Indie Flashback: Marjane Satrapi on “Persepolis”

Persepolis (2007, France) Directed by Vincent Paronnaud, Marjane Satrapi. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

The following interview with author/filmmaker Marjane Satrapi was originally published in the February 11th, 2008 issue of my college paper, The Columbia Chronicle. I was deeply moved by her words, and when she noticed tears forming in my eyes at the end of our conversation, she leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. It was truly one of the most extraordinary encounters I’ve ever had with an artist. 

When Marjane Satrapi enters a room, it looks as if she has just walked off the pages of a comic book. Her wildly energetic hand gestures and exuberant voice illustrate her fiery passion better than any artist could. It’s only natural that Satrapi has turned her life into literature, the acclaimed graphic novels “Persepolis” and “Persepolis 2.” Together, they span 16 years of Satrapi’s life as her childhood in Iran is interrupted by the Islamic Revolution. As she grew older, she discovered punk rock and heroically stood up against the fundamentalist repression overtaking her country. Eventually, at age 14, Satrapi was exiled and forced to leave her family, and her past, behind. 

Her story has now been made into a film, “Persepolis,” directed by Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud. It won the Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and has now received an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature. Satrapi recently spoke with The Chronicle about the experience of turning memories into art, and how her film is a reaction against repression across the world. 

How were you able to so vividly recall 16 years of your life? 

I have a very good memory. But there is also something else. I have been exiled from the age of 14. When you are an exiled person, it is extremely difficult to think about the future. If you look at the literature of most of the exiled people, they always talk about the past. Because in order to project yourself to the future, you always need your past to lean on, and on that you can make a jump forward. Plus, I didn’t have my parents by my side. I always had to remember where I came from in order to not lose myself. 

What was it like having an army of filmmakers working to tell your life story?

It was very difficult because I am a solitary person, and I love to work with myself. I love to be all alone, left in peace to do whatever I want. On the film, you have to take care of 100 people who want to draw like you, and they want to draw you. At the beginning I hated all of them. For the first few months of seeing them I was like, “God, kill them all!” Then I got used to them, and then finally I enjoyed them a lot because, as people, they embraced the project. It was like 100 people at the same time had the same goal. People would come up with incredible ideas, and my goal was to make a good movie, so if they came with a good idea, we took it. 

How have audiences in other oppressed parts of the world reacted to your film?

Lots of people in America say they can make so many parallels between this story and what’s happening today in this country, the way that the freedoms are taken one after the other. The basis of fundamentalism is, “If you are not with me, then you are against me,” which is the silliest thing to say. We can just think differently without being enemies. 

I lived in a home where my family was very open-minded, and the repression came from outside. I saw a guy from Arkansas here. He was living in this Christian family where he didn’t have the right to listen to rock music when he was a child. So the country is democratic, but you live the repression from within your family. You live the repression by watching Fox News. 

President Bush did memorably say, “If you are not with us, then you’re with the terrorists.” 

Not only did he say that, but your president also used the same terminology as a fanatic of my country. You know, they say, ‘read the Koran,’ he says, ‘read the Bible.’ They’re God’s best friend, he’s God’s best friend. They’re fighting against the great Satan, he’s fighting against the Axis of Evil. It’s the same terminology. But coming from the President of the biggest secular democracy in the world is extremely scary. America is a great country with extremely warmhearted people. I love America. I hate George W. Bush. 

Ever thought of going into politics?

Never! What I make is so anti-political. Politics is about bringing an easy answer to a very complicated question. I don’t have any answer to give. But what I can do is try to take a step back and show that things are complex. The complexity makes us think. And this is an anti-fanatic work, because fanaticism presses on the button of emotion. From the moment that you press on the emotion of people, you can have them out shouting, “Burn!” That’s where education and culture matters. They certainly do not solve all the problems of the world, but it helps us be less stupid. 

The characters of God and Marx seem to parallel each other in “Persepolis.”

Absolutely. This whole idea of Marxism, of not believing in anything, is the same as believing in something. You just look at the Roman Empire. Until it was polytheistic, the Roman Empire was extremely powerful. The second they became Christian, that was the beginning of the end, because when they conquered other countries, they wanted to change the mind of people. The Muslim Empire was vast. From the second they lost in the war, then they started being fanatics with people. This lack of tolerance destroys you.

What role did your grandmother play in your life? 

My grandmother never believed in morality. She always told me that morality gives you lots of duty, but never gives you any right. Plus, morality is something relative. Lying is not good. But lying to save the life of friends, is it still bad? She believed in ethics, which allow you to decide what is good for you, and not care so much about what people say. If the majority of what people say is right was right, then we should live in paradise. We are living in a bullshit world. That means that the majority of people aren’t right, so fuck this majority. That is where the free-thinking starts. 

Do you strive to make your art accessible to a worldwide audience? 

I don’t have any condescension toward the popular art. I don’t like elitist art. For me,I never wanted to make something that only a group of people would understand. If you have the references and you have the culture, you will have another level of understanding. For me, that is what I wanted to do.  

Something I have always fought against is cynicism. It’s the most natural thing in the world for anyone with a little bit of brain to become cynical. Life is so much a question of disillusion. I’m supposed to be cynical, so no—fuck it. I’m not going to be cynical. Despite everything, I want to believe in the human being because the human being is capable of the worst, but human beings are also capable of the most beautiful things. Until my last whisper, I will keep the stars in my eyes.

“Persepolis” is available for purchase and streaming on Amazon Prime and various other platforms.

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