolis on the big screen couldn’t have come at a better moment.

Intially published in 2003 as a graphic novel, Marjane Satrapi’s semi-autobiographical account of growing up in Iran during and after the 1979 Iranian Revolution is at once educational and moving.

Satrapi recounts the turbulent decade beginning with the overthrow of the Shah, through the Iran-Iraq War, during which she was a student in Austria, followed by her return to Iran as a young woman in the early 1990s. Her increasing discontent under the repressive Islamic regime leads her into self-exile to Paris, where she now lives and works. Persepolis, her first feature film, won a 2007 Cannes award.

Like the book, the film begins in 1980 when, as a 10-year-old girl, Marjane and her classmates are suddenly compelled to wear the veil, despite going to a secular French school.

The events surrounding the revolution of 1979-1980 occur rapidly. Marjane herself starts chanting, “Down with the Shah”, reflecting the excitement of the Iranian people as the hated US puppet, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, is overthrown by a mass popular uprising.

Her parents are part of the educated middle class “secular, left-wing, and ‘avant-garde’” in Marji’s words. They take part in the protests, and at this time don’t countenance the idea that the Ayatollahs will end up the real victors of the revolt.

The history of Iran is outlined via the explanations that Marjane’s relatives give her. “‘Twenty five hundred years of tyranny and submission,’ as my father said. First our own emperors, then the Arab invasion from the West followed by the Mongolian invasion from the East and finally modern imperialism.”

Her father explains that Reza Shah (or Reza Pahlavi, father of the Shah deposed in 1979) was brought to power by the British after World War I to counter the influence of the Bolsheviks and keep Iran and its resources under the control of Western powers.

Marji also learns her grandfather had been a prince of the Qajar dynasty that Reza Shah had overthrown, but that he’d been won over to the ideas of Marx and became a communist in the wake of the 1917 Revolution in Russia. And that he was later imprisoned and tortured.

Many of her relatives and friends are either in or around the Communist (Tudeh) Party, and become early victims of the new Islamic Republic.

Later in the film, the brutal Iran-Iraq War is deeply felt even in Tehran, away from the battlefield. Saddam Hussein’s air raids kill some families and make refugees of others. Food becomes scarce, and there is increasing political repression from the Iranian state.


Throughout this, Marjane maintains her rebellious nature, wearing punk shirts under her hijab, and secretly buying rock casettes. When she tells her religion teacher that the Islamic regime holds more political prisoners than the Shah did, Marjane’s family decides to use its connections to get her out of the country.

In Austria, she tries but fails to fit into the anarchist counter-cultural scene.

Her parents convince her to come back to Iran, where she struggles to reintegrate. Her battle to survive increasingly becomes a personal one, not least because, by this time, most visible political opposition to the regime has been wiped out.

At art school, she makes fun of having to draw live models clad in a hijab and questions gender segregation that has become a feature of all aspects of Iranian society. She wears make-up and nail polish under her own veil, and attends regular parties in the privacy of her friends’ homes—until one of them is raided by the so-called Guardians of the Revolution.

While the film’s adaptation of Satrapi’s illustrations is beautifully done, the film is unable to go into as much detail as the book. Having the voiceovers for the Iran scenes done in Farsi rather than French would also have given the film more impact.

Nevertheless, on both personal and political levels, this is a must-see film, and make sure you also read the book. Importantly, her family, particularly her grandmother, are intelligent and warm people, a refreshing demolition of the stereotypes promoted in the West of a conformist, conservative and brainwashed society. And throughout the tragic events that her story recounts, Satrapi maintains a sharp sense of humour.

By Mark Goudkamp


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