Persepolis is a black-and white graphic novel that its creator, Marjane Satrapi, has now adapted into a 2-D, black-and-white, hand-drawn animated movie. Make no mistake about it, though. Satrapi, whose life loosely serves as source material for Persepolis, is far from black-and-white. She’s a colorful and outspoken character, one who is effectively in exile from her home country, Iran.
Persepolis picked up numerous accolades while playing the film festival circuit en route to its theatrical release, including the Krzysztof Kieslowski Award for Best Feature Film at the Starz Denver Film Festival. The wave of enthusiasm for this little-movie-that-could culminated in an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature Film, alongside Hollywood heavyweights Ratatouille and Surf’s Up.
Satrapi, herself the recipient of the National Board of Review’s Freedom of Expression Award, lives up to the hype. Whether it’s through her graphic novels, movie, or a one-on-one chat, she doesn’t mince words.
Even so, Satrapi started off our conversation with something of a concession. “I’m a very simple person, you know,” she matter-of-factly stated. “I like people, I talk to them; I don’t like people, I don’t talk to them. I’m not very complicated. This makes your life easier, and also the life of other people with you easier. You make people save lots of time.”
Given that independent stance, Satrapi also recognized we all have “a big need to be loved by everybody.” It’s something she recalls being particularly sensitive to when she was 20.
Finally, she asked herself, “Do I like everybody? No. Of course not. Why should everybody like me?”
After moving into an artists’ studio, a place in Paris she shared with other artists and cartoonists, Satrapi’s first impressions of co-director Vincent Paronnaud were anything but likeable.
“We were not very good friends at the beginning,” Satrapi said. “Because when he came into the studio, he was very shy. And I talk a lot. So we misunderstood each other. You know, I hated him; I thought he was such an asshole. He thought that I was crazy, that I was this crazy chick, talking, talking, talking. And I was like, this is an asshole, this guy is a bad asshole.
“There was one day I was sitting in this café outside of my studio and he came. And I was like, ‘Shit, now I have to invite him for a coffee.’ That was the first time that both of us, we sat. And we started talking. And I was like, he’s so cool. And since then we became best friends.”
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At first, Satrapi balked at the notion of putting her graphic novel on film, rattling off a list of criteria she would require in order to pique her interest. “I had a friend who wanted to become a producer. So he was saying, ‘What about making this movie, blah, blah, blah.’ And I was like, ‘No, this is a very bad idea. We should never make an adaptation of the comic.’ I always thought so. But I don’t know, I mean, I thought if I want to make an animation, I want to make it in black and white, I want this, I want that, I want Catherine Deneuve. And he said, ‘OK, go with it.’ And then I had to make it.”
Going after the esteemed Parisian actress to lend her voice as Marjane’s mother would, at first blush, seem like a pie-in-the-sky demand intended to undermine the film’s prospects. But that’s not the case; Satrapi had already read interviews with Deneuve in which she commented on how she liked her books. For that matter, Chiara Mastroianni, who gives voice to the post-adolescent Marjane, is Deneuve’s real-life daughter. What’s more, Danielle Darrieux, cast as Marjane’s grandmother, had already played Deneuve’s mother in four other movies, including L’ Hommes a Femmes back in 1960.
Satrapi bristled at comments that the book was “transferred” into a movie. It wasn’t a simple matter of filming one frame after the other. “Comics and films, they look like they are brother and sister,” noted Satrapi. “They are not.”
After rereading the two volumes that comprise Persepolis, Satrapi and Paronnaud set them aside and forgot about them.
“You cannot put 16 years in a one-a-half-hour movie or you have five movies in one, and this is a disaster,” Satrapi explained. “So you have to have a nexus, you have to have a turning point. At the time we started making the movie, I was in a very nostalgic time in my life. The whole construction of the movie is in a flashback; this is this woman who goes to Orly airport to go back to her country. She cannot, so she sits in this airport and she remembers her whole life. OK. This is it. The turning point of the story is the exile. Everything brings to this exile and this exile justifies exactly what happens next. So that is the whole structure.”
With that framework set, the choices became more obvious. In Satrapi’s view, the problem with most biographical movies is that the filmmakers want to say everything, but you cannot. Citing one notable exception, Satrapi cited Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas as a great example of a movie that skillfully told a story spanning 25 years.
“I am not making a documentary about my life. This is just a story based on my own experience and this is the big difference. If people want to have the reality show, they have to go and search in the life of Paris Hilton or Nicole Richie. I am not this kind of chick.”
