Persepolis: An Analysis of the Role of Identity During the Iranian Revolution

Although cinema is often seen as entertainment rather than a work of art, Marjane Satrapi’s film Persepolis beautifully captures the rhetoric of the Iranian revolution in an artistic demeanour. Her comic-inspired film follows the life of Marjan, a young girl struggling for truth during an era where the lines between human sincerity and strict government policy are blurred. The aim of the movie, however, can be argued to be the unification of the Western and Eastern public ideology regarding Iran – based on the fundamental issues of assimilation. Members of the Iranian diaspora can deeply resonate with Persepolis as a whole, but more specifically relate with Marjan’s personal endeavour for meaning in a binary world of culture. In addition to this, the movie drew a deep parallel with Marjan’s struggle with truth, and the journey for the entire nation of Iran in a society of deeply rooted political conflict. Although a wide variety of the film’s themes and ideas are solely rooted from Marjan’s personal identity, it should also be noted that a wide variety of the sub themes follow the socio-political conditions in Iran, such as women’s issues, social constructs and Western intervention. Therefore, this essay aims to explore Marjan’s emphasis on self identity, in addition to the storytelling of Iranian history and conflict. I will use Saparti’s choice of animation as aid for my thesis with an emphasis on imagery juxtaposition.

         Firstly, I will trace the origins of the root of the title and meaning behind Saparti’s choice to call the film Persepolis. Beginning with the analysis of the film title, the world Persepolis quite literally means the ancient land of the Persians. The Persian Empire was found by Cyrus the Great and was renown at the time for its strong reign.[1] Once Alexander the Great took over the capital, the people were left impoverished and their country in ruins.[2] I argue that Satrapi chose the title Persepolis as a parallel to the events that occurred during the era. The merciless overthrow of the government combined with the excruciating torture that many Iranians felt at the time are both parallels with the film.  Before the war in both circumstances, it can be argued that Iran was prosperous and free-spirited. Saparti aimed to show how dictatorship can dangerously harm a society that was once so well reputable. Throughout Persepolis it was evident that the political strain can affect nearly all interpersonal levels of Iranians throughout the revolution. This is evident in the way the Iranian revolution shaped the path of Marjane’s life; from her personal relationships to her drive for life. Furthermore, the powerful state before the war was a symbol for the utopia that the Iranians thought they were going to have. For many Iranians, the revolution was meant to be an event that altered their state for the better; to free them from the chains of totalitarian regime. However, this was clearly not the case.

         I will lay out the framework to further prove that using animation in Persepolis was a tool for Saparti in order to create an artistic portrayal. The use of animation meant an acceptance of the impossibility of perfect representation of such traumatic events. In other words, it became an accessible means of dealing with difficult content of Saparti’s life. The issues that Saparti aims to explore are often ‘grey’ and not black-and-white. This allows surplus room for the viewer to self-interpret the complex emotion that Saparti aims to express. Although it can be counter argued that animation lacks a particular element of realism, it immerses the viewer in narrative and aesthetic art. In this way, the use of animation offers a medium where memory, dream, and fantasy can be intertwined; without the burden of realist depiction. In a way, the lack of clarity and realism leaves furthermore to the imagination, which allows the viewer to grapple with meaning to the point of resolution.

Saparti monochromatic palette beautifully uses the juxtaposition of light and dark in her film. The contrast aims to represent the innate emotions and experience of each character within the film, whilst outlining their inner motivations. The gloomy silhouettes represented the lives of sorrow that the Iranian people felt, while the bright lights aimed to signify the sense of hope they felt as they clung onto the memory of freedom. A beautiful example is when Marjane learns that her Uncle Anoosh was re-arrested by the regime troops, and she is seen in front of a texture-less background with no sense of depth. The outline of her black hair and clothing contrast within frame as her figure is seen hovering through a vacant, black void. This image, although animated, depicts the sense of deep isolation and resentment Marjane faced towards the revolution. Furthermore, the use of dense black frames is used during the scene of the bombing occurring in Iran. The dark silhouette of the stairs combined with the black empty screen during the bombing ignite a sense of fear and mystery within the viewer. This is used many times throughout the film, most notably when depicting the false dream that the Iranian government sold to young men embarking off to the war. Saparti was able to, once again, draw a parallel between the young men of Iran fighting in the Iraqi war (often promised the “key to paradise”), causing the viewer to ask if these young men are any different than the youth of the American wars. In this way, Saparti uses universalization to appeal to both Iranian and Western viewers.

