As promised to readers of today's CulturePulp comic:
Paris-based filmmaker/illustrator Marjane Satrapi enjoys a richly deserved global following for "Persepolis" -- her sensational comics memoir about growing up during Iran's Islamic "cultural revolution."
The graphic novel used simple, iconic artwork to chart Satrapi's growing cynicism as she lost loved ones to both the Iran-Iraq war and the fundamentalist Muslims who ousted the Shah in 1979 -- and then nearly lost her life after her parents exilied her to Vienna during her very heady adolescence.
Her deeply unstable life between ages 13 and 25 (she's now 38) found her lonely in Vienna; falling in with a bunch of nihilists more interested in hedonism than politics; ending up homeless after falling out with friends and lovers; and returning in shame to Iran -- where she donned a veil, embarked on an art-school education, and jumped into a rocky marriage before taking another stab at freedom.
"Persepolis" was just adapted into a sensational animated feature by Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud. It's a sneaky story, using simple pictures to make complex points. Every time young cartoon-Satrapi embraces faith, martyrdom or revolutionary fervor (which the artist renders in literal terms, up to and including visits from God), a real-life death, hypocrisy or injustice shatters her worldview. Meanwhile, her Marxist parents -- who'd raised their daughter to be willful and opinionated -- put a very human face on dissent in the war-torn region. Both book and movie accomplish the mean feat of hinting at a smorgasboard of opinions and agonies in a country that Western media tends to depict in terms that can be, well, cartoonish.
And yet "Persepolis" never feels anything less than effortless. The art in both book and film is the best kind of simple, with a clear design ethos at work -- balancing the absurd horrors of fundamentalism and war with humorous moments that make it just bearable.
There's a wonderful moment mid-book when the strong-willed Satrapi puts on a veil and prepares to return to Iran. "So much for my individual and social liberties," she laments, staring in the mirror at her black-cloaked self. "I needed so badly to go home." But by the end of her picaresque journey through adolescence, art-school and oppression, you realize this powerful, stubborn woman no longer has a home.
I interviewed Satrapi for 40 minutes last month, around a lone table in a gigantic empty ballroom in a Portland hotel. She was a ferocious presence, leaning forward and smoldering and talking in torrents. She sat down and immediately fired up a Winston in the middle of the empty room, saying, "I have tested the smoke alarms in all the hotels. None of them go off." She used a small water glass on the table as an ashtray, and doodled a picture of a house on a paper pad throughout the interview. An edited transcript of our entire chat follows the jump.
MARJANE SATRAPI: Portlanders are kind of cool, you know? There are other places where they were really mad about smoking -- like all the problems of the world are solved, there are just the smokers. That's the new fashion. People don't mind being in pollution and eating shit and using too much electricity.... Believe me -- in 20 years, you'll see a movie with Robert Mitchum, and they'll take away the cigarette with computers, saying all of that never happened.
Q. We do have bigger problems. I remember going to London and blowing my nose, and there would be soot in the Kleenex.
SATRAPI: Yes. Exactly. And this is individual freedom. If the people that own the bar and the people that go there are okay with it, in the name of what do they want to forbid the smoking? They say, "The kids!" Why would a kid be at a bar at midnight? The bar is a place for smokers! Just give us a place to be grownups.
Q. And you say this is happening in France?
Q. In France? From an American's point of view, uh, smoking is what you DO in France.
SATRAPI: I know.... The whole idea of living like a sick person -- not eating that, not doing this -- to give fresh meat to the worms in the ground. I don't understand this idea. I hope that my meat is rotten when I die and the worms eat me. What's the point, you know?
Q. I love this thing you said on Powell's.com: "The real war is not between the West and the East. The real war is between intelligent and stupid people."
SATRAPI: This is the reality. Nowadays they talk about the Christians and the Muslims as if all the Christians were one person and all the Muslims were one person. If you look at the fanatics around the world, they have the same schema, they say the same things -- the world changes, but the terminology is just the same.
So the real war is really situated there. There is nothing in common, for example, between me and a fanatic of my country. There is nothing in common between a liberal person here and the government of George Bush, yet they are both in the same country. But there are a lot of resemblances between the fanatics of my country and the government here.
