Persepolis - An interview with Marjane Satrapi
It’s not all Black & White
James Mottram talks to Marjane Satrapi about growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution and the way the experience inspired her award-winning animated film Persepolis
Sitting across from me in a tartan-walled basement of a London hotel room, Marjane Satrapi cuts an imposing figure. Arms folded, with an all-black outfit reflecting her mood, the Iranian-born 38-year-old is in town to discuss Persepolis, her much-praised animated feature based on her popular series of graphic novels. The film, which shared the Grand Jury Prize in Cannes last year with Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light, depicts her life growing up in Iran at the time of the Islamic Revolution. Despite the character being called Marji, don’t dare call it autobiographical, though. ‘I don’t like that term,’ snaps Satrapi. ‘An autobiography is a book that people write to solve the problems with those around them. They don’t dare to say things to their family and friends, so they decide to write in revenge. That is not what I did.’
This is typical of Satrapi, who comes across as belligerent, argumentative and contentious at the best of times. Maybe she has good reason. She harbours genuine distaste for the way journalists in the West portray the Middle East. ‘The image in the media – calling people terrorists, fanatical, etc – is extremely condescending. It is dangerous when you start calling people from one part of the world terrorists or fanatic, and you reduce them to some abstract notion. If evil has a geographical place, and if the evil has a name, that is the beginning of fascism. Real life is not this way. You have fanatics and narrow-minded people everywhere.’
Yet, it’s in her homeland where the film has been causing a stir. ‘An unreal picture of the outcomes and achievements of the Islamic revolution’ was how the head of the government-affiliated Farabi Cinema Foundation described it in a letter to the French cultural attaché in Tehran. Subsequently withdrawn as the opening film from the Bangkok Film Festival, after pressure from the Iranian embassy, it also won’t be seen at a Lebanese cinema near you, for fear of provoking unrest among supporters of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah.
Satrapi claims the film isn’t meant as a political tract. ‘I think that people who see the politics [in it] need to find an answer – and they want to give me a responsibility that I don’t have to have,’ she says. ‘I didn’t want it to become a movie with the pretensions to become this lesson of history, politics, sociology. I’m not a sociologist. I’m not a politician. I’m not a historian. I’m one person. If you start with one person, this one person is universal. If you want to make a history lesson, or politics, there is nothing less universal than these things. Tolstoy used to say, “If you want to talk to the world, write about your village”.’
Yet it didn’t help matters that, back in February, the film was chosen to be France’s representative at the Oscars, over popular Edith Piaf biopic La Vie En Rose, causing further unrest in Tehran. It was eventually nominated for Best Animated Feature – a considerable triumph given this is a category normally dominated by the Hollywood studios. While it was beaten to the prize by Disney favourite Ratatouille, Satrapi is not surprised that Persepolis has made a splash in America. ‘The place in the world where my books sold the most was America. So I’m used to American audiences. There are many normal Americans, they’re not ignorant, dumb people.’
Indeed, Hollywood immediately saw the potential of Satrapi’s books when they were first published. She received all sorts of crazy ideas, from adapting them into a Beverly Hills 90210-style TV series to making a movie version featuring Brad Pitt as her father and Jennifer Lopez as her mother. Turning it all down, it’s why it’s easy to believe her when she says ‘there was nothing calculated’ in her decision to finally make Persepolis into an animated feature, something she came to after French producer Marc-Antoine Robert petitioned her to produce it.
Deciding to shoot the film largely in the monochrome look of the original books, she asked her friend Vincent Paronnaud to co-direct with her. An underground French comic-book artist, Paronnaud already had some limited experience in the field of animation, having made two shorts, O’Boy, What Nice Legs and Raging Blues. ‘But that has nothing to do with what we did,’ says Satrapi. ‘I didn’t want to work him because of some technical competence – he didn’t have any. It was for his talent.’
Unlike the books, the film works as one long flashback, anchored by scenes of the grown-up Marji waiting at Paris’ Orly airport, smoking and reflecting on her childhood. Satrapi had been through this herself: one Friday in Paris she headed out to the airport with the full intention of leaving for the homeland she left behind. Instead she sat there, crying and watching planes take off. With wounds that cut that deep, it’s no surprise Satrapi admits she was ‘dreading’ the idea of writing the script. ‘It’s not easy squeezing 16 years of life into 90 minutes,’ she says.
To put her and Paronnaud’s task in context, Persepolis 1 (published in French in 2000) covered the first ten years of her life until the overthrow of the Shah regime and the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war. A year later, the second volume covered her life up to the age of 14, when she left for Vienna, while the third and fourth books covered her exile in Austria and return to Iran. Satrapi is at pains to stress how different the resulting film is from these books. ‘It’s based on the same material, and based on the same character, but out of this first material we made a completely different narration that has nothing to do with this first one. It’s two different narrations from the same story.’
Proving what an unconventional project this was, rather than go to an existing animation studio, Satrapi set up her own. She rented a studio space in Paris’ Tenth District, calling it ‘Perseprod’, to house the hundred-plus animators she needed for the movie. ‘The office looked like a gypsy camp,’ she smiles, admitting she found the animation process tough. ‘I always thought directing an animated movie would see me go there two times a week, yell at everybody and then they do the work and I become rich and famous. Well, this is bullshit. It doesn’t happen. If you want quality, what happens is that you have to be there before everybody. The whole time, people working with you have questions.’
What’s more, she had to deal with major French film royalty when it came to recording the voice talent. Catherine Déneuve was cast as Marji’s middle-class mother Tadji. ‘She was a true professional . . . but I was very scared of Deneuve. I was drinking cognac after cognac beforehand to stay calm. But then you have to also be a professional. She’s there to play a role and you are there to direct her.’ Ironically, to play Marji (as both a teenager and an adult), Satrapi secured the services of Deneuve’s real-life daughter Chiara Mastroianni, who saw the script at her mother’s house. ‘She’s a very shy person, I don’t know how that happened, but she asked if she could try out.’
Based in Paris since she relocated there in 1994, Satrapi hasn’t been back to Iran for eight years. ‘I have the life I want. I live where I want. I do the work I want.’ While Satrapi does not discount the idea of making another animated movie, or even moving into live action now she’s got the attention of Hollywood, one thing is for sure: she’s not planning on becoming the next Walt Disney. ‘To be the director of an animation company is not for me,’ she cries. ‘I’m not a very good financing person. I don’t even know how much money I have in my bank account. I never have opened one single envelope from the bank – they freak me out.’
Persepolis opens on Fri 25 April.