As the film commences, it is evident from the very opening scene that Marjane is dissatisfied with her contrasting cultures. This scene was one of the very few in colour; further punctuating the film. Marjane is seen in solitude waiting at the Paris airport in a familiar flashback. She shines a look of disapproval upon putting on a head scarf before her arrival in Tehran whilst smoking a cigarette. Immediately, we see that the complex and deeply rooted themes of identity, exile and return emerge in the introduction. Throughout the movie, the recurring theme of solitude and identity emerge as thousands of Iranians left Iran during the revolution. The relocation to another country left colossal gaps in the streams of identity amongst those individuals. Furthermore, Persepolis captures the sense of loss when Marjane’s family members dwell on the question of whether they too should leave or stay behind. In this way, the film depicts the struggles of those individuals that choose to stay, whilst placing emphasis on the severed ties with those that choose to stay behind. An example is Marjan’s Uncle Anoosh, where the theme of exile is embodied in his character’s decisions. His exile to Russia and attempt to sneak into his homeland signified his deeply rooted ties to his Iranian identity. Although he was a revolutionary that fought against the ordeals of the Shah, Uncle Anoosh served as a role model for Marjane; embodying hope, strength, and passion. He shares his stories of imprisonment with Marjan, which serve as a medium for inspiration. In addition, the toy swans carved out of the prison bread serve as a symbol for hope. Upon Anoosh’s execution, the white swans are surrounded by black water – once again the use of dark and light to represent Marjan’s deep feelings of loss and hopelessness. In this way, the perceptive genius used by Saparti illustrates the anguish Marjane faces as she is also ‘exiled’ to Vienna during her youth.

Upon moving to Vienna, we see a stark contrast with the quaint depiction of Tehran. Although in Western eyes, Iran is often seen as the foregin ‘other’; in this turn around of events, Vienna was depicted in the light of “otherness”, with Viennese tams and sidewalk cafes, along with ringing church bells. In this way, the viewer was placed directly in Marjane’s perspective; engulfed in a sense of wonder and foreignism. An overarching scene in which consumerism and Western industrialism is well depicted in one where Marjane is in the bounds of a modern-day grocery store – shining with branded product. This generates a stark contrast with the poverty that many Iranians faced during the revolution, and due to this a fundamental and underlying guilt is developed in Marjane. While her family is faced with the darkness of war, Marjane is blessed with the Western opportunities and frivolous life. Unable to live with the guilt and lack of external support from her friends in Vienna, Marjane is later diagnosed with depression. There is uneasiness with her friends’ ease of philosophy and the dark realities of war that Marjane faced. This internal struggle aims to show how the revolution creates deeply embedded memories in the Iranian diaspora, in which it is carried with them throughout all their experiences. The internal struggle within Marjan also runs parallel with the struggles of Iranian across the globe, which further attributes to the universality of the film. In addition to her struggle into assimilation, Marjan also experiences various romantic relationships that also contribute to her shaping of her adolescent identity.

As the attempts to find understanding and sympathy in her friendships, the same is apparent in her strive for love. As she strives to find meaning in these relationships, Marjane loses a piece of herself. In a scene where she lies about being French from fear of being seen as a “barbaric” Iranian, Marjane imagines her grandmother following her trail and catching her in her lie. Through the act of dishonesty, it is clear that Marjane still possesses an innate dissatisfaction with her identity. Upon her return to Tehran, she also sees the socio-political effects that the revolution had on the people. As her grandmother famously quoted that “fear lulls us to sleep,” Marjane sees fear manifesting in the actions of her fellow Iranians. In a way, the revolution had normalized people to be savage and this is evident in the distinct scenes of her mother at the grocery store or swearing at other drivers. Furthermore, her decision to turn in an innocent man also shows how fear had caused everyone in Iran to resort to a “survival” and “state of nature” instinct. The Iranians became stripped of their pride, nationalism and meaning, therefore the country had evolved into a cold society, where all individuals only possessed the will to survive.

It is evident that Saparti effectively used animation as a means of portraying the harsh realities of the Iranian revolution. Saparti was able to beautifully capture the binary world of Iranian and Western culture, and the deeply rooted conflict that many individuals like Marjan felt during this era. It is also evident, however, that the Iranian diaspora today also feel disconnect when approaching the fragile world of cultural clash. Furthermore, Saparti was able to go beyond the physical bounds of Iran and travel beyond into the universal world, where her film can be applied to individuals of nearly all cultures. That is the beauty of universality that lies in the fundamental roots of Persepolis. No matter what culture one may originate from, the internal conflict with the “traditional” and modern will always persist. The outcome, however, will not always be positive. Although Marjane was able to undergo multiple external identity alterations, in the end, she was still the carefree and curious soul. Her drive for justice is evident at a young age and is manifested later in her life. This is evident when she is seen standing up for her classmates in university regarding dress code.  Marjane’s early life and her exposure to her parents’ activism instilled determination for justice and a desire for freedom.

Through the use of animation and contrasting depictions of dark and light, Saparti is able to tell the story of Marjane’s coming of age during the violent birth of the Iranian revolution. Through this, Saparti also universalizes the ideology of binary culture and sheds light on the day-to-day victims of the Iranian revolution that are often ignored in Western portrayal. Persepolis acts as a beacon of hope where cross-cultured individuals can reconnect with meaning, and a desire to discover identity through Saparti’s rich, inky black and white illustrations. Marjan’s dissatisfaction with revolutionary promise for freedom, and with totalitarian rule is manifested in her acts of defiance throughout the film. In conclusion, Saparti’s story-telling monochrome palette reveal throughout Persepolis that the deep socio-political issues it highlights are anything but black and white.

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