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Sometimes live action visuals – movies, photos and such – can get in the way of telling a truly real story. Instead graphic novels are far better at going really deep without turning the audience away, because it can mix the awful with surrealism and humour. It is hard to think of a more harrowing yet insightful look at the Nazi genocide than through Art Spiegelman’s Maus. Joe Stacco’s Footnotes in Gaza is an unforgettable look at the long-lasting Israel/Palestine conflict. And Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis is an interesting and funny – yet also bleak – personal account about the changes in Iran.

Persepolis is Satrapi’s account of her childhood growing up in the Shah’s Iran of the Seventies, his overthrow at the cusp of the Eighties, the war against Iraq – the longest-lasting conflict of the 20th century – and the rise of a religious autocracy. Using a distinct visual style and drum-steady storytelling, the movie is not a satire or even really a statement. Satrapi’s feelings are clear, since we are seeing it from her perspective. But the movie still creates context through its other characters. The revolution and war shape her life, but they are in the background. At its heart Persepolis is the story about a person coming of age at a very complicated time. It’s a story about people.

The experience plays off mostly in black-and-white as an adult Marjane reminisces about her past. Persepolis’ minimalist visual style mimics the graphic novels and was chosen so the movie’s world doesn’t feel explicitly Iranian. Instead they tell a universal story: that what happened to Iran could happen to any place. Certainly echoes of Persepolis could be felt throughout the Arab spring and subsequent social upheavals that continue to rock the Middle East, Levant and Arab peninsula today.

Yet this is not a history lesson. The history is a big part of it – we learn about the Shah who, despite modernising his country, was a brutal tyrant. The rise of Islamism and its effects on Iran’s liberal classes is clearly shown. The impact of Iraq’s invasion of Iran is also laid bare. But as mentioned, they are really background players.

It’s Marjane’s story: her childhood, the influence of her parents, uncle and grandmother. Her love for Western fashion and music (particularly Iron Maiden), buying contraband in an increasingly oppressive state and arguing with religious zealots. How she eventually leaves Iran and spends several interesting but increasingly miserable years in Europe – frequently moving, enduring the cold edge of society, but also making friends and discovering the world.

Persepolis is a bold experiment: it runs with an unconventional character from an unconventional place, using art that shuns the mainstream. It could have easily become a bunch of pretentious nonsense. But it has real charm, good laughs and understands brevity – a lot happens in the ninety or so minutes of its run. Now if only more biographical graphic novels would be adapted… I’ll even settle for The Cartoon History of the Universe.

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Persepolis was based on the autobiographical graphic novels created by Marjane Satrapi and published in 2000. She would go on to co-write and direct the animated feature with Vincent Paronnaud. In 2009 an extra section called Persepolis 2.0 was published online, updating new developments such as the 2009 Iranian elections.


The original movie is in French, but several audio versions were produced, including languages such as English and Iranian. The actors who voiced the main character and her mother in the original also voiced the English-language version to critical acclaim.


Persepolis is not a religious, political or ideological film, but all three elements invariable surface because of the main character’s interesting life. But these elements remain oblique enough that the story remains universal.


Not surprisingly the Iranian government has not been friendly towards Persepolis. It unsuccessfully petitioned the French to exclude it from the Cannes Film Festival, but did manage to convince Thailand not to air it at the Bangkok International Film Festival. The movie has also sparked protests in Tunisia and was initially banned in Lebanon until a public outcry there reversed the decision. But it also got heaps of praise and was widely regarded by critics as one of the best films of 2007. Persepolis won and was nominated for numerous prizes, including an Academy Award nom for Best Animation (losing to Ratatouille).


 Cinophile is a weekly feature showcasing films that are strange, brilliant, bizarre and explains why we love the movies.

Last Updated: April 20, 2015

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