Graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi knows what a lot of people think of comic books: They’re a pubescent novelty act full of gamma rays and onomatopoeic punching. Since the success of her two volumes of autobiographical graphic novels about growing up in Iran, she’s had to deal with plenty of critics expressing surprise at the richness of her chosen medium.
It seems as though the film world already got the message. The new movie version of Persepolis – in French with English subtitles – has garnered awards and nominations from around the globe, including a best foreign language film nomination from the Golden Globes. That last one is particularly impressive, as animated films are typically relegated to their own category, one that seems to exist solely to give an annual award to Disney or Pixar, not a small studio like Persepolis’ French 2.4.7. Films.
‘For a long time, it was exactly the same way [with animated movies] as it is in comics. People think it’s a genre, not a medium,’ says Satrapi, who now lives in exile in France. ‘To have this nomination, it is extremely unreal, I know that. It is as unreal as when they gave the Pulitzer Prize to Art Spiegelman for Maus. It helps people to understand that when they see a book with drawing or a movie with drawing, it’s not necessarily for kids.’
Persepolis is certainly not for kids, though the majority of it focuses on Satrapi’s childhood in Iran, much of which is rendered and told with childlike wonder. As a girl in Tehran, she enjoyed a sort of halcyon freedom guided by open-minded and culturally savvy parents. But in 1979, when the Islamic revolution literally threw a dark veil over the women in her country, Satrapi’s life was irrevocably altered and restricted, until she moved to Europe to escape fundamentalist oppression.
Given how rich Satrapi’s telling of her life story can be, it’s ironic that she chose, both in print and in film, to portray it in black and white. Just like her books, the film comes in monochromatic splendour. And, like the comics, the starkness of the black-on-white serves not only as an aesthetic choice but as a persistent visual metaphor. The beards of the police, constantly enforcing Islamic law, become huge, black entanglements. The veils that the women of Satrapi’s family discard as soon as they enter their home loom as obsidian shadows.
Despite the obvious parallels between book and movie, Satrapi notes that the film version took on a life of its own, including a framing device – an Iranian woman at a French airport considering a trip home for the first time in years – that doesn’t appear in the book.
‘It’s tempting to say that, with the book, we already have the storyboard for the movie, but that’s dangerous,’ she says. ‘When you are reading a book, you are very active, you move through the story yourself, turn the pages yourself. But when you are in a theatre for one and a half hours, you are very passive.’
Satrapi felt that the way the story was told in the books, a direct and linear narrative, wouldn’t work quite as well in film. Besides, with the books now more than five years old, she wasn’t in the mood to retell the story in the same way.
‘We really pulled the book apart,’ she says. ‘When we made the movie, I was at a very nostalgic point of my life, so the telling of it changed dramatically. You really have to forget about the book, otherwise you’ll be in between.’
The Iran that Satrapi paints, in both film and book, is rather bleak. An uncle of hers is jailed for subversion, while her parents live in such constant fear of persecution that her mother grows angry at her for not leaving Iran sooner.
And though Satrapi sees her story as universal – her tribulations as a young woman are as much about crafting identity and sorting out romantic troubles as they are about oppression – she recognises that the film opens audiences’ eyes to the sophistication not just of animation, but of Iranian culture and history.
‘People are not as stupid as the media thinks they are,’ she says. ‘People know that an entire country cannot be the Axis of Evil. There are other things going on there, other people, and there’s no way anyone could believe they are all evil.’
Persepolis opens February 28.