If you have never seen Persepolis (2007), you have an especially good reason to catch the Looking @ Art Cinema series Saturday morning (March 18 at 9:30) at a/perture cinema. Even if you have seen it, hearing Joshua Canzona’s commentary and and participating in a guided discussion following the screening is worth your time and effort.
Joshua is a Ph.D. candidate in Religious Studies at Georgetown University and an adjunct instructor at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity. I asked him a few questions about the film (and hope our exchange will motivate you to see this movie!).
Mary: Why did you decide to conclude your series with Persepolis?
Joshua: The initial placement was somewhat accidental. We knew we wanted to include a film related to Islam since I have an interest in that religion but the relationship between Persepolis and the other two films was not a key factor in selecting the screening dates.
You could, however, build an argument for my ordering based on how the films approach the relationship between the individual and society. We started with Wings of Desire (1987) and even though that film has a strong sense of place and history, the core story is about an individual search for meaning and love. In the second film, Secret Sunshine (2007), the individual story of a woman’s grief runs parallel to concerns over the disruption and reconciliation of community. In religious terms, it is also a film about chaos and order. Persepolis (2007) is a fitting conclusion since it is the only selection addressing religion and politics, or religion as politics. We see the protagonist’s individual search for meaning within a society, an entire country, struggling to establish its identity in the midst of revolutionary upheaval. These are the same concerns of the previous films, writ large.
Mary: I remember when I saw it at the cinema during its theatrical release about ten years ago being swept away by the film. My response was based both on the powerful story and the bold visual style. What struck you most powerfully the first time you saw it?
Joshua: Marjane Satrapi has said that she insisted on hand-drawn animation in order to give the film a sense of timelessness and universality. The style is timeless in that computer animation can seem so quickly outdated. It is universal in the abstraction of animation; drawn characters are abstracted in a way that prevents quick association with a particular ethnicity or place. She wants to emphasize that the story of Iran and the oppressiveness of its regime could play out anywhere at any time. To come at this from another angle, scholars of the Middle East often point out that the political and socio-economic problems of that region are not uniquely Middle Eastern or Islamic. Similar stories of totalitarian regimes and economic misfortune can be found in the history of Latin America, for instance.
Her strategy worked on me; I think the individual style of the film’s animation is striking. In a way it provides greater freedom for the treatment of religious topics. To show a conversation with God using live actors on film is a fraught thing. The examples that jump immediately to my mind are comedies: Oh, God! (1977) and Bruce Almighty (2003). Perhaps there are better live-action examples out there somewhere. But with the abstraction of animation such a conversation seems almost natural; the medium is already closer to metaphor somehow and you can stretch the limits of representation.
Mary: Do you think there are certain themes explored in Persepolis that are even more relevant–or at least accessible–today than when the film was released?
Joshua: I was born in 1982. The Iranian Revolution, Iran Hostage Crisis, and the shooting down of Iran Air Flight 655 by the US Navy in 1988 are not lived history for me. They are the stuff of history books for my generation. At the same time, learning of these things is more relevant than ever since the animosity between the United States and Iran remains a critical issue. It seems whatever thawing may have occurred under the Obama administration is set to be undone and a person should familiarize herself with the facts before forming an opinion on the matter. Marxism is also a major theme in the film. We see it as both intellectual fad and salvific ideal worth dying for. I’m not sure this has a lot of personal resonance for Americans born in the last thirty to forty years either.
Thinking of this film from the perspective of the high school or undergraduate students I sometimes teach, I think it retains a great deal of accessibility. Coming of age stories have always appealed to those who are coming of age, after all. Persepolis, like all the films in this series, is also about place—it’s really about one’s homeland. Young people are more mobile than ever and struggling with attendant experiences of displacement and loneliness. I think they can identify with the protagonist in that regard. As the American political scene becomes more polarized, perhaps they can also feel some sympathy for the experience of alienation between citizen and government in Persepolis as well. That the leadership of Iran does not speak for every citizen is an important message in the movie.
Mary: Is there anything about the movie you would like for viewers to know before they see it for the first time?
Joshua: Shia Islam, rather than Sunni Islam, is predominant in Iran. In the Shia tradition, the martyrdom of Husayn, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, plays a central role in worship and identity. This is not unlike the great importance attached to martyrdom in the Christian tradition. The word martyr means “witness” in both Arabic and Greek. There is a strong sense of the powerful witness provided by those willing to die for Truth. This is the power of sacrifice and the power of blood. You can consider how a government might make use of this energy for its own ends and then watch for it in the film.
Tickets to the series screenings are $14.50 per person, $12.50 for students, and $11.50 for a/v society members.