Marjane Satrapi, born 1969 in Iran, lives and works in France. Graphic novels, comic strips, children’s’ books, animation, film
Persepolis The film was written and directed by Satrapi with Vincent Paronnaud (2007)
Persepolis I, Persepolis II graphic novels (2000)
http://vimeo.com/52347620 Chiara Clemente’s mini-doco on Marjane Satrapi
http://vimeo.com/26630496 Satrapi speaks about her point-of-view
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X4g8SOLa0E4 Marji’s Persian history lesson from her father
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mF0bt2i9QW0 Marji and contraband Western music
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v9onZpQix_w interview with writer/director, Satrapi
http://www.sonyclassics.com/persepolis/ Persepolis movie website, contains synopsis, interviews, illustrations.
A Joshuah Bearman http://www.believermag.com (2006)
Toward the end of Persepolis II, the second installment of Marjane Satrapi’s ongoing project of autobiographical graphic novels, the author/narrator spends seven months designing a huge theme park based on Persian mythology. She takes her Tehran-based Disneyland to the Deputy Mayor’s office, where it is rejected—luckily for us, because shortly after that disappointment, Satrapi left Iran for Paris, a final emigration that led her to discover Art Spiegelman, the power of comics, and the development of her own method of storytelling.
Satrapi’s graphic novels are the opposite of mythology; personal and honest, they humanize the Middle East through memoir. Hemmed in by the tyranny of the mullahs, Satrapi’s life is nevertheless cosmopolitan, politically engaged, culturally sophisticated, and, like those of all adolescents, deeply conflicted. Today Satrapi lives in Paris, where she remains deeply conflicted, caught between home and exile, East and West, now all the more complicated by the geopolitics of the post–September 11 world.
B from an interview published in The Believer magazine
THE BELIEVER: Your books recently came out in Israel and were well received.
MARJANE SATRAPI: In a place like Israel, they’re very concerned with Iran, so there’s a lot of interest. Especially with what’s going on there now, the new government and all. So they want to see what this Iranian from France has to say in her comics. I guess that’s good. Now the books are coming out in other countries. And each time, they discover something different to be interested in.
BLVR: I think the broad appeal probably has to do with how your stories humanize a mostly unknown place. The popular notion about Iran is as a terrifying theocracy, brimming with lunatics who want to kill the West. As if every single Iranian has a bunch of flags in their closet, all lined up for the next Death to America/Israel protest. And then your books come along and tell a different story, about people with the same problems, sorrows, and joys that we have. And fears—here are Iranians who are just as afraid of the Iranian regime as we are.
MS: Absolutely. Here’s the problem: today, the description of the world is always reduced to yes or no, black or white. Superficial stories. Superhero stories. One side is the good one. The other one is evil. But I’m not a moral lesson giver. It’s not for me to say what is right or wrong. I describe situations as honestly as possible. The way I saw it. That’s why I use my own life as material. I have seen these things myself, and now I’m telling it to you. Because the world is not about Batman and Robin fighting the Joker; things are more complicated than that. And nothing is scarier than the people who try to find easy answers to complicated questions.
BLVR: Superhero stories are the original territory for comic books, with good versus evil. So by deepening the story, are you also commenting on the format?
MS: I just think that comics have always been more than that. They really haven’t always been superheroes. And today, of course, people like Art Spiegelman have shown how truly powerful comics can be. Joe Sacco uses comics as political reporting. So comics are just another medium to express yourself. It’s not cinema; it’s not literature; it’s just something else. It has a specific requirement, which is that images are used to tell the story. There are lots of crappy movies, with guns and action and Arnold Schwarzenegger or whatever. This is not the movies’ fault. It’s the fault of the directors who made those movies. Any medium can only live up to the strengths of the people working in it. If it’s been used to tell bad or boring stories, it’s not a problem with comics; it’s a problem with the writers of those comics.
BLVR: Do you think you reach a broader audience because of your use of comics?