While true stories and incidents pepper the books and the movie, audiences should not interpret the material as purely autobiographical.
Yes, Mom and Dad did smuggle Iron Maiden and Kim Wilde posters, but to say more would be to say too much. “I’m not here, you know, to tell what is the truth,” Satrapi said.
“The reason I put it in my name is because I didn’t want it to become a political or sociological or historical statement, like, oh, ‘Here I am, the person who is telling that.’ I just put it in my name so that everyone would remember that it is a very personal, individual point of view and it doesn’t go beyond that.”
Satrapi and Paronnaud come from the world of underground comics, where people are used to not getting paid. In Satrapi’s view, she merely had the good luck of a writing a book that worked and that went on to sell more than 1.5 million copies. But, not one to forget her roots, she was able to bring on to the movie project many of her friends.
That luck spread from France and crossed the globe as Persepolis gained international recognition. The work even caught the eye of mega-producer Kathleen Kennedy, who wanted to buy the film rights, but Satrapi and Paronnaud were already in production.
Undeterred, Kennedy, best known for producing many of Steven Spielberg’s movies, including Schindler’s List, Jurassic Park, and the forthcoming Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, still wanted to support this small-scale production.
“Kathleen Kennedy and her husband (Frank Marshall), they are really, I think, the nicest people of Hollywood,” Satrapi said. “They are just great people because they have been co-producing these movies of Spielberg and this big stuff, but at the same time she is a person who loves movies. Not just the movie industry, but the movie as an art. She was convinced by our script, she was convinced by the way we were working; she was extremely supportive from the beginning. She was the one who introduced us to the people of Sony Classics.”
As a result, Sony Classics supplied somewhere around $1 million of the movie’s $8 million budget.
“Movies are not about money,” Satrapi clarified. “Of course, you need money to make a movie, but it is not because you have lots of money that you would make a good movie. It’s how convinced you are, how much quality you want. But, also, I hate the idea that you can just film any crap any how and say ‘this is independent, so it’s good.’ No. You have to make a good movie; you have to be aware of how you frame the thing, you have to be aware of the movement of the camera, you have to be aware of the rhythm, you have to be aware of the music, etc.”
Persepolis is based on Satrapi’s experiences growing up during the Islamic Revolution of the late 1970s and 1980s. With revolutionary fervor making an enormous impression on one side and her parents providing a more rational explanation for the events unfolding around her on the other side, Satrapi grew up during a particularly chaotic time in Iran’s history.
That’s when the Shah was deposed, Ayatollah Khomeini exploited discontent among the populace, and American hostages were held captive for 444 days.
As a natural progression of youth, Satrapi began to question what was going on around her and the naturally rebellious nature of a teenager collided with the increasingly repressive stance of her government. In 1980 it became mandatory for women to wear the veil, a garment that stands as a complete clash to her punk sensibilities.
Given their daughter’s proclivities, Satrapi’s parents sent her to live with a family friend in Austria when she was 14. After four years of eye-opening experiences, Satrapi returned to Iran in hope of settling into a stable life. After finding friends’ lives moving in different directions, marriage proving to be unsatisfactory, and oppression having taken its toll on the citizens, Satrapi found herself stuck in a most unenviable situation.
In 1994, she left Iran and moved to France, effectuating the exile that serves as the nexus of Persepolis.
“I can go back, but I don’t know if I can leave again,” she chuckled with what might be considered a slight bit of resignation, “this is the problem. Actually, I don’t know what will happen. That’s why I don’t go.”
With Islamic fundamentalism escalating as never before, tensions are on the rise not only in the United States, but around the world. Headlines talk about immigrant unrest in Paris and integration issues in Amsterdam.
But, for Satrapi, the question is not about Christian and Muslim. The question is about poor and rich. And it’s a topic that got her fired up.
“They talk about it like it was a religious problem,” Satrapi said. “This is a question of poverty. I am absolutely not concerned by this question, because I don’t come from a poor neighborhood, because my parents, they, are not workers that go and work in the factory in Europe. My parents, they are educated people, they have always, in their life, they have enough money. I have an education, I speak six languages.