You know, we talk about everything but the human being. That's why my book and my film -- whatever I do -- are about putting it on a very personal level, to make the story of an individual. Because individualism is the base of democracy, and if we don't consider people as individuals -- if we don't say that each case is one case -- then we go to hell. That's what is happening in the world, with this enemy that we call "the Muslims" or "the Axis of Evil." To be called an abstract notion is extremely dangerous: "If evil has a name and evil has an address, then let's go kill all of them." That is what happened in 1939 in Europe. Do we want that?
Q. It's interesting -- literally a few days ago, an intelligence report downgraded the Iranian nuclear situation.
SATRAPI: The problem is that they have started a war in Afghanistan that they left -- the Taliban there are ruling the country -- and they made a big fuss in Iraq that was supposed to be finished in one week, and it's not finished five years later. And now they are talking about another attack.
I mean, if the war has solved any problems, show me where, and then I will be pro-war. "Saddam was evil and he is gone." Yeah, he is gone -- but what is the situation now in Iraq? It's worse, not better. And it won't be solved in one year or two years or five years; it's going to take a long, long time. And how many civilians should die?... If they wanted to punish Al-Qaeda, they should have stayed in Afghanistan.... Now it's Iran. This is just complete craziness.
If you make war in Iran, now only will it take the country 100 years back, but all the people who are unhappy with the government there? Once there's an attack from the outside, they will all get behind the government and make it even more powerful in the region. But I don't think they're going to do it.
SATRAPI: You can't afford it. But George Bush will be remembered as the worst president of America. In matters of destruction, he's really number one. I don't think he's going to [invade Iran], but even mentioning this kind of thing is just sad.
Let people do their own thing. One of the things that shows that a society is changing is the situation of the women. Of course, in Iran the situation of the women is far from being great.... But the country is moving, and we have to let it make its own move. And no matter what change comes, it should come from within the country. Do you want someone to come to your country and say, "We don't like George Bush, so we're going to kill your whole family and get rid of George Bush"? If you love your country, you can understand that other people love their countries, too.
But by calling us an "Axis of Evil," we are completely dehumanized. The people who are dying every day are not just the "Axis of Evil" -- they're human beings who have children, who like ice cream, who want to make love, they have hopes and dreams and fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters.
What I hope will happen with the movie is that people will see it and say, "Oh, these are human beings like myself." That is the goal that I have.
I'm not a politician. I don't know how to solve the problems of the world. But as an artist, I have one duty: to ask questions. In today's world, we have very easy, two-word answers to complicated questions. "Let's attack" -- two words. That's it. I try to ask questions, and show that it's a bit more complicated than that.
People never realize there's another point of view; all of us are convinced we have a monopoly on suffering. If we know other people are suffering just as much as us, it can be the beginning of something.
Q. One thing I love about the book and the movie is that neither the right nor the left can get a clear bead on it. In America, the political grammar of our discussions has really devolved into "us versus them." The opposite side is not just wrong, but evil.
SATRAPI: This is it. Because I don't like politics and I don't like politicians. What I'm doing is a human book, a humanistic movie. I'm not saying, "This is the bad side and this is the good side." In the movie, the person who does one of the worst things is this girl who gives this poor guy who's sitting on the stairs to the Guardians of the Revolution. And this girl was me. I was nasty, too. Everybody is nasty once in a while. I'm trying to describe a situation to try and make people understand that it's not as easy as they think.
A world where people want quick answers to everything doesn't work; it gets worse and worse every day. If it doesn't work, why insist on the simulation? Why not try to find another way? But then how can you sell your weapons and make money and all of that?
It's a sad, sad situation. You have an undemocratic government; all of that is true. But if you have to go and attack all of the countries that are undemocratic, you have to attack 80 percent of the countries in the world -- starting with China, which is one of the most undemocratic countries that exists. Why don't you go and attack China? Why don't you go and attack Saudi Arabia? There are so many other places.
This is not the way it works. I don't know which way it works. I know one thing: Instruction and culture help. For example: I was brought up on the idea that America was the worst place in the world, and that American people were the most evil people in the world. That was the way I was brought up, of course. So I came to America expecting to find reasons to hate American people even more -- only to get a slap in my face, because it was absolutely not the way I thought. They were very nice and generous and gentle.... Me, the "Axis of Evil" -- this was before I had my French passport -- I was one who was defending America in France. I had the possibility to go and travel and see, because I speak another language and I'm educated.
SATRAPI: Six. The second I have a friend in one country, that country cannot be my enemy any more. So: Culture and instruction are really weapons of mass construction.