MS: Maybe. Because of the images. You see a picture and you understand perfectly, immediately, the basic thing that’s happening. It’s probably more accessible because we are in a culture of images now. People are used to seeing stories that way. They understand looking at pictures. Read more here: http://www.believermag.com/issues/200608/?read=interview_satrapi
C Simon Hattonstone http://www.theguardian.com (2008)
Marjane Satrapi gusts into the room like a hurricane. She is a tiny woman propped up on huge white platform heels. She is dressed in black and is beautiful in a cubist way - Picasso could have sculpted her. Her hair is black, her mouth is a gash of red lipstick, she is talking 20 to the dozen, and smoke seems to be pouring out of every visible orifice. Everything about her is cartoon-like. Which is appropriate because she is best known as a cartoon character in her own comic books.
Satrapi, 38, is the author of Persepolis, a graphic memoir recounting her childhood in Iran, the overthrow of the corrupt Shah, the terror of the Khomeini years, the war with Iraq, the refuge she sought in Europe, and her painful path to adulthood. Persepolis, the Greek name for Persia, is desperately moving and extremely funny - a little girl’s sarcastic love letter to her family. Young Marjane is a stroppy, piss-taking, veil-wearing Marxist-anarchist who embraces her many contradictions with self-absorbed relish. When she’s not preaching communism, she’s predicting her future as a religious prophet; when she’s not pogoing down the streets as a young punk, she’s listening to the turgid prog rock of Camel or the bubblegum pop of Kim Wilde.
Now she has turned the book into an equally brilliant animated film, co-directed with fellow comic book writer Vincent Paronnaud. The movie is as stark and simple as her own drawings (her family could be an Iranian Simpsons - only real), with the added bonus of an expressionist feel that recalls the films of Fritz Lang.
Persepolis has been dismissed by the Iranian authorities as Islamophobic, but Satrapi says this is ridiculous - she is not a political animal or a religious commentator, she is an artist. And while Persepolis is scathing about the hypocrisies and cruelties of Iran’s theocracy, she is equally critical of George Bush’s Christian fundamentalism. She accuses the west of cultural imperialism, saying it always reduces Iran to Hizbullah or 1001 Arabian Nights; the flying carpet or the flying rocket. What she wanted to do in Persepolis was tell her story and show what it means to be Iranian for her.
Satrapi was born in 1969 in Rasht, near the Caspian Sea, and grew up in Tehran, where her father was an engineer and her mother a dress designer. She is descended from Iranian aristocrats - her maternal great-grandfather was Nasser-al-Din Shah, Persian emperor from 1848 to 1896, and her grandfather was a prince. But she stresses this does not make her quite so privileged as it sounds - her great-grandfather had 100 wives. Go back far enough, and you’ll find out most Iranian families are blue-blooded, she says.
Her parents were Marxist intellectuals who enjoyed the good life - they drove a Cadillac, drank alcohol, ate at the best places, were thoroughly westernised. They campaigned against the Shah, and looked forward to the Islamic revolution till it happened. In Persepolis she visits her beloved uncle in jail awaiting execution. After her neighbour’s house is bombed, she finds her best friend’s bracelet in the rubble “attached to something”. The elliptical nature of the storytelling (life-changing events can start and finish in one panel) makes it all the more heartbreaking.
As a child, Satrapi was supremely gobby. Her parents always encouraged her to have her own opinion. She says there is something Hitleresque in her character that she has inherited from her father - she means in the power of her convictions rather than her politics. Satrapi was a sceptic from the off. "If the majority of people were right, we’d be living in paradise. But we are not living in paradise, we are living in hell. What does it mean? That means the majority of people are wrong. So I never believed what people told me."
There were no toys in the house, but more books than she could read. She was an only child and talked and played cards for entertainment. "I always used to win because I cheat." She smiles - a naughty-girl smile. "I mean playing without cheating, what is the point? The second I learned how to play, I learned how to cheat, too." Her parents were nice people, she says - they pretended they didn’t know she was cheating.
But Marjane was a worry for them. When she wasn’t cheating or asking precocious questions she would be out in Tehran buying contraband tapes, spreading the word of western pop and wearing Michael Jackson T-shirts under the veil. Her parents feared she would get into serious trouble with the Revolutionary Guard. Soon after their neighbours were bombed, they sent 14-year-old Marjane away to Austria to study. Part of the problem, she says, is that she was so intelligent, so easily bored by people and their ideas. I ask her whether she has met anybody as intelligent as herself? She shakes her head, and snorts: “No. Maybe Vincent, the guy with whom I made the movie.”
