Tehran 1978: An eight-year-old Marjane, dreams of being a future prophet, intent on saving the world. Cherished by her modern and cultivated parents and adored by her grandmother, she avidly follows the events that lead to the downfall of the Shah’s brutal regime. The introduction of the new Islamic Republic heralds the era of the ‘Guardians of the Revolution’ who control how people should dress and act.
Soon after, the city is bombarded in the war against Iraq. With the deprivations brought on by the conflict and the routine disappearances of family members and loved ones, the daily repression becomes more severe. As her environment becomes increasingly dangerous, Marjane’s rebelliousness poses a serious problem. Her parents decide to send her to Austria for her own protection. In Vienna, 14 year old Marjane experiences another kind of revolution: adolescence, freedom and the dizzy heights of love but also with this excitement comes exile, loneliness and the bitter taste of life as an outcast.
Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi’s 2007 animated adaptation of her graphic novel, traces the coming of age of a young Iranian woman through violent social upheaval in her home country and consequent escape to unfamiliar new lands when she goes to school in Europe. This tale is all too familiar to Satrapi, as the film is closely based on her own life. She explores several controversial issues like the wearing of the veil, oppression of women in Iran, the horrors of war, and the loneliness of migration. Persepolis is unique in its use of art to provoke feelings and responses instead of demanding them; making it much easier for the audience to identify with, as their own opinions and experiences change our understanding of the story.
Satrapi’s choice of simple art styles for her characters and settings also help make the comic easy for Western audiences to identify with. This is a clear example of Scott McCloud’s theory of “amplification through simplification.” McCloud believes that when people read comics they tend to adapt themselves as the main characters. By inserting themselves in the comics, they personalize what happens to the characters. “Thus, when you look at the photo or realistic drawing of a face, you see it as the face of another. But when you enter the world of the cartoon, you see yourself... Who I am is irrelevant. I’m just a little piece of you. But if who I am matters less, maybe what I say will matter more.” It’s interesting that by using abstract art, Satrapi has overcome the notion that Iran is an abstract concept.
Persepolis takes several different turns as the young Marjane struggles to make sense of her rapidly shifting and surreal environments across political regimes, countries, in airports, and via her imagination, resulting in a multifaceted journey where she tries to process the many complex layers of home, identity and belonging. The audience watches the black and white comic narrative unfold through her unique perspective, revealing her spirited personality. It has moments of tenderness and humor, showing the resiliency of human beings. Joy and laughter can be found in even the grimmest situations.