SWP doesn't reflect reality

Phil Kent reviews the film Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Parranaud)

Socialist Worker carries a review of the film Persepolis titled ‘Breathtaking animation that doesn’t reflect reality’ (April 28). Meaning, of course, it does not reflect the Socialist Workers Party’s version of ‘anti-imperialism’. While the film clearly identifies imperialism as the root cause of all Iran’s misfortunes, it also exposes the brutal, irrational and dictatorial nature of the theocratic regime.

For the protagonists of this film both imperialism and the dictatorship are reactionary enemies, but for the SWP it is only the former - the theocratic dictators are made progressive by their ‘anti-imperialism’. The actual anti-imperialism of the film is rendered inauthentic by the SWP because of its opposition to capitalism itself, even when ‘anti-imperialist’ mullahs are acting as neoliberal agents.

Most of the action takes place in Tehran, so there is little wonder that the regime plays such a significant role. But Socialist Worker’s critic, Dominic Kouros Kavakeb, implies that the middle class family at the centre of this animated film knows nothing of the reality of life for most Iranians and is not in a position to pass judgement on the regime either.

The opening and closing shots of Persepolis are set in France and are painted in flat pastel colours. Both represent the present and show the emotional emptiness of a passionate Iranian forced into exile. Colour has never looked quite so unappealing. This reflects a pessimistic view of the present situation in Iran, but our exile, Marjane Satrapi, who co-wrote and directed the film, believes in the power of mass struggle to transform things; hence her concentration is on her childhood, when things were very different and Iran was not politically backward, but leading the world in revolutionary struggle.

This story, which takes up most of the film’s duration, is depicted in black and white. It is a simple story of extremes - of revolution, counterrevolution and war through the eyes of Marjane from young girl to young woman. Hers is an experience that blows away the middle ground - not that Marjane seems the sort ever to inhabit the middle ground.

She may be from a middle class background, but most of her immediate family are communists. Her great uncle was executed because of that before she was born and later her favourite uncle suffers the same fate. Her parents take part in the demonstrations leading up to the overthrow of the shah. Her father rushes into the apartment, picks her up and happily exclaims that the proletariat has won. The screen depicts a huge demonstration of banners and flags stretching as far as the eye can see. So much for comrade Kavakeb’s claim that “the mass resistance of ordinary workers is not shown”.

The triumph of the workers is limited to a few shots of her communist uncle along with other revolutionaries addressing large meetings. He assures Marjane that the proletariat cannot be defeated. She is a little girl at this time and does not step out of character to explain his mistake. Presumably a Moscow-trained ‘Marxist-Leninist’, he thought that the way for the revolution to succeed was in alliance with the anti-imperialist mullahs. If so, it cost him his life.

The story quickly moves on, showing Marjane developing into a teenage rebel. Her heroes are all western - Bruce Lee, Abba, Iron Maiden. Nothing political, except they get her into trouble with the religious police. While shopping for black market music cassettes, she gets caught wearing a Michael Jackson badge and a t-shirt inscribed, “Punk is not dead”, and has to lie her way out of it. The religious police are the bane of all Iranians, especially women.

The section on the war with Iraq is dramatic and comes with a brief, if not entirely correct, analysis. Namely, imperialism funded both sides of the war, the war was in imperialism’s interest and Iraq and Iran were dumb enough to destroy one another. For Marjane and her family the war was a pointless, inhuman disaster for the peoples of both Iraq and Iran. Only the dictators benefited.

The film also makes clear that once the war started the mullahs took the opportunity to increase repression and to destroy anyone they considered an internal threat. The regime is shown slaughtering 30,000 political prisoners and ruthlessly taking advantage of people’s patriotism and religious beliefs to consolidate its hold. Although the US still wanted to destroy the Iranian regime, at this point the revolution had long since been lost from a communist point of view.

Bombed houses, poverty and food shortages are shown too. A particularly chilling scene has young boys running across minefields to their deaths - each having been given a plastic key to unlock the door to heaven. Religion has done some terrible things in its time, but rarely using anything quite so tacky. This is no regime for any self-respecting muslim.

Needless to say, comrade Kavakeb of the SWP thinks this is totally the wrong emphasis: “The harsh reality of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran is hardly mentioned.” Instead the film wastes its time “focusing on the repression used by the Iranian government”.

Meanwhile, Marjane’s outspokenness at school is bringing her to the notice of the authorities. A girl the family knows who is not much older than Marjane is executed for being a communist. Her family reacts by shipping her off to school in Austria - a teenage would-be opponent of the regime forced into exile.

In her adopted country she develops a circle of anarchistic, hippy-type friends. That might have been the end of the story except for an unhappy love affair which drives her into clinical depression, during which she winds up sleeping on the streets. One day she wakes up in hospital with pneumonia and wisely decided to return to her parents in Iran. Years before, she had banished god from her bedroom but now, after all the personal suffering, he comes back into her life. Fortunately he returns in the company of Karl Marx to give her good advice.

Back in Iran, she goes to art school, where she is obliged to wear the chador. She criticises the religious authorities for having one law for male students and another for females. Like many middle class Iranians she takes refuge from the stultifying nature of public existence in private parties, where western pop music and home-made booze provide a means of escape. More examples of “purely individual” resistance of which comrade Kavakeb so strongly disapproves. If the relatively well heeled cannot stand the repression, then what of the poorly paid workers and the marginalised slum dwellers?

The encounters with the religious police are not always funny. One of her male friends is killed escaping from a police raid on a party where men and women were together, with drink and western music. This incident and an unsuccessful marriage were finally to force her into exile in France. The unwise and premature marriage came about because it was the only way the couple could be together in public.

At this time in her life, Marjane was leaving Iran because her personal life was in a mess. If left alone, the mess could have been solved by the individuals involved. But there is an incompatibility between Marjane’s universalistic principles and the neoliberal capitalist theocracy that runs Iran so corruptly. Marjane’s principles are grounded on the belief that people are basically good and therefore are able to take charge of their own lives. But with the interests of the millionaire mullahs and top military brass to protect, the state cannot afford to trust the people. Instead the mullahs have created god in their own image to provide theological excuses to micro-manage everyone’s thoughts, dress and behaviour - and you can’t argue with god.

Or the ubiquitous religious police, who are low-paid, poorly educated and provide a fascistic support base for the dictatorship, kept loyal by security of employment, religious indoctrination and the right to bully. It is little wonder that most people think that Iran is a brutal medieval dictatorship, even though it is in fact a brutal 21st century dictatorship.

The SWP would rather they didn’t: “The film offers little in terms of a real understanding of Iranian society - an understanding that we so desperately need at a time when the image we get from the pro-war media is Iran is a brutal medieval theocracy. Unfortunately, Persepolis does nothing to dispel this myth.”

Myth? That Iran is a “brutal medieval dictatorship”? Or is comrade Kavakeb saying that it is not a theocracy and the brutality and repression are a myth? Clearly the reader is meant to conclude that Persepolis is no anti-war, anti-imperialist work, and Satrapi is making a case for a US attack by showing the regime in such a poor light. In my view the myth-making is entirely the SWP’s doing. To alibi a state like Iran is to discredit the anti-war movement.

Marjane’s story is made intoa visually striking film which, especially, for a communist, is both very moving and very funny. It skilfully shows the struggles of a thinking and determined young person caught up in the mullahs’Iran with all its crazy contradictions.