Satrapi could easily be obnoxious, but she’s not - saved by her self-awareness, and her humour. She says that she painted her most accurate self-portrait in her last book, Chicken With Plums, about her great-uncle Nasser Ali Khan, a musician who played the tar, a long-necked lute. When his wife breaks his instrument, the despairing musician starves himself and takes to his bed to die, which he does eight days later. “He is completely unbearable, narcissistic, egocentric but also lovely and charming. That’s actually how I see myself. You have to be narcissistic to be an artist. You have to think you are the centre of the whole thing otherwise why do you create? The only thing is to recognise it, and then you make the best of it.”
We meet in London. She can’t stand Britain because of the smoking ban. She suggests that we talk in her hotel room because at least she will be able to smoke there. She lives for her cigs, and is quite happy to die for them, she says. “For me smoking is like looking at your soul,” she says in a rasping hybrid accent. "There is something extraordinarily poetic about smoking - from the gesture of holding a cigarette, turning it on, smoking it, the taste of it, the smell of it, I love every-thing about smoking." She has no truck with the kill-joys who want to stop us doing all the things that we enjoy - simply because it might prolong our life. “Anything that has a relationship with pleasure we reject it. Eating, they talk about cholesterol; making love, they talk about Aids; you talk about smoking, they talk about cancer. It’s a very sick society that rejects pleasure.” She’s working herself up into a climax of disgust. "Why should we live like sick people just to give some fresh meat to the ground? I hope my meat is so rotten no worm in the whole universe will want to come and eat it. I want to be rotten to accept the idea of dying. Every day you live you get one day closer to death. If you are never born you will never die. Giving birth is also giving death." She smiles, having hit on the solution to combating death.
It’s not surprising that the teenage Satrapi lost her way in Europe. She expected to find herself in a secular paradise looked after by Zozo, her mother’s best friend. In Persepolis, she imagines how it will be: "It’s going to be cool to go to school with a veil, to not have to beat oneself every day for the war martyrs." In fact, Zozo leaves her in a boarding house run by nuns and Marjane is thrown out for calling the mother superior a prostitute when she says Iranians are “uneducated”. "In every religion you find the same extremists," young Marjane concludes.
Satrapi discovered boys and booze. At her nadir she was peddling drugs, homeless, and she almost died from bronchitis. After four years in Vienna, she admitted defeat, put on her veil and returned home.
Back in Iran, she became even more depressed. She was 19 years old, her friends had rejected her as a western decadent, and she belonged nowhere - a westerner in Iran, an Iranian in the west. She tried to slit her wrists, but failed miserably - a fruit knife was never going to do the trick. She took an overdose of antidepressants, but they just made her sleep for three days.
"This is past, and it really comes from a very dark moment of my life. Dying is…" For once, she fails to complete a sentence. "When people say there is no alternative, there is always an alternative - to die, for example. It’s a choice. You always have this choice."
Her work, like her life, seems to segue from the ecstatic to the depressive. "Well depressive, I don’t know. If you have a little sensibility or a heart you have all the reason to be depressed once in a while. But the depression is like a motor for creation. I need a little bit of depression, a bit of acid in my stomach, to be able to create. When I’m happy I just want to dance."
She studied graphic arts in Iran and at 21 married a young artist who turned out to be her polar opposite. He allowed her to do what she wanted, but she still felt imprisoned. A month later they were in separate beds, three years later they were divorced.
As a young woman, she says, she got things so wrong. "I was so stupid when I was 20. I could do mathematics extremely quickly so I had this kind of intelligence, but the intelligence of life I didn’t have. I was too aggressive, making all the bad choices, believing I was a nice person and I was not, believing I was a mean person and I wasn’t. Everything I thought was wrong. With age things become better and better."
At 24, she returned to Europe, and did a second art degree in Strasbourg. She supported herself by teaching aerobics and languages. When she finished studying she expected to be feted, but no one was interested. “When you go to art school you think you are the centre of the universe, the next Pablo Picasso, you’ll come out of the art school and everyone will say, ‘Pablo where were you? We were all waiting for you.' But nobody is waiting for you. Not only are they not waiting for you, they make you that.” She gives me the finger. "That is the way it was. They were right to reject me. I reworked the projects they rejected and they became better."
