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Thursday, February 28, 2008

Why would a good God allow ideology?

Much to my great delight, I went to the theatre since prayer meeting was canceled and lo, it was showing "Persepolis", a film I thought would never be shown around these parts. "Persepolis" is an animated feature from France based on an autobiographical graphic novel by a young woman, Marjane Satrapi, who grew up in Tehran during the last tears of the Shaw and reign of the Khomeinists. I give it five stars out of five.


I like films like this because they challenge my perspective on things in a way that makes me want to listen. Another example of this, although a completely different style and situation, was "Tales from the Hood". The film recounts the author's experiences as a young and precocious child growing up in a Communist family that posed itself as an enemy of the state before the fall of the Shah, and as a teenager during the reign of the Isalmic fundamentalists, including the war with Iraq. We learn from her parents about the provenance of the Shah's father, how he was foolish and would have instituted a democracy but was told by Britain that a democracy would not work with such a populace and that he should be an emperor instead. This led to an autocracy where political dissenters are imprisoned and tortured, including Ms. Satrapi's very beloved uncle, who recieved training in Marxism-Leninism in Russia. When the Shah fell, the prisoners are released and the family is reunited and delighted -- until the new regime recaptures the uncle and has him executed. At this point, Ms. Satrapi who started out in life ambitious to be God's next prophet, dismisses God from her life. Satrapi's family and friends begin to lead a cryptic life to avoid the regulators who patrol the streets to make sure Islamic dress and behavior codes are maintained while Satrapi is being indoctrinated at school/

When Saddam attacks and begins to war with Iran for years, Satrapi's parents send her to Vienna to school. She experiences life for once without mullahs and without war and violence. However, what she does find in Europe is prejudice, anarchists, and nihilism. Youth in Europe are immersed in ideologies that are as bleak as the ones she left behind. We see a humorous and Thurber-esque account of her trials with love and pot. But ultimately she suffers from terrible guilt at the thought that while she is enjoying life in Europe her family is still suffereng the pains of the war. However, she gets kicked out of her last house and winds up stranded and starving in Vienna, finally asking to come home and be with her family again.

At this point the war with Iraq is over, but her family tells her that if anything things are much worse. As a young woman, she goes through a terrible struggle looking for direction and wondering how to make sense of what has been happening to her. She goes to a psychiatrist who listenes to her in Freudian detachment and then prescribes a lot of medicine --"Depression is curable". The medicine only leaves her doped up and during one of those experiences she re-connects with God (with Karl Marx cheering her on from the side). As a result she is able to pull herself together and go back to college to study art. (Now think, of the ironies attached to studying art in a fundamentalist controlled university). After this are several other events, confronting the authorities at school, a failed marriage, and so on, but in the end the situation deteriorates enough, both circumstantially and interiorly, where her family sends her again to France, forbidding her to return to Iran.

In spite of the tragic circumstances the film is infused with the good humor of the author which shines in several different places with great comic sensibility that fits well with the original medium. We are reminded that these are comics and it is an interesting medium to tell a story such as this. The film reminded me of "Maus". It was also a delight to see such geeky tropes, indicating that the geek sensibility is transnational. The film has references to Godzilla, Terminator, Iron Maiden, and so on. As separated as we are from one another by religion and politics, here was at least one note we could connect on. Of course, this is because it is a coming of age story.

But what is being accomplished is far more important. By telling her story, the author makes it clear that not all Iranians are what they are often represented to be in the media, that there are people who will respond when seriously treated as rational people. Some Iranians are ready for a modern state that recognizes human rights. On the other hand, where the Iranians are modern, they are modernistic, embracing theory as the basis for life and allowing life to operate willy nilly where theory does not apply. Where our heroine is most lost is in dealing with the frontiers of permissiveness without much to help her in dealing with relationships. This is what leads to starvation, in a world were she remains isolated and alone.

Of course, it seems understandable given her situation. The tragic aspect of the film is that she in every phase of her life is that she seems surrounded by bleak ideologies either Marxian or anarchistic on one side or Islamism reduced to a politcal ideological machine on the other. A religion of liberation or a Western constitution of liberty are approaches not available to her given the West's collusion in rise of the Shah, the support for both sides of the Iraq war, the western interest in oil, and the training of the torturers by he CIA. Whatever one could have hope another country might learn from our history as been eclipsed by the western policy of supporting authoritarian governments as a hedge against the spread of Communism. The movie illustrates how the conduct of such governments left few without any recourse except to turn to communism.

The movie also illustrates how the hedonism of the Iranians contrasted with the hedonism of the European youth. Given the repressive regime, engaging in parties and illegal wine consumption was not mere fun but a protest of the regime, a demonstration of liberties denied. But in Europe, this is not necessary. This also applies to the feminism one sees lifted up in the movie which clearly must be seen first and foremost as a version of equity feminism. By going against the obvious double standard in which clothing prescriptions were only applied to women, while men were allowed to were normal western clothing, the characters are challenging a specific distortion of sex.

The sea of abstractions that Satrapi is constantly swimming in offers no hope and she finds herself facing the dilemma of choosing the bleak ideology of an imminent engineered theoretically perspicuous deity like the state, or face absolute nihilism. But the way that she ultimately escapes this false dilemma and becomes post-ideological is rediscovering and re-appreciating her family and in particular her grandmother. The movie is to be held up as providing one of the few pieces of cinema that illustrates a properly functioning family. Her parents have a solid committed relationship and display their love for their daughter through their infinite patience with her. Her father encourages her to think and to be independent while her mother guides and encourages her. Her uncle fascinates her with his adventures and deeply impresses her with his suffering for a principle. But her grandmother turns out to be her best counselor, not so much by appealing to this or that prescription (at least not in this movie) but encouraging in every with her humor, her proactive attitude toward life (she puts jasmine leaves in her bra to make a nice smell -- I won't say where she puts her breasts), and her guidance. She encourages Satrapi to have integrity, scolds her for delighting in cleverness when she should be thinking about the other person, applauds her for her courageous displays, and tells her not bear a grudge or seek personal vengeance. In other words it is in these vague features that prove to be more effective for her and sustain her. In a way, this story is about her grandmother. It ends when we find out the day she left Iran for France was the last day she saw her alive.

It is also noteworthy that God is always pictured as a large grandfatherly old man who teaches and guides, even when He is being dismissed by her and even when He returns in her dreams. We cannot but project into our transitional representations of God the images we have of our own parents. So in Satrapi's picture God is the grandfather who loves and guides, just like her own parents and relatives and even when he is mad at Him for the death of her uncle. God pleads with the free will defense, "But these are the acts of men". She can't but see Him as good when she accuses Him of evil. This and the fact that God never really quite goes away is impressive.

It is a real challenge to think of this person being is such empty circumstances precise at the same time (the 80's) when it really felt like morning in America for guys like me. For Iran, is was pitch black in what seems to me like a tomb. it was amazing to see how the human spirit can still find touches of wonder and humor is such situations but that is all the more reason to see such people set free from them. The big question at the end of the movie for me is whether she had found or ever will find true freedom from the inside out. Even though free from the repressive regime in Iran, was she free in being open to other possibilities than what her world made available to her.

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