Marjane Satrapi’s powerful autobiography Persepolis is a lot of things. It is a unique history of the monumental political shifts that happened in Iran between the 1970s and 1990s. It is a powerful statement against the opponents of free speech and expression. It gives fascinating insight into the specific dangers that women face in both liberated and oppressed societies. It is a moving coming-of-age tale that is frequently funny and tragic told against a backdrop of strife and hardship. But most importantly at least for me, Persepolis is the definitive movie of the immigrant experience and the unique joys and pains that come from living in two different worlds while really belonging in none. As an immigrant myself (or now two countries), I frequently get asked what it feels like to move to a different culture amongst a different people. Persepolis answers that question better than I ever could.
The story is told in an episodic way, starting with Marjane’s childhood experience in Tehran in 1978. She is a plucky girl of educated parents who is too young to understand why the Shah being deposed is something to celebrate but old enough to want to join in the celebrating anyway. The end of the Shah’s rule comes as a welcome change to her progressive family and the release of her Marxist Uncle Anoush from being a political prisoner raises the family’s optimism of a brighter future for Iran. But this optimism doesn’t last as a nation which overwhelmingly embraced revolution just as quickly embraces a repressive Islamic government that forces Marjane, her mother, and grandmother into headdresses, the closure of universities as part of a repression of Western values, and most tragically the imprisonment and eventual execution of Marjane’s beloved Uncle Anoush. To top it off, the nation of Iran descends into open warfare with Iraq so that missile fire becomes merely part of Marjane’s landscape.
This devastating loss of innocence for Marjane however does not crush her spirit as she sneaks bootleg music (first the Bee Gees and then Iron Maiden), wears subversive clothing, and openly challenges the propaganda of her teachers much to her parents chagrin. To protect Marjane her parents make the heartbreaking decision to send her away to some family in Vienna. It is at this juncture that Marjane’s journey becomes most intriguing.
She finds Vienna to be a much more liberating place than Iran, and as a result she too finds herself is liberated. Her enjoyment of simple pleasures like television and supermarkets are humorous while her brief dalliances into nihilist and hippie circles of her peers are refreshing excursions into normal adolescent behaviour. But it is in this period of her life that she runs up against the unique pain when you come of age in a place different than where you grew up. Every act of maturing and growing into a responsible adult feels like a betrayal because it happens away from home. Every embrace of the context you now find yourself in feels like abandoning where you once came from.
And worse still for Marjane is the sinking realization that no matter how much she tries to embrace Vienna, Vienna will never truly embrace her. Her friends are mostly interested in the unique context that she grew up in, paying little attention to her as an individual. In addition, their dissatisfaction with life comes from a place of bourgeoisie privilege far removed from the actual oppression and suffering she knows and has grown up with. In addition she frequently bumps up against racist views and suspicious people. Her fumbling attempts at young love ultimately cause her life in Vienna to fall apart and she returns home defeated.
Unfortunately, and all to familiarly to anybody who has immigrated, the return home is not as welcome as she would hope for. Iran has become even stricter and more repressive. Her old friends and family either pigeonhole her as the person she was before she left or assume that the trip abroad has changed her irreparably. In a ironic twist, they once again seem more interested in life in Vienna than about her. She has found herself as a person unable to drink the cool-aid of either culture, and thus without a home.
The great power of this movie lies in the decision to tell Marjane’s story through black-and-white animation. A live action retelling of those tumultuous years in Iran would force the focus of the movie on the “otherness” of Marjane’s experience, giving us a glimpse into a foreign culture but allowing us to stay at arms length. The choice of animation however deemphasizes the unique differences of her story, instead allowing to universality of growing up to shine through. In addition the choice to use animation allows for many more creative avenues of storytelling as much of the movie is told in a stream-of-consciousness way, frequently taking absurdist detours into Marjane’s mind. By doing so it allows us to intimately know Marjane the person, who is neither saint nor sinner, but altogether human and frail. And as it typically goes, it is the extremely personal nature of this story that in fact makes it universal.
Unlike most coming-of-age stories, Marjane’s is compelling because it comes out of true strife and hardship and not the manufactured angsts that occupy most of our lives. She faces the impossible task of wanting to not lose who she was while allowing herself to grow into the person she needs to be. She has the benefit of being able to see the strengths of her Iranian upbringing and also of the Western values she has picked up in her time away. But because she was raised to refuse to live unquestioningly, she also sees the faults of both and this is her curse. Choosing what will be best for her means alienating herself from both worlds. The easy temptation she faces is either to follow her grandmother’s advice to “Never forget who you are or where you come from,” in such a way as to abandon everything that takes her away her heritage or to reject her past and embrace the West and its values. What makes this movie ultimately compelling is that she chooses to do neither, and become her own woman. In so doing Marjane Satrapi, and the movie in general, gives the world a glimpse into the minds of many, many immigrants (including myself) who have had to make that same choice for themselves.