An animated feature film based on Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical comics about her coming of age in revolutionary Iran. The film begins just before the 1979 revolution in Iran, and unfolds from the perspective of Marji, a precocious 10-year-old girl from an upper-class, Marxist intellectual family. The story follows Marji from childhood to early adolescence in the Islamic Republic of Iran at which point her parents send her abroad to Vienna. In Vienna, we follow her story as she struggles with the travails of life in exile and her guilt about living in the security of Europe while her family and friends in Iran suffer through the 8-year-long Iran-Iraq war. Four years after her arrival in Europe, and following a failed love affair, a nervous breakdown, a period of homelessness and serious illness, Marji returns to Iran. There she has difficulty re-adapting to her old home. Eventually, she gets married and divorced, and then leaves Iran again – this time for good.
Persepolis is a critically acclaimed film that was nominated for and won several prestigious international film awards. Most notably, it won the Jury Prize at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, and received an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Film, losing the award to Ratatouille. The film, however, is as reviled by Muslim state officials as it is celebrated by critics in the West. The Islamic Republic of Iran’s Farabi Cinema Foundation issued a letter to organisers of the Cannes Film Festival condemning their inclusion of Persepolis in the festival. Their complaint was that the film misrepresents ‘the glorious’ aspects of the Islamic Revolution; thus the principal issue, for the Iranian government, was the film’s interpretation of Iranian history. Although the Cannes Festival ignored the requests of the Farabi Foundation to bar the film from screening, the Bangkok International Film Festival succumbed to the pressure imposed by the Iranian Embassy in Thailand and pulled the film from its festival. In May 2012, Nabil Karoui, owner of the Nessma TV network, was fined for screening Persepolis on Tunisian television. He was charged with disrupting ‘public morals’ and triggering social disorder. Amnesty International issued a statement condemning the charges against Karoui, stating that the legal charges against him presage a darkening of the future of Tunisian democracy.
The film, therefore, has generated strong reactions from totalitarian regimes; a likely reason being that both the graphic novel and the film illustrate the dynamic nature of memory in reconstructions of the past. In other words, the single narrative about a triumphant Islamic Republic and the benefits of the 1979 revolution for all ‘the people’ as expounded by the Iranian state is brought into question in the autobiographical retelling of Marjis’s childhood during Iran’s revolutionary years. As both comic book and animated film, Persepolis places the concepts of traumatic memory and of revolutionary history at the heart of its narrative. However, the remediation of Satrapi’s comics into an animated feature film has entailed some modifications to the comics’ version of the narrative, and these changes are expressed through the film’s use of framing devices. The filmic narrative unfolds almost entirely through the technique of the flashback. The flashback marks a distinction between the present time in which the story is told and the narrative reconstruction of the past; the concepts of memory, history, and nostalgia are thus integral to this technique.1 The filmic version of Persepolis, through flashback, exemplifies Svetlana Boym’s analysis of nostalgia: as a longing for not just another place, but for another time imagined as somehow better than the present.2 In this case, the flashback scenes of Marji’s childhood and adolescence – which include traumatic moments of revolution, war, and exile – repeatedly interrupt Marji’s existence in the temporal present, visually pushing her to one side of the screen, rendering her a passive observer of her own life. Despite the painfulness of some of her recollections, the relationship between her memories of the past and her location in the present is weighted by nostalgia.
The use of the flashback in Persepolis accentuates the ways in which the present moment is always imbricated with the past, stressing one of the features of traumatic memory: that the traumatic past repeatedly encroaches upon the present.3 Reflections on the past also work through the prism of nostalgia, as past and present collapse into each other but always with an awareness of futurity. The four brief scenes depicting Marji in Paris’ Orly airport, filmed in the present time and in colour, exist in the shadow of her narrative of the past. In classic flashback shots, the screen fades or dissolves to reveal the past in memory, but the use of the flashback technique in Persepolis is significantly different: the principal narrative unfolds almost entirely through flashback with the present time emerging in the form of staccato articulations through the narrative retelling of the past. In this film, scenes of the past provide not only context for the narrative in the present, but the past literally intrudes on the present; for example, the first transition to the flashback mode in the film begins with Marji’s 10-year-old self bounding into the frame occupied by an adult Marji in Orly.
