Let me begin by sharing that I don’t get to sit down and watch a movie too often without feeling guilty that I’m not engaged in writing and researching. I really do need to work on that. I haven’t seen any of the films listed for this assignment, nor could I think of any which seemed to fit postcolonial theory. I chose Persepolis because it’s the narrative of a young girl in Iran. And even though she’s from Pakistan, I immediately thought of Malala.
This film is French, animated whimsically in black and white (which shifts to color as we arrive at the present) and centers around the story of Marjane (or “Marji” as she is lovingly called by her family). This is also during the time of the Islamic Revolution.
Marjane tells us that her two obsessions are to one day shave her legs and to become a prophet. The conflation of these two thoughts may seem jarring because one is deemed feminine and the other masculine. However, we can see from the film’s very beginning that Marjane is destined to challenge such ideals. Marjane is much different from most little girls; she leads a chase after a boy whose father is accused of murdering people, and she prefers bedtime stories which involve executions, Marxism, and imprisonment to tales involving princesses or magic.
What’s interesting about the scenes of actual brutality and retaliation is we see only silhouettes of the common folk, and black figures with holes (or lights?) for eyes represent the Shah. These images communicate that people are all sort of faceless or anonymous in their political stances or activism; what’s important is that innocent people die as a result of conflict.
Significant is the image of Marjane in “crucifixion pose” lying on her bed beside her two bread swans made by her adoring uncle. Naturally, she speaks to God, and tells him to go away. Obviously, the young Marji has lost her faith after what she has encountered surrounding the Revolution. The imagery, also, where she is escorted to her uncle’s cell and then sits with him as she holds him and cries, almost seems indicative of her potential positioning behind bars with the other “revolutionaries.”
National identity is encountered as Marjane and her classmates stand together to “pledge allegiance” and continually clap their hands over their hearts, a startling juxtaposition to our passive, American way of simply placing our right hands over hearts as we mindlessly recite our own pledge of allegiance. These girls do as they’re told simply because they are Iranians living in Iran; to do any different is grounds for violence.
Aaaaaand, we come full circle back to the veil. The class is distracted by Abba and Bee Gees records when their teacher says, “The veil stands for freedom. A decent woman shelters herself from men’s eyes. A woman who shows herself will burn in hell,” with a kind, patient smile! However, if these girls were at all interested in generating an authentic national identity, they would participate in discussion, either confirming or challenging this sentiment. Immediately after this, a man requests the scarf of Marjane’s mother as she places groceries into her car.
I believe we pick up on some mimicry as we watch Marjane “check out” a very American-looking young man smoking a cigarette, and she constructs and wears a jacket which reads, “punk is not ded.” We can also detect anglicization when Marjane walks the street in search of musical tapes to buy (Iron Maiden, Michael Jackson, etc.). As the violence around her mounts, Marjane seems preoccupied with American and European music rather than fighting for what she believes is right; this is because she’s still young, and perhaps Iranians have become misdirected or confused regarding what’s “right” due to the ever-present authorities.
Marjane is seized by a pair of veiled women whose dehumanizing forms curl and hunch over the girl’s small frame. They find the rhetoric of her westernized attire unavoidable.
This string of interconnected scenes concludes with Marji “rocking out” in her bedroom to Iron Maiden, using a tennis racket as a surrogate guitar. She places this phallic symbol close her body to use as a toy for her own enjoyment, thus appropriating it (with the encouragement of American rock music, no less!).
We encounter the colonial gaze when Marjane goes to the theatre with her grandmother to see Godzilla; the terrifying monster onscreen who destroys the city and kills its people is a reflection of how Iran’s repressive government views its citizens, and vice versa. Marji is a “slut” for wearing a scarf (talk about mixed messages!), and her family is one disgraceful, westernized creature which must be monitored and possibly eradicated.
After a missile lands and demolishes her family’s apartment building, Marjane’s expression reminded me of Edvard Munch’s well-known painting, “The Scream.”
We see a more adult Marjane sitting in an airport. She sheds her veil and lights a cigarette; in one fluid sweep, she is anglicized. She then fixedly watches a young women with short hair and unshaved armpits as she blow-dries her hair. She seems fascinated that this woman because she has chosen to maintain a short hairstyle and resist the patriarchal stance that women must remove body hair. Obviously, Marji has become a hybrid of sorts at this point in the film, and she may wonder how this woman continues to be a woman when short hair + body hair = masculinity. The friends she makes in Vienna consider her exotic because she has encountered the horrors of war, a reflection of their own eurocentric thought. Marjane’s puberty and development are then hyperbolized for us in order to communicate the confusing and overwhelming transitions a young woman undergoes, let alone a politically outspoken woman who has experienced a revolution in her country.
We see this anglicization furthered as Marjane wears makeup, dresses in short skirts and low tops, and lies to a young man at a party by telling him that she’s French when he asks where she’s from. Marjane is so anxious to return home to Iran after becoming homeless in Austria, that she immediately and unquestioningly fixes her veil upon request from a man (the very thing her own mother resisted earlier in the film). She tells her psychiatrist, “I was a stranger in Austria and now I’m one in my own country.” The colonial gaze, again, is at work here; Marjane views herself (and others view her) as an Other due to her anglicization in Europe.
When Marji begins drinking and taking prescription drugs due to “depression,” she again meets with God. This time, He holds her in His hand, which is very telling; Marji is vulnerable and needs this comfort from a source of power she thought had abandoned her years ago (or she herself abandoned). We then see even more signs of anglicization when we hear Marji’s friend tell her that she is on a diet because she has a copy of Vogue magazine, obviously toxic reading material for young women (or anyone for that matter).
I ADORE this brief scene in the car with Marjane and her two friends! Marji removes her veil, and the three women laugh, scream, and squeal in delight because Marjane is committing a taboo act, resisting tradition, challenging authority, and her friends are guilty by association. At the film’s conclusion, the image of flowers falling from a woman’s breasts is reaffirmed, which reflects this goddess image, seen in Marjane, her mother, and her grandmother.
I knew I would enjoy Persepolis. This film illustrates many of the key concepts we’ve covered thus far in this course. Marji even speaks to the way in which she is viewed as an Iranian daring to exist in Vienna: a savage. When people begin to notice that she lies about where she comes from (which, in a beautifully quiet moment toward the end of the film she is asked by a cab driver), it seems that she alienates or others herself, which renders her an easy target for ridicule. This is why she is redeemed and we are satisfied as the audience when she approaches a table of gossiping girls to rather loudly inform them that she is Iranian and proud of it.
I know nothing about the Iranian Revolution, but I think this film offered an informal platform for learning more!