Marjane Satrapi’s adaptation of her own Persepolis graphic novels deservedly won the Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes festival. Although the film is a necessarily stripped-down version of the two volumes, which respectively describe her childhood in Teheran and her exile as a teenager in Austria, the film version retains all the elements that made them so successful: the mix of Satrapi’s personal story with her country’s history, the wryly humorous look at the absurdity of political power games, the penetrating observation of both Iranian and European societies and the powerful contrast between simple animation and the complex, difficult events it depicts. Full of life and irreverent spirit, this is a film that is simply impossible to dislike. The same can be said of Satrapi herself, who proved to be a wonderfully entertaining interviewee when we caught up with her during last year’s London Film Festival.
Virginie Sélavy: The film is an adaptation of the two Persepolis books, and this works very well as they are really two sides of the same story: they are complementary both in terms of your personal history and in the contrast between Western and Muslim cultures.
Marjane Satrapi: I didn’t want to make a movie with a sequel, Persepolis I, like there’s Rocky I, Rocky II… Actually, I liked Rocky I, not so much Rocky II, sequels are always bad… It was also very important to do both together because it’s the story of one person’s life. The linchpin of the story is the exile. The book starts in 1978 and it stops in 1994. It’s a nostalgic point of view, it’s the point of view of someone who goes into the airport and who cannot go back, and she re-evaluates her whole life.
VS: Why did you choose this nostalgic viewpoint for the film instead of following the same linear structure as in the books?
MS: Because at the time I was writing the script I was extremely nostalgic. At that point in my life the fact that I didn’t go back to Iran really started to weigh on me. Of course, if I made the movie today it would be a different movie because now I’m not nostalgic anymore. And also, the flashback structure shows that I’ve distanced myself even more from the story than in the book, in which I’d already taken some distance, in order to be able to laugh at myself.
VS: Your life has been shaped by momentous political events, and it seems to be inseparable from the history of your country, which makes your autobiography much more interesting than most people’s!
MS: But I don’t like the word ‘autobiography’ for my own work because it’s not really an ‘autobiography’. It’s a book that you write because you have problems with your family and friends and you don’t know how to tell them, so you write a book and you take your revenge. I didn’t want to make some kind of political or historical or sociological statement because I’m not a politician, a historian or a sociologist. I am one person who was born in a certain place and in a certain time. It’s a very personal point of view and I think that is also why it has become universal; because the only point of view that can eventually become universal is of course one person’s point of view. This is my French side, this is my very individualistic side. (laughs)
VS: It’s a very interesting perspective, especially in these times, when the Western world and the Muslim world have become completely polarised, partly due to the politicians’ simplifications. Your viewpoint is very interesting because it’s that of the outsider, both in the Western world and in the Muslim world.
MS: When I was a child I always had doubts about people who believed in astrology. You know, is it possible to believe that there are twelve groups of human beings? Now it’s not even twelve groups, it’s two groups, the Muslims and the Christians, West and East. If you’re French does it mean that you love all French people and you understand all of them? What common points do I share with a fanatic of my country? None. What common points does an American liberal share with George Bush? None. What common points does a fanatic of my country share with George Bush? A lot. So it’s not a question of where you come from. It simplifies everything and it just shows that the basis for the war is bullshit. There is only one division in the world, that between the fanatics and the rest of the people. Fanatics are absolutely everywhere. And the way they think is the same everywhere. The reason why they’re more powerful than the rest of us is that they push emotional buttons. They use people’s emotions to lead them into the streets. What you or I try to do is ask questions, so you’re asking people to think, to use their logic; and of course the process is much longer and it doesn’t have the immediate effect that emotions have. That’s why you see them much more than you see us but there are many more of us. We, the people who are not fanatics, have to be united because whether they wear a bow tie or a beard, these people are very dangerous for the whole of humanity.
VS: In the second part of the book you said you felt you didn’t belong anywhere when you went back to Iran. You’ve lived in France for many years now, so do you still have that feeling of not belonging anywhere?
