The debate over how the U.S. should grapple with the possible nuclear aspirations of Iran is complicated and, unless you’re a diplomat or foreign policy expert, nearly opaque – at least from my vantage point here in northwest Montana. But it’s an issue significantly illuminated by the recent release of Persepolis, an animated film based on a series of graphic novels of the same name by Marjane Satrapi. I haven’t watched the film yet, but if it’s half as good as the books, everyone should see it.
The autobiographical books chronicle Satrapi’s upbringing within a secular, educated family under the oppressive fundamentalist regime running Iran. Satrapi wrote and drew the stories, which reference Persian art in many of their initially simple yet deceptively complex, black-and-white renderings. The form is sequential art, like a comic book, but the subject matter provides more of a window into life under a stifling Islamic government than anything I have read.
Like many good stories, the familiar details of family life, juxtaposed with the extraordinary, make for startling contrasts. In one scene, as a young girl, Satrapi accompanies her father to his office job in downtown Tehran. While she and her dad look out the building’s window in fear, Iraqi jets fly over downtown Iran – a show of force by Saddam Hussein that eventually led to the Iran-Iraq War.
When Satrapi grows older, she visits former male classmates, who are now maimed and depressed after fighting in the protracted Iran-Iraq War. The cartoony drawings put an accessible, sometimes light-hearted filter on the tumultuous history of the Persian people, as in an illustration where Satrapi shows the succession of Western invaders, including the U.S, who have tried to control Persia’s rulers. But the book is by no means a depressing or dreary read.
Too often, media portrayals of people ruled by strict Islamic governments fail to portray our common humanity. We see video of women wailing in the streets after a suicide bombing or the death of a loved one. We see crowded parades of masked militants burning effigies and hoisting coffins. And too often, those events are filtered for us by the Western media.
Which is why a work like Persepolis, both the books and film, are so enlightening, revealing the layers of different people and beliefs who aren’t represented by the fanatical comments and actions of the Iranian government and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Satrapi grants us a look at the lives of the people affected by the clashes of their rulers and ours. She grants us perspective.
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