The biggest brow raiser to the Oscar ceremonies a few weeks back was the passing by of "Persepolis" in favor of Disney's light and breezy film "Ratatouille". It is not very often that an animated film comes a long that tackles complex issues in an accessible way. Of course the nomination alone was an enormous support to the movie. It is questionable if the film would have gotten the distribution and attention it has now if it weren't for that nomination. Even though the Oscars are hardly any indication on the merit of a film, a nomination and especially a win is still a very important promotional tool. The nomination is probably what got the movie out of the festival and art house circuit into a heavier rotation or is at the very least what got the art houses to fill up. "Persepolis" is based on the graphic novel of the same name by Marjane Satrapi. As a work of art it is most easily compared to "Maus" by Art Spiegelman. The book is highly autobiographically in nature and, like "Maus", gives us a window into the human aspect of oppression.
In a day and age where the debate surrounding the Arab world mainly focuses on extremism politicians and the general public risks loosing side of that aspect. President Bush's one liners on terrorism and his "axis of evil" have caused a dehumanization of the Arab world, maybe even the entire Muslim world. In the current debate there seems to be very little room for the many human differences between individual Muslims. Especially with the debate surrounding the perceived terrorist and nuclear thread of Iran we tend to loose sight of such aspects. The media focuses mainly on the insanity of the Mullahs and the president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In the complex dynamics surrounding the terrorist debate and the fundamentalist threat the perception of Muslims sometimes tends to take the nature of a caricature not unlike those used in Nazi Germany to portrait the Jew. Ironically it is a comic book that is now helping to give us a more realistic perspective.
"Persepolis" is a cultural and historical lesson, a coming of age story, a comedy and a tragedy all in one. It is against the backdrop of oppression, first by the USA supported Shah and later by the religious fanatics, that Marjane grew up. Though the film gives an insight in the terror of oppression and its mechanisms the film doesn't dwell on that. Through the terror we follow Marjane trying grow up, we get her child like perspective on Iran but we get to see a delightful charming little girl growing into a beautiful woman as well, going through most of the stages of growing up every girl goes through. As a little girl Marjane has imaginative conversations with God, who picked her to become the next profit, we see her rocking out on Iron Maiden as a teen ager, pumping herself up on "The Eye Of The Tiger" as a young adolescent. Especially funny and frightening at the same time is the scene were Marjane hits the street with her "Punk is not ded" jacket sporting a Michael Jackson button. Apparently in Iran, with its ban on music, both have an equally rebellious nature. It is that nature that get Marjane into trouble, openly opposing her religious teacher as a 13 year old, causing her parents to send her to Europe where she is faced with bigotry and the challenge of trying to fit in as a girl growing up.
Though the film and the comic are done in black and white the way it deals with the themes is hardly that. Marjane herself has called her film a color production using gray tones. Her approach to the characters is much the same. In the book there's the Mullah who approves her application for art school despite her unorthodox view on religion, she stays with the ignorant but heartily welcoming parent of a friend in Austria, in the film she shows herself using the terror of the state to her advantage when she's in a rough spot (endangering an innocent by stander) and neighbors who are suddenly religious over night. As the characters pass through Marjane's life at the family table and the illegal parties with black market wine and lipstick the complexities of human nature comes sharply back into focus. With witty, wry irony and an almost poetic animation Marjane demonstrates how normal average people go on their way in times of dictatorship and fanaticism. She effectively shows how the terror of few can dominate the life's of many. In short, in these cynical times where one dimensional views seem to prevail, we need a one dimensional comic to gain some perspective again.
Se also this interview with Marjane for book slut and the this article from the NY Times.