Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Persepolis and Graphic Novels

On Monday we went to see Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi’s animation of her four graphic novels that came out in France starting 2000 and then were translated and spread around the world. (English translations of the first two novels came out in 2003 and 2004.) Worldwide, the film is controversial. While winning the Jury Prize at the Cannes film festival in 2007, Persepolis has been strongly condemned as Islamophobic by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Some other critics have accused Satrapi of claiming to be something she's not. To me though, the film seemed a wonderful combination of autobiography and history lesson, describing Satrapi’s childhood in Tehran (during which the Shah was overthrown, the Islamic Revolution came into power, and Iran fought a war with Iraq), her high school years in Austria, her return to Iran (during which she went to college, got married, and then divorced) and her move to France (where she’s lived in self-imposed exile since). And, because it tells such a personal story, it’s also able to convey emotions—the bewilderment a child must feel in the contradictions between an open-minded home life and a repressive public life, for example—that most material we read on the period misses.

The movie does a nice job of capturing the feeling of the graphic novels, perhaps because Satrapi herself was so intimately involved with its production. Some of the more specific political comments found in the novels, such as those made about Jimmy Carter and Anwar Sadat when the Shah was overthrown and looking for a place to go into exile, were eliminated from the film—in the interest of time or for some other reason? Or perhaps it was the film producers resisting the temptation to use the story as a piece showing who was right or who suffered most? Instead Satrapi’s main focus in the novels-- the cost, consequences, and time that change takes and the importance of being aware of ourselves – stay center stage.

I also found myself hoping that films such as this will allow graphic novels to begin to take their rightful place in the world with other literature rather than being dismissed as high-falutin’ comics. As Satrapi herself said in an interview “Graphic novels are not traditional literature, but that does not mean they are second-rate. Images are a way of writing. When you have the talent to be able to write and to draw it seems a shame to choose one. I think it's better to do both.” Already some colleges are beginning to catch on to this. Hampshire College, for example, assigned Persepolis as their first year students’ common reading experience text this past fall. And several other universities—including the College of New Jersey, University of Connecticut, and George Mason University—have used the novels in women’s study courses.

I’ve got to ponder the significance of the title a little more. I know that Persepolis was the capital city of the Persian Empire, that Alexander the Great basically rode in and destroyed it, and that its ruins survive today, but I’m not yet sure how to connect that with Satrapi’s novels.

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