“For that, you have to ask this question from the poor people. In Europe they make this big fuss, ‘This is the Muslim community.’ Come on. The European, they have gone and they have fucked these Muslims and their countries for years and years. For more than a hundred years. French, they had them making shit in North Africa. The Dutch people went and sold whatever was in Indonesia and Malaysia, then after the second World War, they say to this guy, ‘Come here, and you will reconstruct our country for us.’ They put them into the suburb, they treated them like shit. After three generations, the kids of these guys, that are born in France and their parents that are born in France, are still called Arabs. And they’re still poor and they cannot get a job just because of where they’re born. And then they are like, ‘Oh, why do these people have a problem?’ Because you fucked them, that’s why they have a problem. Because this guy, even if he has an education, he can never get a decent job because of his name. Because he is condemned to be a poor guy; this is why, these people, they have a problem. It’s not because they are Muslim.”
There’s a lack of ownership of, or at least a distancing from, history permeating through the European psyche.
“America, you have gone and made a whole mess in Vietnam. You did it. But the first movie about Vietnam, you make it yourself, here in this country. France, they have fucked the Algerian. There is not one movie. They are starting it 45 years after, making movies about these things, and still it is a taboo subject. This is the big difference.
“I love Europeans when they say, ‘Americans, they went and they killed all the Indians.’ I’m like, ‘Americans, they are not some people that came from the planet Mars. That was you. That was European people that went and killed all the Indians. Americans, they are you. You did it. That was you who called yourself ‘American’ afterwards. That was the Scottish, and the Irish, and the German, and the Dutch, and the French; that was these people that killed the Indian and then they became American, but they were European.”
Admitting to, and accepting responsibility for, history is still an issue that needs to be faced straight on, as Satrapi sees it.
“The biggest religious murdering, from the killing of the Puritans so that they had to come here (to America) to the killing of six million Jews, to the killing of the Protestant, the biggest religious killing in total has been made in Europe, nowhere else but Europe,” Satrapi said.
“That is the old colonialist country and they will never admit that they have done something wrong. And when you don’t admit, then you have problems.”
Those at the receiving end of the aggression, such as the African soldiers who made sacrifices for France during the World Wars, have never been rightfully thanked. Instead, they receive quite the opposite, in Satrapi’s view.
“Then they say, ‘These people, you know, bad education, they are so aggressive.’ I mean, come on, you treat anybody like that, they become aggressive after a while. Put yourself in their place, what would you do?
“It is very sad that I have to say that, because I am really not representative of these people. I really don’t come from a poor background and all of that. It’s just a question of decency and thinking. Just think of what you have done to this people.”
In regard to young people living in the suburbs of European capitals who turn into radical Islamists, Satrapi sees it as boiling down to a matter of respect. Given 50 euros, a youth can be enticed to follow a preacher from here to there and get indoctrinated along the way.
“Why does he follow him? Because he is respected. You don’t want this guy to follow these people? Jesus fucking Christ, just respect him! But they hate them because they are racist and they don’t want to say that they are racist. So instead of saying ‘We are racist,’ they will say, ‘He is the bad guy.’ This is it. And then these people, they become angry. And then, since they are angry, they become more angry, etc., etc. And then everybody becomes mad and stupid. This is the result of it. If we think that they are the stupid guy and we are the intelligent guy, shouldn’t we behave a little better than them?”
Shifting back to less weighty matters, Satrapi is looking forward to taking a break and taking some time to refresh now that Persepolis is making its way to the big screen.
“Of course I want to write other books and of course I want to make other movies,” Satrapi said, “but now is too early because from the second I finished this movie I have been on promotion.
“I will go to vacation. I will smoke lots of cigarettes. I will have lots of fun. Because now I am an empty person. It sounds like that (she thumps her hand several times on the table). Then I have to have my heart and my brain full again. And then I will be able to give something. I am so empty that I don’t have anything to give now. To be able to tell a story, I have to have the feeling that I want to tell a story.”
Satrapi’s hands are not the type to stay idle for long, however. Even as we conversed, she sketched out characters on a little note pad.
“I took my time. My career is only seven years from the second I was published until now,” Satrapi noted.
And it has indeed been an eventful time. To her credit are five children’s books, several graphic novels, a mural for a museum, posters, and the Persepolis movie. She’s even sung a song.
“I’m never pushy. Things, they have to happen. If they happen, I put all my energy. If they don’t want to happen, I don’t push for them to happen because life is too short,” Satrapi said.
“I don’t consider time as my enemy, but as my best friend. I know how to take the time. So the time is extremely sympathetic and a gentleman with me.”