I tell her she’s still got something of the young punk about her today. No, she protests, she is every inch the bourgeoise. "I’m a lady." She likes the sound of lady so much that she repeats it, running it off her tongue with lascivious delight. "I’m a lady." She likes to mislead people, she says. "It is better not to look like what you are; it is better to look like a bourgeois woman because then all the doors are open for you and then you can just go and make hell. That is much more exciting." She despairs at the lack of ambition in today’s youth. "Their dream is to become Paris Hilton."
Satrapi, who has lived in Paris for 12 years, says there is so much to fear in today’s world - the potential for nuclear weapons in Iran, the actuality of nuclear weapons in the US; the blind faith of both Bush and Iran’s president Ahmadinejad, who trust more in God than political process. Even the French are voting for the politics of fear and loathing, she says with contempt.
She thinks the world is headed for disaster now there is no counter to capitalism. "Now China has become capitalist, we are all going in the same direction. I am not defending communism, but when you have a power that goes in one direction, you need a power that goes in the other direction. Another thing is that for 10 years we have been naming the evil - pointing to ‘the axis of evil’. Naming the evil is the most dangerous thing to do; that is the beginning of fascism. If the evil is the people of one place or one country, well, let’s go and exterminate all of them… I am just an artist and my duty is to ask questions."
Her identity as an artist was shaped in 1995 when she was given Art Spiegelman’s classic Holocaust comic book, Maus, as a birthday present. She had no idea art could tell stories in such a way. Satrapi decided the comic book would be her chosen form. She was rejected time and again. She went to see the art director of one prominent French publisher who hated her work so much he became angry. “He said you don’t have any style, it goes in all different directions, and I came home depressed and cried for a whole week. Then two years after Persepolis was published and I got some prizes and I had a name, the secretary of this guy called me and he says, this guy wants to see you. So I went with the same book as I had been to see him with before, and he was like, ‘What courage! You have tried all these different styles.’ I said that’s not what you told me three years ago. And he said, ‘Did I see you three years ago?’ And I said, ‘You don’t have a very good memory, but I do.” She laughs. “We ended up working together. I’m not a revenger kind of person.”
She started writing Persepolis when she was 29 in 1999, and it was published the following year. If she had written it 10 years earlier it would have been rubbish, she says, because it would have been too angry. Back then, her world was simply divided into goodies and baddies. Whereas the extremists of her youth took the shape of mullahs, now she sees them everywhere. “I am against fundamentalism. I am not against any religion, Islam, Judaism, Christianity etc. It is the use of an ideology to kill people that I am against.” She is not critical of the veil per se, she is critical of its imposition. "I really believe in a society where if someone wants to walk in the street completely naked they will be able to, and if someone wants to wear a veil they will also be able to."
Is she religious? “Religion is a very personal affair. It’s between someone and what he considers the god, or the supreme spirit or whatever, and it’s very good while it remains personal. The second it becomes public, it’s no good. And that’s why I don’t make it public either.”
When Persepolis was published she thought 300 people would buy it “to help this poor Iranian girl living in Paris”. So far it has sold well over a million copies and has been translated into 24 languages. (Satrapi herself speaks six languages - Farsi, French, German, English, Swedish, Italian.) What has delighted her is the story’s universal appeal - it’s not just about Iran, it’s about growing up in any place with problems.
There is still something rootless about Satrapi. Now that the French have banned smoking in public places, she is looking to move again - perhaps to Greece. She has not returned to Iran, where her parents still live, for eight years. She does not know how safe she would be in Iran, where her books are available in samizdat form. She fears she might be thrown into jail - not a risk she is prepared to take.