MS: I belong to nowhere and I belong to everywhere at the same time. It’s a very convenient situation because if you give me a hotel room anywhere in the world, and I have a comfortable room with a bath tub – a shower is not enough – I feel at home completely. But at the same time, no matter what happens, you have a relationship with the place where you were born that you don’t have with any other place. It’s kind of a genetic memory, something like that, it’s there and it can never change. I always say that if I was a man, I would say that Iran is my mother and France is my wife. My mother can be hysterical, she can blackmail me emotionally, whatever, she’s my mother and I cannot pretend otherwise. My wife, on the other hand, I enjoy living with her very much but I can cheat on her, I can leave her, I can have a baby with another woman… (laughs) At the same time, I am very French. For the Iranians, I am very French and for the French I am very Iranian. (laughs)
VS: What did you hope to achieve when you started writing Persepolis?
MS: The only thing I wanted was for people to ask themselves questions. Whenever they talk about it on the radio they just talk about fanatics. But these people that they’re scared of, these people that are reduced to abstract notions, these people that we know nothing about, aren’t they really like us? And if they are, then we have to rethink our whole position. That’s all. As an artist, you have to remain humble as to what changes you can make in the world. Marilyn Manson said something very interesting about turning kids into Satanists, he said that if music could change anything, the whole of the world should be love because 99% of songs are about love. So it can’t change much. But we try.
VS: The medium of the comic book may seem a strange choice for a story that is about very complex political issues, as traditionally it’s not associated with being able to explore those issues in depth. Why did you choose that medium?
MS: I read Maus by Art Spiegelman and I understood that it was a medium like any other. Traditionally, it’s not used in that way because most kids stop drawing at the age of 7 so for 99% of people drawing belongs to childhood. Plus at school you learn very early on to interpret what poets and authors say but you never study what painters and illustrators mean. We don’t know how to judge, we don’t have the tools for it so we are scared of talking about the drawing. For that reason I do understand that people may think that comics are odd but it’s a medium like any other and it has lots and lots of possibilities. Especially since people think that it’s a limited medium, you can just go for it, you can do a lot of different things. And the use of the image, the frame and the sequencing gives you a freedom that I don’t have when I write. When I want to describe a feeling I need a drawing. I don’t need pages and pages and pages.
VS: Visually it’s very cute but at the same time you talk about very dark subject matter and the contrast is very powerful.
MS: It should be. If it all went in the same direction it would become redundant. I used to be a complete psycho and that’s why I decided I had to dress like a bourgeois because if I dressed in a way that reflected how much of a psycho I was I wouldn’t have been able to go anywhere! (laughs)
VS: Was it a conscious decision to draw it in that particular style?
MS: Absolutely. Especially because in a comic the drawings are part of the narration, it’s not just an illustration of the text. I had a lot of text, the story was very complicated so I couldn’t have a very complicated drawing because it would have been too much. I had to purify the style of the drawing as much as possible.
VS: Were you influenced by the work of other graphic novelists when you started drawing?
MS: Not so much because I don’t come from a culture of comics. I started reading comics only after I wrote mine. At the same time, saying that I don’t have any influences would be too pretentious and not true, but they don’t particularly come from comics, they come from Matisse’s paintings, they come from Flaubert, from music, from cinema, from a lot of different things. So of course I’m the result of whatever I have experienced, whatever I have lost, whatever I have seen, but not particularly of comics.
VS: Why did you decide to turn the comic books into a film?
MS: It’s the worst idea in the world. (laughs) I didn’t decide to do it but I was in a situation where I could make a movie. Suddenly we had the right to play with this big toy, a movie, even though we didn’t know how to play with it. And we just said yes without knowing what we’d do. It was like diving into the water with Vincent [Paronnaud, co-director of Persepolis] and once we were in the water, we were like, now we have to learn how to swim. Now I really like the result so I could invent 1200 good reasons for doing it but even though I’m happy I did it, it was not a good idea.
