Writer, artist and filmmaker Marjane Satrapi grew up in Iran, living through the Shah’s regime, the revolution that overthrew him, and the establishment of the theocratic government that imposed fundamentalist restrictions upon the Iranian people, particularly women.
She drew upon those experiences, her upbringing in a secular, progressive family and her life as a teenager sent to study in Europe for her “Persepolis” series of autobiographical graphic novels. Satrapi’s work sold briskly worldwide, her story of adolescent rebellion against authoritarian bullies striking a universal chord. She co-directed the animated film adaptation of “Persepolis” with her friend Vincent Paronnaud. It won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes and is France’s entry for this year’s best foreign film Oscar.
Vincent Paronnaud, Marjane Satrapi
Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve, Danielle Darrieux, Simon Abkarian, François Jerosme
(Sony Pictures Classics; US theatrical: 25 Dec 2007 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 11 Apr 2008 (General release); 2007)
“It’s not going to be released in Iran, but it’s going to be seen,” Satrapi said with a knowing smile. As she shows in her film, Iron Maiden and Michael Jackson were banned after the revolution, but that didn’t stop street-corner vendors from selling illicit cassettes. The restriction will only make people more eager to see it, she said. Ironically, it’s Americans, who have free access to the film, who might take some persuading to investigate a cartoon whose protagonist isn’t a superhero but a brainy Iranian girl.
“What I would say to American audiences is please give me this chance,” Satrapi said. “Just an hour and a half of your life, just go and see it and I am sure you will learn something.”
She’s hopeful that message will be heard, because America was where “Persepolis” sold the most copies. Following the film’s subtitled arthouse run starring French voice actors including Catherine Deneuve, an English-language version will go into wide release voiced by Sean Penn, Gena Rowlands and Iggy Pop.
Satrapi, 38, confessed that she was as giddy as a schoolgirl to work with the punk superstar. “I’ve had these fantasies about him since I was 14. The first time I saw him I was close to a heart attack,” she said. “He’s extremely cultivated. He knew everything about Iran and all the books I have read, he’s read.”
Finding commonalities in unlikely places is one of the themes of Satrapi’s work, which has been translated into 34 languages.
“My culture comes from everywhere,” said Satrapi, who attended a French grade school in Teheran and is married to a Swede. “I’m sick of this notion of nationality, that if you’re brought up in the same city or same country you’re the same. Even three kids brought up in the same family with the same genes, they are not the same. Just consider a human a human.”
Although she hasn’t visited Iran since 1994 and might never be able to do so, she retains a complicated emotional connection to her birthplace.
“I’ve lived 20 years in Iran and 18 in Europe. I cannot choose between one or the other because of course my heart will say Iran. From France I take whatever fits me the best. The French are really cheap when they invite you to their house because in France we don’t go to people’s houses to eat, we only go there to meet. In my culture it’s not like that, when you go to people’s houses it’s a big party. That’s something I don’t like about the French.
“But the French are individualistic and individualism is the basis of democracy, freedom of thought, and that’s something I love about the French. If I was a man I would say France is my wife and Iran is my mother. My mother, I only have one. She can be crazy, whatever. She’s my mother. I did not choose her but I love her. France is my wife so of course I chose her but I can divorce her, cheat on her, I can make a baby with another woman, you know? The other woman being America because I love America too.”
America influenced her tastes in more profound ways, too. New York cartoonist Art Spiegelman, whose graphic novel “Maus” rendered the plight of German Jews in WWII as a struggle between cats and mice, inspired Satrapi to tell her own story in drawings.
“My thinking about comics was like everybody else’s. It’s for kids or adolescents or dumb adults. When I was 7 and my cousin was 5 we went to a shop and bought an American comic book of `Dracula.’ She said, `Oh, can you read it?’ because I was learning French, and I lied and said yes. So I made everything up. I said, `Look, right here it says if you want to become like Dracula, you have to eat raw chicken.’ So all summer we ate raw chicken and at the end of the season we had worms. That was my relationship with comic books.”
As an adolescent she enrolled in art courses, never drawing without writing or writing without drawing. “For me the two go together” in a storytelling style that tapped into her “very obsessional” taste for frames and clean design.
She used her own life as her subject because “the only way to be universal is to be very personal. If you talk about big things like a nation, it’s very abstract. What is a nation? Tolstoy said if you want to talk about the world, write about your small village. I just concentrate on the human side of it, try to be as honest as possible, and don’t try to make a hero out of myself.”
Indeed, young Marjane keeps her composure as her society falls to ruins but weeps her eyes out over a teenage love affair gone sour. And Satrapi laughs at the audacity of scenes that depict her bedtime conversations with God, in which the little girl usually had the upper hand.
“My mother was the favorite child of her parents,” she shrugged. “My father was the last and favorite child of his parents. Both of them, they married and made me. I was the favorite child of everybody. I was the center of the universe. So my best friend couldn’t be a teddy bear. At least it should have been God.”