For now, perhaps her main contact with Iran is through her work. The film of Persepolis, which was nominated for the best animated feature Oscar, features the voice of her all-time hero Iggy Pop, and those of Catherine Deneuve, Gena Rowlands and Chiara Mastroianni, as young Marjane. "For me Iggy Pop is a crooner, but he’s a desperate, angry crooner." A similar marriage of the tender and the spiky, the humane and the misanthropic, is what makes her work so memorable. Her greatest creations are representations of the family members she most loves; the sexy grandmother who would bathe her breasts in milk to keep them firm; the charismatic father who adored his life of luxury every bit as much as his Marxist-Leninist ideology; the thoroughly modern mother who wept when her daughter married so young.
She is amazed how life has worked out. In France, she married a man about whom she will say nothing other than that he is Swedish. They have no children. "I don’t understand when people say it is so natural to make children… I want to devote my life to my art. And I know if I’m a man and I say that I would be this great artist who sacrifices life for his talent, but since I am a woman I become this ambitious bitch who doesn’t want to have kids. Some people think like that, but I don’t care."
Now she has sufficient distance from the past, she can see that things are probably as good as they get. "I’m this woman coming from Iran, I’ve succeeded in what I wanted, I live in the city I want, I live with the man I want, I make the work I want, and they pay me for it, which is incredible. How many people in the world have this luck?"
D Kristin Hohenadel http://www.nytimes.com (2007)
Marjane Satrapi’s life was flashing before her eyes. There she was, a mischievous girl on the streets of Tehran, buying contraband records during the Islamic revolution. Singing the lyrics in her bedroom at the top of her teenage lungs. Fidgeting with her head scarf at the lycée. Mourning the political imprisonment of her uncle. Falling in love for the first time. Saying goodbye to her beloved parents as they sent her, their only child, to find freedom and solace in the West.
“Imagine you see your face everywhere — from the back, from the front, as a girl, adolescent, everywhere,” Ms. Satrapi, 37, said during the making of an animated movie based on her best-selling and critically praised comic-book memoir, “Persepolis.” The original version, in French, includes the voices of the legendary French actress Danielle Darrieux as her grandmother, Catherine Deneuve as her mother and Chiara Mastroianni — the daughter of Marcello Mastroianni and Ms. Deneuve — as Marjane. An English-language adaptation, which will also include Ms. Deneuve, with Gena Rowlands as the grandmother, is scheduled to be released by Sony Pictures Classics this year.
Ms. Satrapi has drawn herself thousands of times. But she found it initially overwhelming to watch her own vivid gestures animated on computer screens in the skylighted atelier that is the film’s headquarters in the 10th Arrondissement. Eventually, she said, she learned to put emotional distance between herself and her character.
“From the beginning I started to talk about ‘Marjane’ and ‘Marjane’s parents,’ ” she explained, “because you cannot do it otherwise. There are people, for example, drawing my grandmother. My grandmother is dead. Here not only is she moving, but I have to look at her, image by image. If I think, ‘This is my grandmother and my story,’ I would start crying all the time. And it’s not easy for the animators if I start talking about me, me, me. I will make them crazy, and they will be walking on eggshells. They won’t let themselves go.
“When my parents came to the studio, nobody breathed. Imagine you are drawing Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, and suddenly a big mouse and a big duck walk in.”
Ms. Satrapi’s poignant coming-of-age story is drawn in a simple yet evocative style, which conveys maximum feeling with deceptively naïve images in minimalist black and white. It was first published in 2000 in France, where she has lived in self-imposed exile for 12 years. When the book was released in the United States in 2003, she said, Hollywood executives offered to buy the rights for adaptations that included a “Beverly Hills, 90210”-esque series set in Tehran. An ardent filmgoer who has served as a juror at the Cannes Film Festival, she concluded that making a filmed version of her own story was a bad idea.
“Normally when you make a movie out of a book, it’s never a success,” she said over her morning espresso and cigarettes, wearing all black and her trademark platform heels. But when Marc-Antoine Robert, an acquaintance and fledgling producer, offered to raise money to make the movie in France, Ms. Satrapi agreed under what she presumed were impossible conditions: despite having no filmmaking experience, she wanted to direct the movie herself, in black and white. And she wanted Catherine Deneuve to play her mother.
Ms. Satrapi teamed up with Vincent Paronnaud, a fellow comic book author who has also made a few short films. “We’re like the Coen brothers,” she said of herself and Mr. Paronnaud, who co-wrote and is co-directing the film. “We’re very complementary. I would have made much more of a Bergman movie. But I don’t want something that a couple of intellectuals in Paris and New York will watch and nobody else.”
