What Do We Call It?

Senior Seminar is winding down, and now we’re on to the assignment in which we read non-Western literature. The work we agreed on, Persepolis, is a graphic novel…although yesterday, we struggled with the fact that this is not an accurate category for the simple fact that the book is autobiographical. Is it a memoir? Is it a novel for the simple fact that it can’t all be true and the people and events have gone through the filter of the author’s own perception.

Through the discussion, I mentioned that graphic texts work like storyboards for me, so I am inclined to think of this text in terms of film and not literature. If Persepolis was a film, I thought to myself, I’d know exactly what to call it. I immediately thought of documentary film, because even in that genre, we still struggle with the question of, “What is ‘Truth’?” As I mentioned in previous posts, the closest to “truth” a filmmaker can get is to set up a camera and just let it start rolling, let whatever transpires unfold in front of it without interference. However, even that goes through the filter of the filmmaker’s perception. Someone has to decide where to set up the camera. Someone has to decide what direction to point the camera. Someone has to set up the shot. These are all decisions made for the viewer, but we still accept it as truth enough to be considered “documentary.” Furthermore, documentaries come in all sorts of flavors — advocacy, propaganda, educational, cinema verite, etc. Some of these even allow for reenactments to be played out by actors, and yet we don’t not consider them to be documentaries. In documentary, we accept that the story is sometimes going to be told through a specific lens, that one point of view can be privileged over another. It doesn’t make it “wrong,” it just means that it’s one way of looking at the subject.

Another way we could make a film about someone’s life is to produce a biopic. In comparison to a documentary, we accept that there will be a certain manipulation of the “truth” in a biopic for the sake of dramatic/narrative value. Take Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, for example. The film gets much of Wood’s life right, but there are obvious exaggerations and embellishments. For example, I haven’t found any evidence that Bela Lugosi used to swear a lot…but Martin Landau’s portrayal of him in Burton’s film sure was funny when he dropped all those f-bombs. That this film about Wood’s life was made after the fact is not what separates a biopic from a documentary; rather, it’s because of all the creative and dramatic license that was taken with it for the sake of telling a good story. This does not make it a complete work of fiction, just a fictionalized account of someone’s life story.

Some biographies, on the other hand, are actual documentaries. Most of the biographies you see on the Biography Channel, for example, would count as documentaries — interviews, photos, and other “evidence” from those who were actually involved contribute to the telling of the person’s story.

Persepolis, in fact, has been made into a film, so I turned to its IMDB.com page to see if that provided any clarity. It’s categorized under “animation,” “biography,” and “drama.” It wasn’t as helpful as I thought it would be. I have not seen the film, but I get a distinct “biopic” feeling from the site because the words were “animation” and “drama” were used.

Where has this left me? It’s left me a lot less certain of how I’d categorize a film adaptation of this book. I was ready to accept Persepolis as a literary documentary because we are getting the story from the source. Does the fact that it’s drawn make it less credible? Not to me…but perhaps it does to IMDB? Or has the story been embellished enough by its author that it now crosses over into “literary biopic” status, despite the fact that it’s the author’s own story she’s embellishing.

I doubt I’ll be any closer to these answers when I’ve finished the book.


~ by Shanna Gilkeson on April 9, 2013.

One Response to “What Do We Call It?”

  1. It’s a bit difficult to determine what the truth is, especially when you’re talking about the recollections of someone’s life as recalled by that very person. How do you say to someone “that’s not how this happened” when you were not there yourself? I think the most people could say is “the events your recall may not be 100% accurate” which I kind of see as a “duh” moment. There’s no way to recall an event with 100% accuracy because the event only exists as it is perceived. When reading this I sort of put a lot of stock into letting the cameras roll before you effectively took the wind from my sails by mentioning the perspective of the filmmaker. In this universe there are few constants; even time and gravity are relative to one’s position. I’m not sure it’s possible to prove what is embellished or whether this was done on purpose. The thing is, Persepolis is a recollection of Satrapi’s life by Satrapi herself; I’m okay with calling it a graphic memoir.

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