A few nights ago I went to see Persepolis, a French film based off of the graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi. I was bound to love this movie, because I've had a deep love for Persian culture for years now, and I also speak French: naturally, I adored it.
The movie brings to life the true story of Marjane Satrapi and her experiences both before and after the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Marjane's life goes from a typical happy and liberal childhood to a life overwrought with unfair rules and restrictions imposed by the Islamic government. Her parents are communist sympathizers, and Marjane, quite precocious for her age, studies communist and socialist theory early. The Satrapis were not Muslim, either, so the film demonstrates what it was like for the few non-Muslims in Iranian society to live under the growing Islamic Republic.
This film is important for many reasons. First of all, we all know that the US and Iran have hardly cordial relations right now. Persepolis does a great job of explaining the complicated nature of the Islamic Revolution: it was not just a bunch of radical Islamicists who overthrew the government and spontaneously revoked women's rights. The people who fought to overthrow the Shah saw him as an imperialist, and the elections for the Islamic Republic were rigged: the film says that 99.9% of the Iranian population voted for the Islamic Republic. At this time, Khomeini and his fellow clerics had such a powerful hold of the country (How do you control a country when a good chunk of the population is illiterate and impoverished? Religion, of course.) that they could afford to rig the elections. Few who helped to topple the Shah understood what they were getting themselves into. The restrictions placed upon them in the years following the revolution were a surprise to them, as well. Most people did not want a theocracy; they wanted a democratic republic that respected Islam, but did not necessarily incorporated Sharia. Persepolis successfully underlines these subtle anxieties, demonstrating the complications of a political revolution on both the personal and public levels. For Americans, knowing this history might help us to understand Iranians more: so few of them agree with the fundamentalist government that controls the anti-American rhetoric spewed from the mouth of President Ahmadinejad. He is but a puppet for the Supreme Leader, the religious elite, who control elections and judiciary branches. Persepolis is an important film because it can help make Iranians human again in the eyes of the US population.
But this film is not all political. It is also a coming of age story: Marjane does drugs and loses her virginity and leaves her family to study abroad. The political and personal are intertwined so perfectly that there is nothing left to be desired in either realm. These themes, set against the backdrop of intelligent and interesting artwork, makes Persepolis one of the most important films I've seen in a long time.
So why is Iran so important to me, you might ask? Besides my miniscule Farsi vocabulary, and the fact that my two best friends are Persian, and my basic inherent interest in Middle Eastern culture, and my educational training in both Middle Eastern and Iranian history, I'm actually currently applying for a visa to visit Tehran while I'm abroad in Paris next fall. I have to go through the Pakistani embassy, because ever since the early 80's, Iran hasn't had an embassy in the US. The document starts out "In the Name of the Almighty," as all documents under the Islamic Republic must. I have to write a letter stating my purpose for traveling to Iran. I have to disclose the names of people I will be staying with, how much money I will be taking with me, my father's name, and if I will be engaged in journalistic/scientific affairs or meetings with foreign nationals during my stay. I have to include a picture of myself, and I must be wearing hijab, or Islamic head covering, in this picture.
All of this is so foreign, and yet expresses the blatant paranoia of the Iranian government. I just want to see the Alborz mountains with my own eyes. I want to attend a mehmooni and shop in the fabulous malls of Northern Iran. None of this has to do with journalistic inquiry or political insurgency. But the problem with both the US and Iranian governments is: EVERYTHING has to do with journalistic inquiry and political insurgency!
So here's to hoping I get accepted for my visa. I'm tempted to wear a full-on chador if it gets me extra brownie points. But it's not just the Iranian government that's scared of tourists and students entering their country: my friend's sister was denied a vacation visa by the US embassy in India simply because she is Iranian. Maybe if that ambassador had seen Persepolis, he'd be more willing to let her go visit her family in America over winter break.