Not content as one of the world’s foremost cartoonists (don’t call her a graphic novelist—she loathes that designation), Marjane Satrapi has now made the leap into directing movies, starting with an animated adaptation of her highly acclaimed Persepolis. This modestly budgeted film is a brilliant hybrid of black-and-white and color, fable and memoir, at turns hilarious, deeply moving, and sad. (It is also France’s official selection for the Best Foreign Film Oscar.) The story concerns the young Marjane reminiscing about her childhood in Tehran during the transitional years between the Shah’s oppressive régime and the leadership of the equally oppressive Ayatollah Khomeini. Satrapi is gregarious and wonderfully opinionated, and also a proud smoker: the venue for our interview was changed so that she could puff away freely in her hotel room.
You had tremendous success with both Persepolis and its followup, Persepolis 2. What made you want to make a movie?
I always thought it was the worst idea in the world to turn Persepolis into a movie. That’s probably why we made a good one—we knew all the dangers. A friend of mine who is a producer wanted me to turn this into a picture, so I told him that I wanted it filmed in Paris, that I wanted Catherine Deneuve, I wanted it hand drawn and mostly in black and white, that I wanted this and I wanted that. And he said yes to everything! So I thought, “Shit, now I have to do it.” It was like diving into the water and realizing you can’t swim.
Now that the results are satisfactory, of course I can invent 256 good reasons to have made Persepolis. But the reality is that there was no good reason from the beginning.
If there’s any disappointment I had about Persepolis, it was realizing certain scenes in the book were absent from the film, great scenes. But obviously you’re not going to make a four-hour movie …
There’s sixteen years of my life to try and condense, and so you have to choose a focus. At the time we started writing the script I was feeling very nostalgic. I hadn’t been back to Iran for five years. That’s why the movie is based on the exile. If I made Persepolis today, I would be less nostalgic and the turning point would be something else and we would have focused on some other story. It’s a question of choice.
There was a great sequence where your father is telling a young Marjane the story of how the Shah came to power. The scene is reminiscent of puppetry …
Yes. We had to find ways to tell the story without it being a “historical” film. I don’t have the pretension to be the historian of Iran. Whatever is about history uses these puppet-like scenes. We wanted to use different narration to communicate different things.
You have mentioned that you are interested in the filmmaker F.W. Murnau and German Expressionism, and I noticed that some of the castles in your movie have that look of foreboding, as in Murnau’s Nosferatu.
I wanted to take from something that moved me, that was brilliant—like Nosferatu. I can still go and watch that and feel that it is so modern, it moves me today. That movie is from 1922! If they could watch my movie in eighty years and think it was still modern, I’d be happy.
Do you go back to Iran?
I could go back, but then I couldn’t get out. My parents are there, and they visit me in France. Me, myself, I’d have some problem. I am not a brave one—people say what I say in Iran and they end up in jail. They write articles, not comics, and they end up in prison and tortured. I’m in Paris …
Can you buy Persepolis in Iran?
Yes, especially the English version. Because of course in Iran if we speak a second language it’s English, not French anymore. English is the new Esperanto, which I really like. Some people complain “Oh, this is English culture,” but this is Esperanto. Everyone can speak this language, what does it matter. It’s a good thing whether it’s English or German or Japanese, if we all speak the same language it’s a good thing.
One of the scenes that impressed me, both in the film and the books, was where you were homeless in Vienna and calling your parents for help. You tell them, “I’ll come home but don’t ask any questions.” Obviously when they read Persepolis they found out about your sleeping in the park and almost dying—what was their reaction?
Well, they read it in 2004 and I had left Vienna in 1988. That was sixteen years. And my mother was having a heart attack and my father was crying from this! I said to myself “Thank God I didn’t tell them sixteen years ago, they would have died!”
This story is not just a story of your reaction to political events but a personal story of depression and heartbreak. Is this something addressed in Iran?
Yes, absolutely. I get letters from around the world and in Iran from people telling me that I gave them hope. Adolescents especially. Of course I get notes from people telling me that this never happened, that never happened, but of course it did.
What do you think about Iranian President Ahmadinejad claiming that there are no gays in Iran?
If homosexuals are a symbol of a weak society then we have no strong society, because gays are everywhere. The only thing is that in some countries they are persecuted and killed and in others they’re left alone. For me, the reason some people don’t like gays is because of religion. Religion doesn’t like sex. Between a man and a woman sex is OK because you can create babies. Between gays sex is only for pleasure. That’s the same reason why we don’t show the sexuality of women that are in menopause. It is not because they are not desirable. Today many women of fifty are very desirable. The thing is, after fifty you cannot get pregnant, so if you fuck only for pleasure that is a big “No, No, No, No!” Besides, how can you not like gays?
As a smoker, what will you do if the threatened ban in France on smoking in cafés comes through?
I agree not every place should be a smoking place, but I’m a grown-up, leave me alone. For me, smoking is the symbol for what is going on in the world. We are focusing on the small details and hiding the misery in the world. Look at the smoker and we miss global warming, war, and the shit we eat—not the bad guys but smoking. I smoke and they talk about cancer, I eat and they talk about cholesterol, I make love, it’s AIDS. Jesus Christ, before AIDS and cholesterol and cancer there’s the pleasure of making love and eating and smoking. I have to die someday, so if the thing that gave me pleasure all of my life kills me instead of [me] going under a truck, that’s fine. Besides, why should I live so that when I die I give fresh meat to the worms? I hope that I am rotted and they don’t want to eat me. Fuck the worms.
Speaking of gore, there’s a crazy sense of humor in your work. In the Persepolis book there’s a young man in a wheelchair who’s lost his arm and seen his friends blown to pieces, and yet he can tell a raunchy joke about a kid who was blown apart. Is this a cultural thing or just something that affects your friends and family?
People that complain—and you see this a lot in Western society, they go to the shrink and complain—do so to the level of your sadness. It becomes unbearable. Eventually you have to laugh or become consumed by it. You have to spit it out with laughter. That was our way of doing it. I am a serious person but I don’t take life seriously. How serious can it get? I was born stupid, and the day I have enough experience to live is the day I have to die. This is crap! So you see, life is a big joke!
Persepolis opens in the Twin Cities at the Uptown Theatre on January 18.