I'm putting human beings in the center of interest. One time in history, in the 18th century, human beings were at the center of interest -- that was humanism, the Century of Lights. All this literature and art came out of this century. Now we're back in the Middle Ages, and we probably need a Renaissance. We need another Century of Light. It's extremely sad to me that we can travel and we have Web sites and all that, but it seems to me that we're going backward instead of forward.
Q. Well, I think people thought the Internet would be this mass democratization tool -- but it really just allows people to isolate themselves, so they're only looking at the messages they want to look at and talking to people who think exactly like they do.
SATRAPI: Absolutely. Absolutely. On the Internet, any asshole can write anything, no matter what, and people can read it and think that they know. Human beings are very strange: We are never very convinced about the things that we know, but they are much more convinced about things we know nothing about.
The movie, unfortunately, arrives at a very good time, because people watch this movie and say, "Oh, I didn't know Iran was this way. These are human beings." That's all that I ask. I don't have the pretension to change the world. I just want them to ask this very basic question: "Is that a human being or is that an animal?" So far, we have been animals -- because the value of the life of one of us is not the value of the life of one of you. When on Iraqi dies, no one cares. When one American dies, it's a big fuss. You know that.
Q. Much like "Maus," which I know was influential for you, you've used comics to present an unusually nuanced portrait of a situation that's usually reduced to good-versus-evil grammar. Why are comics -- and animation -- surprisingly well-suited to that task?
SATRAPI: Well, since I'm here for the movie, I'll basically talk about the movie.... If we had done this movie in live-action, as soon as you put a live human being in a geographical place, you see a Middle Easterner, a fanatic. But what's nice about using animation is that there's something abstract with a drawing.... Before writing and talking, human beings drew. They drew in caves to overcome their fear of animals. You show a drawn picture, for example, of somebody laughing, there is no culture in the world where people would say, "Oh, he's sad."
So the abstraction helps us; we wanted to make something that was a universal story. You are a human being. Suddenly, there are changes around you, and suddenly you're suppressed and pushed down as an individual. How do you grow up? How do you make your life? These are common subjects.
Q. I saw Art Spiegelman speak in Eugene a couple of years ago, and he said that comics work how the human mind works -- remembering things as simple images and quick bursts of information.
SATRAPI: Yes, exactly. So that helps a lot. Also, in the movie, we had very different narratives -- the puppet [history] scenes, the war scenes, the God scenes, and everyday life. In a live-action feature, that could have become extremely vulgar, going from one to the other. Animation -- especially in black and white -- helps. You can go from one narrative to the other, and it's obvious. That was the only way we could do it.
Q. The first part of "Persepolis" is about the larger situation in Iran and the second part is very clearly about your personal awakening as an adult. That worked great for two different books; did it present any problems when combining them into a single film script?
SATRAPI: Yes, it is tricky, because you have 16 years of life and you want to make a one-and-a-half-hour movie. You could have five movies in one, which is a disaster. So you have to choose an action and a direction.
At the time we wrote the script, I was in a very nostalgic time of my life, so that's why the whole movie is a flashback from the airport, with a woman who has no return ticket. The whole structure is very nostalgic to start with. And the turning point became the exile.
It's tricky because you can't put everything in. But if you put everything in, you destroy your movie.
Q. I make non-fiction comics myself, and I've learned that the distillation process is the hardest part. Because nobody talks in tidy speech balloons, but when you make that conversion, you have to be true to what was actually said.
SATRAPI: Yes, exactly.
Q. It's brutal.
SATRAPI: Yes, it is. But that's the only way of doing it, of course.
Q. And you had to distill your comic even further into a movie.
SATRAPI: Yes, but since I already did it once for the book, it was easier to make decisions. When I make a movie, my goal is to serve the movie -- the movie is not here to serve me. So whatever I do is to make a good movie, no matter what my feelings are. If you make five movies in one, as I said, there's no movie at the end. That's the work I had to do, whether I wanted to or not.
Q. And you have to choose how to portray it. I noticed that this panel in the comic is shown from the exact opposite angle in the movie -- and the way you showed it in the movie was the more cinematic way to do it.
SATRAPI: Yes. Absolutely. It's really two different media. When you read a comic, you are an active reader, because you have to make the movement between the two frames -- you have to imagine it. But in the cinema, you're very passive, because for one-and-a-half hours you're sitting in a theater. So I cannot count on the viewer of the movie to make the movement -- I have to make it myself. Then I have other tools: I have the music and the dialogue and the movement that give me other possibilities. Comics give me other possibilities, but they're two different things.