This first flashback segment concludes in the Tehran airport with a 14-year-old Marji saying goodbye to her parents as she leaves for a new life in Austria. Her parents embrace her and smile reassuringly, but Marji makes the mistake of turning back for a final look only to see her mother collapse into her father’s arms. The image of her distraught parents is swallowed into the darkness of the screen. The backwards glance, then, is a dangerous one: the nostalgic person who looks back and becomes mired in the past risks not moving forward. James Olney has described memory as ‘both recollective and anticipatory’; 4 in other words, our present moment is always inflected by the ways in which we remember the past and how we anticipate our future selves. Similarly, Boym describes nostalgia as both retrospective and prospective. But in Persepolis, Marji’s nostalgic look at the past threatens her ability to move forward. Situated in the ephemeral and transitional space of the airport lounge, she becomes a spectator of her past, watching impassively as images of her past dominate the screen. Throughout the film, the Marji of the past succeeds in taking over the Marji of the present, shown in various places in the airport, looking defeated and overwhelmed.
In media interviews about the film, Satrapi has repeatedly stressed the universal elements of the film. Claiming that her’s is a universal story about the destructiveness of oppressive and dictatorial systems, Satrapi has stated that she deliberately chose to make an animated feature film precisely because of what she understands to be its universal appeal. But the film’s animated depictions of Marji’s family members and friends undercut Satrapi’s claim about the so-called ‘universal’ appeal of animation. Marji’s Iranian family, for instance, is represented as a European (specifically, French) family. Indeed, her family and friends are all portrayed through a very European aesthetic. The deliberate imitation of French culture signals a very specific cultural and economic class in Iran: historically, the Iranian aristocracy has performed their class status through an emulation of French tastes and cultural practices. And, this recognizable ‘type’ of Europeanised Iranian is evoked in Satrapi’s filmic depiction of her family and friends.5 Representatives of the revolutionary regime, on the other hand, are more noticeably racialised with thick black eyebrows, dark beards, and violent expressions. In fact, as animated film, Persepolis succeeds in particularising representations of Iranians as both menacing and racialised – thus affirming mainstream Western media representations of Muslims as fanatical and threatening. While the comics’ version also reproduces racialised representations of supporters of the Islamic regime, Persepolis I, in particular, makes efforts to acknowledge political, cultural, and social differences amongst Iranians.
The film version of Persepolis thus indulges a nostalgic longing for a very particular, prerevolutionary past. The sense of total loss and deep longing for a past, pre-revolutionary Iran alongside the rejection (and even derision) of present-day Iran fuels the nostalgic impulse in the film. The audience is left to mourn what is irretrievably lost: a refined, ‘civilised’ and very European world belonging to Marji’s parents. Infused with nostalgic desire for another, better time, the film has difficulty escaping its own flashback-based structure of nostalgia and longing. The film’s final scene in which Marji is finally able to move forward by leaving the airport and returning to her diasporic life in Paris necessitates a breaking away from the flashback mode in which longing for the past becomes a form of pathology. Thus, while the bulk of the film struggles with the paralytic effects of nostalgic desire, it ends with a more productive interpretation of nostalgia which understands the backwards glance as inflected with a healthy awareness of the present and the future.
1. See Maureen Turim’s detailed study of the use of the flashback technique and its relationship to memory in cinema in Flashbacks in Film: Memory and History, New York, Routledge, 1989.
2. See Svetlana Boym’s ‘Off-Modern Homecoming in Art and Theory’ in Marianne Hirsch and Nancy K. Miller (eds), Rites of Return: Diaspora Poetics and the Politics of Memory, New York, Columbia University Press, 2011, pp. 151–65.
