Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Movie Notes: Persepolis (2008), and the Iranian Revolution


Call it professional instincts: my main thought while watching Persepolis was "This would make a great historical source." It is one of the best depictions of the 1979 Revolution in Iran and what it did to Persians.

I remember seeing a documentary that was shot in Iran in the 70s before the revolution. It's most memorable shot was of a Persian family living in the south of Iran in a structure that amounted to a lean-to half buried by sand. But they did have a generator and a small black and white television set and in the shot they were shown watching a television program illustrating the chi chi disco high life in the North of Iran. In that thirty-second shot, one could see the revolution coming.

At the time of the revolution, Mohammad Rezā Shāh Pahlavi, his Imperial Majesty, was still the Shah of Iran, and he was maintaining order through his widely-hated security and intelligence organization, SAVAK. He actually came to power in 1941, through the demand of the Allied and Soviet command, but nearly lost power to the nationalists when Mohammad Mossadegh became Prime Minister in 1951. This was what led the US and UK to fund and support "Operation Ajax", the 1953 coup d'état aimed at deposing the Prime Minister and the cabinet. The Shah might have been an incompetent, but at least he wasn't a Communist. It's worth noting that Mossadegh had already lost the support of Shia clerics in Iran due to his secular policies.

The Iranian Revolution took about two years, and perhaps has never been finished. It removed a monarchy and replaced it with a theocracy, swapping the Shah for the Ayatollah, and SAVAK for the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Worse actually: more have been imprisoned, tortured, and executed under the Supreme Leader than under the Shah. Would things have gone better if the Communists had come to power? Will Iranians ever have a moment of freedom?

Marjane Satrapi lived through all of this and recorded her story in the graphic novel Persepolis. She was just a child at the time, but the story records the childlike vengeance unleashed by the revolution. The strange and sad thing about revolutions is that they often allow meek and resentful little men to smash the lips that have smiled down on them. I often think of the chubby nerd I worked with at the grocery store who told me that he one day dreamed of becoming a cop so that he could shoot people. In Iran, they became guardians of morality instead.

The animated movie Persepolis humanizes the see-saw of power in Iran by focusing on a young girl who is raised impatient for the proletarian revolution and then learns to resent the bluenoses who won't let her listen to Iron Maiden, and then live in fear of losing everything that she loves during the terrible and futile Iran-Iraq War. The brilliance of Satrapi as a writer and director is that she somehow makes all of this funny! When harpy-like veiled shrews hover over our little punk rocker questioning her clothes it's upsetting and unnerving, but there's comedy in seeing how seriously we take the petty revolutions we wage as teenagers, and how seriously adults take their even pettier revolutions to "restore the moral order".

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