It was Mr. Paronnaud who pushed her to dramatize emotional and violent sequences that she had insinuated in the book. “Vincent is good at knowing where the camera should go, how to cut to give scenes rhythm,” Ms. Satrapi said. “People were thinking, if you just film the frames of the book, you have a movie. If you just film the book, it would be extremely boring.” She and Mr. Paronnaud picked their moments and condensed the book into a 90-minute film, told as a flashback.
“In no way did we want to betray the book, but we had to make choices,” Mr. Paronnaud said. “The idea was to keep the spirit and energy of the book and to try and find a way to interpret it differently on film.”
Ms. Satrapi said she wrote “Persepolis” as an answer to the relentless and loaded question of what it means to be Iranian. But her book’s success has meant that she has both gently educated those in the West — “Persepolis” is taught in 118 colleges in the United States, including West Point, according to Pantheon, its publisher — and taken part in a larger conversation about the book’s global resonances.
“Little by little, as the book got translated in other languages, people were saying, ‘This is my story too,’ ” she said. “Suddenly I said to myself, ‘This is a universal story.’ I want to show that all dictatorships, no matter if it’s Chile, if it’s the Cultural Revolution in China or Communist Poland, it’s the same schematic. Here in the West we judge them because we are so used to democracy, believing that if we have something, it is because we deserve it, because we chose it. Political changes turn your life completely upside down, not because you are crazy but because you don’t have any way out.”
The executive producer of “Persepolis” is Kathleen Kennedy, a veteran Hollywood producer who approached Ms. Satrapi after the film was in production, asking to buy the rights. Ms. Satrapi declined to sell but welcomed her involvement. Ms. Kennedy found an American distributor, providing an infusion of cash while leaving Ms. Satrapi in creative control, a rare occurrence for a black-and-white animated film in progress from a pair of first-time directors.
“Persepolis” is a rarity in France: an animated feature that was entirely produced here, rather than being farmed out to Asian animators. The filmmakers favored an artisanal approach that includes hand-tracing the images on paper, an art long lost to computer animation software.
“It’s not that they do lesser work in Asia, but it’s complicated to communicate with people 10,000 kilometers away,” said Marc Jousset, the film’s art and technical director, who assembled the animation team. “Marjane is here every day. She implicates herself in every decision. And even if she had never done an animation sequence, she has given us courses in things like how the head scarf is worn at home versus on the street in Iran, things that are important for the rigor of the story.”
Mr. Jousset said it took a few months to find the right style of animation. Characters are depicted in black and white, as they are in the comic book, while the settings are richly shaded in grays that lend them a painterly quality. “The narration had to be somewhat somber and restrained, and I saw a lot of animators with too cartoonish of a style,” Mr. Jousset said. “It’s an animated film, but we wanted it to be rather realistic, as if it was being filmed live.”
The voices were recorded before the animators began work, with Ms. Satrapi coaching the actors one on one. (Aghast at the prospect of bossing Ms. Deneuve around, she said, she downed three cognacs before directing the actress, who turned out to be “funny and intelligent and a big smoker.”) Ms. Satrapi allowed herself to be recorded while acting out the physical gestures for each scene, to give the animation team a physical reference.
“We could do any number of movements to coordinate with the words,” said Christian Desmares, the chief animator, “but Marjane wanted to really personalize each character, to use precise Iranian gestures. And we don’t know how to do that.”
Ms. Satrapi interjected: “I play all the roles. Even the dog.”
It took an adjustment, she added, to transform herself from a solo artist into the co-leader of a 90-member filmmaking team, though she has gotten some practice in group dynamics by lecturing regularly in Europe and the United States.
“I realized I had a talent I didn’t know,” she said. “In France people will tell you everything is impossible. I have the enthusiasm of an American. I tell people: ‘Rah, yes! We’re going to make a great movie.’ And it pays; you can see their reaction. And suddenly you realize they have ideas that you didn’t have. It is hard for me, for my ego, to say this: For me, the movie is better than the book.”
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