VS: Were there any particular difficulties involved in adapting the comic books to film?
MS: Yes, the most difficult thing was the family scenes. They are absolutely useless but without them you don’t have a movie because it’d just become a patchwork of very hectic moments. You actually need these useless moments to cement the whole story. When the whole family is in the living room and they’re doing nothing, we had to think about how to make it attractive, how to make sure that it wouldn’t become boring, change the angle of the camera to make it more dynamic, things like that.
VS: Visually there is a difference between the comic books and the film and it seems that you were able to use some effects, like charcoal backgrounds and lighting, to give a more sinister atmosphere to the darker scenes.
MS: We kept the characters in black and white, the way they were in the comics. But you cannot make a whole movie simply in black and white because either you make people blind or you provoke an epileptic crisis, it’s unbearable. (laughs) So we had to find a way, we had to change a lot, it was necessary.
VS: It introduces an element of nuance in the black and white.
MS: Absolutely. It’s not possible otherwise, it would be like the Danish dogmatism, and we’re not here to make people pay – not only people have paid for their tickets, but if they have to throw up when the movie is finished this is not the point.
VS: And obviously because it’s two books condensed into one film, and you couldn’t make a five-hour film, you had to…
MS: …but if it was another time and my name was Erich von Stroheim I would have made an 8-hour movie. But nowadays nobody wants to pay for that. And nobody wants to watch it. I’m a very obsessive type of person, I love to watch 8-hour movies.
VS: It must have been very difficult for you to limit what could go into the film and to decide which scenes to get rid of.
MS: You have to go straight to the essential things, you can’t just joke around and take time to say things. You have to be efficient. It’s also extremely exciting to work this way because you have to think about ways of doing this.
VS: One of my favourite scenes in the book is the one where your character goes to visit her childhood friend Kia after the war and he’s in a wheelchair, he’s been horribly injured and he tells her a really tasteless joke; and Marjane doesn’t know whether to laugh or not, but then she realises that you just have to laugh when things are this bad. I thought it was a brilliant scene but in the film it’s truncated.
MS: Yeah, we tried to put it in but it was impossible. The problem in cinema is that you have to stick to one storyline. For example, Gangs of New York is a very bad movie because there’s a love story and there’s a reward story and all the different gangs; it goes in many directions and in the end it doesn’t work because you’re like, what is the story? On the other hand, you have Jean-Jacques Annaud, who made The Name of the Rose. Of course, the book by Umberto Ecco is much more about the philosophy and the whole history of the Church in the Middle-Ages. Annaud was extremely intelligent in that he put that in the background and he made the film as a detective story and the movie works perfectly because it doesn’t go in all directions. So we made the whole movie around the idea of exile, and we didn’t have the possibility to tell all the stories. This way, people will also have to buy the book if they want to read the jokes! (laughs)
VS: Why did you decide to write it in French rather than Persian?
MS: I had to write it in French, because I was writing it for the French. This book was my answer to the world, you know, things are really not the way you think. And you see it in the structure of the book, I give too many explanations, what is this, and what is the New Year, etc. If I had written the book for the Iranians, I wouldn’t need to explain all that because they know it. We talk the way we think. So in order to be able to think about how others would consider my story I had to think in their language, not in mine. So that’s the philosophical side of it. And I have always studied in French school. Writing in French is easier for me, especially as the spoken and written Persian are very different. There are a few Persian writers who know how to deal with that perfectly but I don’t, because I’ve always written in French. And I love the French language too, I’ve always loved it.
VS: Finally, there’s one part of your story that seems completely at odds with what we see of your personality in the rest of the book – it’s the bit where you become an aerobics instructor. What happened?
MS: I was stupid, I don’t know what happened! That is called a historical mistake. (laughs) I don’t understand it either. I have photos, you know. I’m dressed in pink and purple, with a hair band. I’m like, what was I thinking? (laughs) I don’t have any explanation either. I’m very surprised by myself too. (laughs)