Feb 16, 2008

'Persepolis' provides window on lives of Iranians

'Persepolis' provides window on lives of Iranians
By Ali Moossavi
Saturday, 02.09.2008, 04:00am

In recent years, there's been a crop of memoirs from young to middle-aged Iranians recounting their experiences growing up under the Shah and witnessing the revolutionary transition from a monarchy to a theocracy.

These stories vary, but many of them contain similar themes: Life was good under the Shah, the revolution happened for no reason, the country was plunged into darkness and Iranians were forced to escape through emigration. They hope to return to a democratic and secular Iran one day and the good old days will return, or so the narrative goes.

These hopes are understandable — Iran is an oppressive theocracy and many of the hopes of 1979 died along with thousands of those who made the revolution a reality. But the fact remains that not only was the revolution inevitable, it was also necessary, something that gets overlooked by the official revisionist discourse carried on by those who long for a mythical past, or who want to regain their past privilege.

Fortunately, some personal works cut through this crap and present a more balanced perspective, and the latest of these is the movie "Persepolis," the animated movie adapted from the popular graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi. It recently completed a run at the Detroit Film Theater.

Persepolis is the name of the ruins of Darius's empire that was destroyed by Alexander the Great over 2500 years ago. Located 20 minutes outside the city of Shiraz in the southern Fars province, it was the site where Mohammed Shah Pahlavi held a ceremony in 1971 commemorating the monarchy and declaring himself "Aryamehr," or light of the Aryans.

Persepolis remains a popular tourist spot today. It symbolizes a glorious past and a decayed present for many Iranians, and it serves as a perfect metaphor for Satrapi's turbulent upbringing, first in Iran, then Europe, then Iran again. The movie begins during the final years of the Shah's reign in 1978, where violent street demonstrations bring the country to the brink of change and politics invades the life of a young girl enthralled with Bruce Lee.

Satrapi's parents are Marxists and her uncle Annoush, also a Marxist, is released from the Shah's prison after nine years. He tells her the story of his political activity, his exile and return. He also tells the story of Reza Shah and how he wanted to modernize Iran in the same way that Mustafa Kemal Attaturk modernized Turkey, but was dissuaded by the oil-hungry British.

He goes on to tell her about Reza's son, Mohammed Shah Pahlavi, and the predicament Iran was in, and how the regime's imminent collapse will solve all the country's problems. Uncle Annoush's freedom is short lived and he's jailed and executed by the Islamic regime. The mullahs take over instead, and uncle Annoush is again arrested and executed, the first in a series of traumatic events Satrapi experiences throughout the movie.

Fortunately, the movie isn't one big sob fest over how much life sucks — it's in there — it's also full of humorous observations of the strange and funny people she comes across in Europe and her frequent encounters with the regime. Throughout the movie, she moves from one ordeal to another — whether personal or political — but emerges confident and hopeful.

This is a great movie, but it has its drawbacks as well. For one thing, it's in French. Nothing wrong with that, but the movie's goal would've been better served if it had been done in Farsi, especially since Satrapi's goal, as stated during her appearance on the "Colbert Report," is to show Americans that Iranians are human too. Better to show Iranians' humanity through their native tongue.

There's also her take on recent Iranian history, where she glosses over certain areas that give the viewers a wrong impression of how things were. Uncle Annoush reacts to Iranians voting 99.9 percent for an Islamic Republic without providing any insight to the post-revolutionary fighting amongst the different groups wanting power.

There were many groups vying for power, either through deception, cunning, or outright violence. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Islamic Republican Party certainly was popular, but Satrapi makes it appear that there were free and fair elections, and that wasn't the case. Neither is it true that 99.9 percent of Iranians voted for it, given the depth of support other groups, like the Liberation Movement of Iran and the Mojehidin e-Khalq, had at that time.

Khomeini isn't mentioned and neither is the hostage crisis or Mohammad Mossadegh, for that matter. She also failed to portray how Iran fought the last six years of the war with Iraq on Iraqi soil and the portrayal of the Evin prison massacre, where thousands of political prisoners were murdered by the regime in 1988.

What Satrapi gets right are the details of everyday life, especially the corruption, the harassment by the religious police and the constant negotiation with the authorities when its pointless laws are broken. The geo-political events that impact ordinary Iranian lives are compounded by an oppressive regime and its social restrictions, backed up by their stupid justifications.

"Persepolis" is a well-done film that provides a window into the lives of Iranians through the eyes of Marjane Satrapi. For a greater political and historical understanding of how the U.S.-Iran confrontation began, however, one is better off reading a scholarly work.