Q. Turning the frieze-like artwork in the comic [covering the history of Iran] into puppet theater [in the movie] was genius. I loved that.
SATRAPI: This is not a historical film; this is not a primer on the history of Iran. This is really a coming-of-age story. This is the story of a human being. This is the story of the love of a family. This is a story against war and against violence -- all of that. So whatever was historical, we made into puppet theater, as a way of saying, "Hey -- we're not making a historical, political or sociological statement. Because we are not politicians. We are not historians. We are not sociologists. We are artists."
Q. One thing I really took away from "Persepolis" -- the book even more than the movie -- was that you felt like a person out of place: You're disgusted by the restrictions of the fundamentalist regime AND the excesses of shallow Westernism.
SATRAPI: I have never liked the consensus. Since I was a child, I have always said, "If the majority of people are right, we should live in a good world. But we're living in a shit world. The majority of people are not right. That means the consensus is not right." If what was normal was good, then we should live in Paradise!
So I have always been marginal, no matter where. I really believe in personal thinking, in freedom of thinking, individualism -- it's the basis of a democracy and freedom. From the moment you harm somebody, I don't know why I should endure it.
Many years ago, I read somewhere that a person was stopped for being naked in the street, and I was like, "What harm do you do to somebody if you're naked? It is just a body. That is the way that you are created. What is so bad about a naked body, and why should he go to jail because of that? What is the bad thing you do if you show yourself naked?" They put people who are naked in jail, and 500,000 people are killed in 20 minutes, and the killers are heroes and there are articles about it. They should put these guys in jail, because they are teaching violence to the kids; they make killing something normal.
Q. I watched several documentaries about Afghanistan recently -- and it struck me that the women were much tougher in a quieter way than the men. They all had this little laugh they'd give as they talked calmly about the horrible oppression they'd endured. Do you see a similar toughness in Iranian women?
SATRAPI: The situation in Iran is kind of different. The women never wore the burka; studying was never forbidden for women -- as I told you, 70 percent of students are girls. This is not really the same situation.
At the same time, yes -- the laws are against the women, and this kind of situation exists.... These women who are oppressed, they try to do the best they can. And they do. You know, in Iran, we have doctors that are women, we have engineers that are women, we have lawyers that are women, we have bus drivers that are women....
I don't know. That kind of bimbo who only thinks having a flat belly and a nice ass is the way to succeed in life is another kind of oppressed woman, too. No brain, no pain.... In my country, a woman with a brain also has to have a nice figure. Reducing a woman to a size 2 and nice boobs and a nice ass and nice lips full of collagen -- that is making women into objects, also. Is that really cool? We don't have the right to become old any more?
I'm not comparing, of course. Here [in America], you don't have to do these things, and in my country you have to wear the veil. But it's a problem all over the world: Some are covered, some are naked, but none are considered human beings.
I always liked the story: They told Adam not to eat the apple, and the first thing Eve did was eat the apple. So this is Eve's fault. I mean, did Adam have a brain or not? He could say, "I won't eat the apple," but it's Eve's fault. And human civilization is based on that. It's our fault. We are paying for something.
And that is not a question of East and West. In France, until 1963, women did not have the right to have a bank account on their own.
Q. I did not know that.
SATRAPI: Fewer than 70 years ago, they didn't have the right to vote. And don't forget what happened here. In the 19th century, they were tightening women's corsets until they were fainting, and they said it was because women were "sensitive." In the Middle Ages, old women were making medicine that worked better than the prayers of the priests -- and they were burned in public places for being witches....
If anything can change that, it's culture and instruction and knowledge. As I said, these are the weapons of mass construction. Culture doesn't solve all problems -- of course not -- but it helps us to be less stupid. And as you know, it's always better to be less stupid than more stupid.
Q. Sure. In Orwell's "1984," the government simplifies human speech and grammar so people can't express complicated critical thoughts.
SATRAPI: And we are in "1984" -- with TV selling us bullshit and brainwashing us. You have to be very naïve not to notice that. And we are in "Animal Farm," and the pigs have taken power.
Q. You've said that setting out to make a "masterpiece" is a recipe for disaster. But your mission on "Persepolis" was so vast and instructive -- how did you stay in a non-"masterpiece" frame of mind during the production of the book and the movie?
