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COMMENT – Persepolis dumbs down Iran, reveals even less

ImageMarjane Satrapi, the best-selling writer of Persepolis, the autobiographical graphic novel about growing up in Iran, is a media darling in the West. But she doesn’t deserve it.

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Marjane Satrapi, the writer of Persepolis, the best-selling two-volume autobiographical graphic novel about growing up under Iran’s Islamic government, is a media darling in the West. But she doesn’t deserve it, says New America Media contributor Behrouz Saba, a Los Angeles-based writer and a native of Iran who earned a Ph.D. in film history and criticism from the University of Southern California.

Marjane Satrapi is hotter than a triangle of Iranian sangak bread fresh out of the oven.  Persepolis, an animated feature based on her best-selling two-volume autobiographical graphic novel about growing up under Iran’s Islamic regime, is to close the New York Film Festival in October.

The film, co-directed with Vincent Paronnaud, has already won the Jury Prize at Cannes.  Yet a dispassionate evaluation makes it clear that it is not her accomplished artistry, which is winning her such accolades–as she is manifestly bereft of it.  It is the patronizing political correctness of offering the spotlight to an Iranian woman who has taken on the ayatollahs, albeit from the safe distance of Paris where she resides.

Her ‘graphic novels’ are of a barely passable dexterity, with the blandest writing this side of Scooby-Doo.  "And so to protect women from all the potential rapists, they decreed that wearing the veil was obligatory," an exceptionally piquant passage reads.  It is not that she is using a ‘minimalist style’ in language and drawing for its directness; a lack of nuance in thought along with nearly childish artistic execution make it clear that she is incapable of anything more ambitious.

Her books bring Islam, Iran and the condition of women in that country down to her own level of understanding, which is that of an over-privileged young woman who found the Islamic revolution and the war with Iraq as impediments to the full enjoyment of her family vacations in Italy and Spain.  Her outlook dumbs down one of the most complex issues of our time in a world where reading is increasingly anathema and illiteracy no longer an impediment to authorship.  Consumers, having perused her comic books, can think they understand Iran.

There is also the appeal of a poor little rich girl running to a benevolent West from the big, bad, bearded ayatollahs.  All that is missing is Olive Oyl’s "Help, Popeye, help!" as she runs away from a fundamentalist Bluto, even though E.C. Segar as Popeye’s creator runs circles around Satrapi.
Satrapi, fine-tuning her product for every country in the world but Iran, doesn’t have to bother with Farsi as the native language of her characters.  The French version of the film includes such authentic Iranian voices as those of Chiara Mastroianni and her mother, Catherine Deneuve.  The English version is to feature equally authentic Iranian voices of Gena Rowlands, Iggy Pop and the renowned Iranologist Sean Penn.

Far more immune to criticism than Satrapi should be, Change for Equality, a burgeoning women’s solidarity movement in Iran, is campaigning to abolish gender disparity by gathering a million signatures for its cause.  Instead of sashaying along the red carpet like the artiste, the women of Change for Equality are busy petitioning and pamphleteering aboard Tehran’s metro cars.  Elements within the government have found them of sufficient threat to hand down suspended prison sentences to two activists.  Such grassroots movements, which cannot be accused of having Western support, present the best hope for a genuine civil society in Iran.

Ill-conceived comic books, on the other hand, are not going to reveal the true Iran to the world or even to Iranians themselves.

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