“Punk is Not Ded.”
Directed by: Vincent Paronnaud
I’m not the only one who thinks this movie is great. It won a Critics’ Choice Award for best animated feature and garnered 15 Oscar nominations in 2008.
Persepolis is based on Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel, Persepolis: the Story of a Childhood, about coming of age in Iran during and after the Iran-Iraq war. I think descriptions of her artwork would run from “stark” to “deceptively simple.” The Iranian sections, which comprise flashbacks in the movie, are all done in black in white, ranging from minimalist and geometric to elaborate and ornate, depending upon the story.
Persepolis works for many reasons, not the least of which is that Satrapi employs an artist’s honesty in all things, even the depiction of herself. Young Marjane is not some sugary, saintly little girl. She is a real individual—smart, imaginative, mischievous and indulged. In an early scene she is scolded for bullying another girl at a party (Marjane is pretending she is Bruce Lee). She argues passionately with her father that the Shah is good because “He’s been appointed by God. God told me so. And my teacher.” When the Shah is deposed, she persuades the other neighborhood children to ambush another boy because his father worked for the Shah’s secret police “and killed a million people!” (Marjane’s mother puts a stop to the ambush and tells Marjane that the boy is not responsible for what his father might have done.)
After the Shah is deposed, things are better, for a bit. Marjane’s Uncle Anoush, who has been a political prisoner for nine years, comes home. He is dashing and heroic, and Marjane loves him. When he tells her how he came to be imprisoned, the artwork becomes lush and flowing, like the illustration of a children’s book. Anoush flees Iran and strikes a heroic pose on a shore, wind ruffling his hair, while, near the horizon, the onion-spired city of Moscow rises from the waves, an Atlantis in reverse. Soon, however, the oppressive squarish black and gray returns as the new regime first imprisons Anoush for his communist activities, then executes him.
The long war with Iraq takes its toll and life becomes more repressive. Women are required to wear headscarves whenever they are in public. Any male feels emboldened to scold a woman if her scarf allows too much hair to show. Marjane inks the words “Punk is Not Ded” on the back of her jacket, and, in an iconic scene in both the novel and the movie, is set upon by two lamia-like old women covered in black robes and headdresses. They separate her from her friends, question her about her jacket, all the while circling her like a pair of constrictors—which is exactly what they are.
Teenage Marjane is passionate, articulate and out-spoken, and soon, fearing for her life, her parents send her to Vienna. Here she is safe from the bombs and the mortar fire, safe from the sexual violence masked as religious sanctimony. . .but she is a complete outsider.
All of the Satrapi family is well-developed in the movie, but the strongest character, for me, is Marjane’s grandmother. In Vienna, the memory of her grandmother becomes the voice of Marjane’s conscience. (“Oh, you’re French now?” her shadow asks Marjane after she has denied her heritage at a party. “I didn’t realize.”) Grandmother commands that Marjane “remember where she comes from.” In a later scene, back in Iran, Grandmother admonishes Marjane never to forget she is wearing the headscarf, saying, “It’s how you know you aren’t free.”
In Vienna, we watch Marjane grow up, weather bad loves affairs and survive a life-threatening bout with bronchitis. She returns home, wrestles with depression (sitting in an overstuffed chair drawn in the shape of a tombstone), starts the university, and, against her mother’s wishes, gets married. Her mother says, “I wanted to see you educated, cultured, not married at twenty-one.” We realize just how much Marjane’s mother, smart, educated and cultured, a political activist in her own right, has lost as the government steadily grinds away the rights and freedom of women.
The repressive regime is not only a danger for women, however. One of Marjane’s male friends is killed running from the police, after the police break up a party because it has (gasp!) wine, rock and roll music, and men and women in the same room. This final loss crystallizes something for Marjane. She leaves her husband, leaves her home again, and goes to Europe, an expatriate who will never forget her roots.
A good artist can reveal the deeply personal in an honest way. A great artist can depict a personal experience in such depth that it becomes universal. Satrapi approaches greatness. Marjane’s life is not a catalogue of intellectually interesting experiences that happened to a girl from a foreign land. She bridges the gap between her experiences and our imaginations—and our hearts. Because we know how she feels as a child, or as a young woman with her sad and witty description of a failed love affair, we also know how defiant yet terrified she must be when she is arrested and threatened with whipping because her fiancé touched her hand in public. We imagine what it’s like to come home and find the house next door to ours flattened in a bombing, to see the hand of our dead neighbor poking out of the rubble. We chortle when we see young Marjane playing air guitar to her contraband Iron Maiden tape. And, at least for a moment, we feel, or at least understand, her sadness, her pain and her pride at the end of the movie. Catching a cab form the Orly airport, Marjane is asked where she is from. She pauses, for a moment, perhaps tempted to lie, perhaps thinking of her family and loved ones, perhaps remembering her grandmother’s words. She sighs. Then she speaks. “Iran,” she says.