Childhood in Black and White: Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis”

Seeing things in black and white often means denying room for any nuance and detail. And yet, it is in black and white that Marjane Satrapi chose to illustrate her vision of the Iranian Revolution and the role it played in her life in her autobiographical graphic novel and its 2007 film adaptation, Persepolis.

Drawn in a plain, two-dimensional black-and-white style reminiscent of early cutout animation, the film traces Marjane’s youth as the daughter of cosmopolitan, intellectually-liberated parents in 1970s Tehran. We see Iranians for who they are: average, intelligent, capable, and going about their lives, despite an unpopular government. Still, the young Marjane enjoys a comfortable life of curiosity and play before the radical Revolution forces a veil upon her and across all aspects of her life.

To be sure, the graphic novel (perhaps unsurprisingly) is the “better” work: more intimate, further involved in Marjane’s daily musings and adventures. But the film manages to whisk us away into her world without chance of escape, of closing the book. We experience Marjane’s life on her terms, with its own rhythms and beats and sensations. Her childhood interactions with her grandmother become wondrous moments of familial connection, jasmine flowers falling all around them as they speak; her conversations with God are given the fantastical treatment of a precocious young prophet meeting her match; the deaths of thousands of citizens presented in their ungraspable horror, a child’s nightmare crashing to adult life.

Sent away to Europe by her concerned parents, the outspoken Marjane finds herself at odds with the nihilism of her contemporaries there. How can they claim life is meaningless when my own people are dying for freedom, she wonders? Yet the Iran she left behind becomes less and less her own, a shaky replica of a childhood memory perhaps best left untouched. When she returns to Tehran as a young adult, she finds herself too Westernized. How can they live under such oppression when, just across the sea, there are people blasting Michael Jackson without fear of being jailed, she wonders.

Lulled into a complacent haze by the pulling of opposite forces, Marjane whiles away her days until she is jolted back into reality by her grandmother, who, after hearing Marjane shrug off having wrongly accused a man in order to escape the police, berates her: “You had a choice! Everyone has a choice! Everyone always has a choice!”

To hear her grandmother scold her so harshly is, for Marjane, a wake-up call. The woman who has given her such light and guidance has run out of niceties after years of turmoil. The next day, Marjane stands up to her school’s board for their sexist new commandments and finds herself recharged after months of being downtrodden by an oppressive regime and an unending existential assault on her home country.

Politics, uprisings and social movements can have their shades of grey, but in basic human actions, to do right or wrong is always a choice. Perhaps the story’s clearly delineated black-and-white approach was inspired by this purity of principle.

Persepolis’s black and white is ultimately a reflection and refraction of its protagonist: Marjane, the well-off child of intellectuals against a rapidly radicalizing populace; Marjane, the Iranian immigrant against European libertinism; Marjane, the woman against a heavily patriarchal society; Marjane, the self-proclaimed “last prophet of the galaxy” against a world in which philosophy and morality are eschewed in favor of conservatism and unthinking action. Marjane, the individualist against Marjane, the dutiful daughter.

It is hopeful, then, that the film’s present-day frame story is in color. As Marjane eyes a flight to Tehran from a Paris airport, reminiscing on her childhood, her life is now in color; the gap between her life’s dualities bridged. Not resolved, or made any easier to understand, but, at last, shaded in.

Juan Ramirez is a candidate for a degree in Media and Screen Studies from Northeastern University. He regularly contributes to The Huntington News as a correspondent and as a bi-weekly Arts & Entertainment columnist and can often be found manically attempting to convert friends and passersby into fellow film enthusiasts, to varying degrees of success.
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