3. In her landmark study on trauma, Cathy Caruth describes how traumatic memories continue to haunt the suffering subject. She argues that traumatic events cannot be processed in the moment of their happening; the memory of the trauma is always belated and recurs throughout a person’s life. See Caruth’s ‘Introduction: The Wound and the Voice’ in Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.
4. James Olney, Memory and Narrative: The Weave of Life-Writing, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1998, p. 343.
5. Interestingly, Satrapi’s second feature film, Chicken with Plums, based on her graphic novel of the same name, is a live action feature that evokes a French cultural context aesthetic rather than an Iranian one, and has a cast that includes only one Iranian actor, Golshifteh Farahani.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: France. Production Company: 2.4.7 Films, France 3 Cinema, The Kennedy/Marshall Company, French Connection Animations, Diaphana Films, Celluloid Dreams, Sony Pictures Classics. Directors: Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi. Producers: Remi Burah, Tara Grace, Marc Jousset, Kathleen Kennedy, Xavier Rigault, MarcAntoine Robert, and Vitaliy Versace. Music: Olivier Bernet. Editor: Stephane Roche. Art Department: Marc Jousset and Thierry Million. Cast: Chiara Mastroianni (Marji as teenager and woman), Catherine Deneuve (Mrs Satrapi), Danielle Darrieux (Marji’s grandmother), Simon Akbarian (Mr Satrapi), Gabrielle Lopes Benites (Marji as child), Francois Jerome (Uncle Anouche), Amethyste Frezignac (Marji as child – English version), Sean Penn (Mr Satrapi – English version), Iggy Pop (Uncle Anouche – English version), Gena Rowlands (Marji’s grandmother – English version).]
Hilary Chute, ‘Graphic Narrative as Witness: Marjane Satrapi and the Texture of Retracing’ in Graphic Women: Life Narrative & Contemporary Comics, New York, Columbia University Press, 2010, pp. 135–73.
Manuela Constantino, ‘Marji: Popular Commix Heroine Breathing Life into the Writing of History’ in Canadian Review of American Studies, Vol. 38, No. 3, 2008, pp. 429–47.
Babak Elahi, ‘Frames and Mirrors in Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis’ in Symploke, Vol. 15, No. 1–2, 2007, pp. 312–25.
Typhaine Leservot, ‘Occidentalism: Rewriting the West in Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis’ in French Forum, Vol. 36, No. 1, Winter 2011, pp. 115–30.
Amy Malek, ‘Memoir as Iranian Exile Production: A Case Study of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis series’ in Iranian Studies: Journal of the International Society for Iranian Studies, Vol. 39, No. 3, September 2006, pp. 353–80.
Nancy K. Miller, ‘Out of the Family: Generations of Women in Feminism. The Case of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis’ in Giorgio Adalgisa and Julia Waters (eds), Women’s Writing in Western Europe: Gender, Generation and Legacy, Newcastle upon Tyne, England, Cambridge Scholars, 2007, pp. 22–37.
Nima Naghibi, ‘A Story Told in Flashback: Remediating Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis’ in Michael A. Chaney (ed.), Graphic Subjects: Critical Essays on Autobiography and Graphic Novels, Madison, Wisconsin, University of Wisconsin Press, 2011, pp. 164–77.
Nima Naghibi and Andrew O’Malley, ‘Estranging the Familiar: “East” and “West” in Satrapi’s Persepolis’ in English Studies in Canada, Vol. 31, No. 2–3, 2005, pp. 233–47.
Marjane Satrapi, The Complete Persepolis, New York, Pantheon Books, 2007. Kimberly Wedeven Segall, ‘Melancholy Ties: Intergenerational Loss and Exile in Persepolis’ in Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Vol. 28, No. 1, 2008, pp. 38–49.
Gillian Whitlock, ‘Autographics: The Seeing “I” of the Comics’ in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 52, No. 4, 2006, pp. 965–79.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.