SATRAPI: You know, I just do things the way I think I have to do them, and I'm a professional. So this is a matter of: Either I don't do something or I do it the way I want. I've never made any compromise about anything that I have done in my life -- I've never done something to please somebody.
At the beginning, there was an issue with the smoking in animation. I said, "I'm a smoker, for Christ's sake! This is it! I'm not going to lie to people! This is the way it is!" This conservative culture.... My work is obviously what it is.
In the movies you've seen in the last year, in not one movie in which a woman gets pregnant is abortion a solution. Why? Because they're in a conservative culture that condemns abortion. People fought to have this right, but you don't see one movie in which it's a solution -- where a woman does that and it's okay. They say it's an open-minded movie, but in reality, what are they showing to the kids? I mean, abortion is a fucking right, we have fought for that, and me, as a woman, I have the right. If I don't want this kid, then I don't want this kid, and I'm not killing a human being, because at two months they are just a piece of blood, and that is my right.
SATRAPI: Yes! And in all of them, they have to keep the baby! What you show to people is that abortion is a bad thing. It's a choice. It's a solution.
Q. One thing about the --
SATRAPI: Already, when you want a kid and you're grown up and you have some salary, half the time you fuck up the life of the kid. Imagine if you're an adolescent and you don't want this kid. Not only do you fuck up the life of this kid, but you fuck up yourself, too. This is an alternative.
I cannot take it: For me, being anti-abortion is being anti-woman. It's being anti- the pleasure of the women. It's being anti-life. Because, for me, it is a right.
People always counter with the point, "But this is nature -- blah blah blah." Tell me: What is natural about a human being?
Q. Dying at 20? [laughs]
SATRAPI: And only big, powerful men can reproduce. During springtime. And all the kids that are not born fighting should die.... We have to have personal thinking. Next time I will make a movie where a woman has an abortion, and that's fine.
It's too bad. I always think: How, today, could you make a movie like "Chinatown" -- a movie where a woman has a child through incest with her father. Today, incest doesn't exist in movies -- all of us are clean and living in a nice, nice world.
Q. One thing about "Persepolis" the movie is that, to Western eyes, it feels unprecedented. There are no songs or cute animals or chase scenes, and much of it is black-and-white. Did you have any films you looked to when you made the film -- anything live or animated that inspired you?
SATRAPI: No. I just made this movie, and it happened to be animated. For me, animation is just a technique. So are comic books.
Q. It's a medium -- not a genre.
SATRAPI: Exactly -- comics are just a medium, not a genre. If you take it this way, you can tell any story in animation.
Eran Kolirin, who made "The Band's Visit," is a friend of mine. I love his movie -- it's going to be released this year here, too. He told me, "You are so lucky to have an animated movie, because it's like having a remote control on the actors where you can do exactly what you want." It gives you other possibilities.
I remember people asking me, "Why did you make a comic book? Why didn't you make a book?" I said, "I made a book -- a book is an object with a cover that you read. And here, the writing is made by the drawings. But it is a book."
Q. And it is reading.
SATRAPI: Yes! You are reading a book! So you are watching a movie, and it happens to be animated. For me, the medium is the medium and the genre is the genre. You wouldn't say, "This is a color movie" as if it were a genre.
SATRAPI: Absolutely. It takes a long, long, long time.
Q. What's the difference between the filmmaking community and the cartooning community?
SATRAPI: I don't know: I always work with my friends. Well, in the filmmaking scene, you have more money -- it's more glamorous.
The way I've worked has always been the same. I come from underground comics. We made the movie as if I was making another underground comic: We made a studio, and months later, it looked like a gypsy camp. We didn't have hours; whether they came in at midnight or 5 a.m. was none of my business.
Q. Portland is a terrific comics town.
SATRAPI: I know.
Q. Do you have any friends here?
SATRAPI: Joe Sacco.
Q. You'll be back in Portland in April [on April 7, as part of the 2008 Portland Arts & Lectures series]. What will you be talking about?
SATRAPI: I don't know yet. I never know before I go onstage what I'm going to say. I always just make it up as soon as I'm there.... I'm very bad when I do that.
SATRAPI: Oh, no. No, no. I listen to many different kinds of music. Well, once in a while it happens. But it's the nostalgia of the time -- when you're an adolescent, you don't have good taste in anything.
Q. Although it is interesting that you chose Iron Maiden, because Iron Maiden is a heavy metal band known to embrace poetry -- they did a whole song about "Rime of the Ancient Mariner."
SATRAPI: Exactly. You're right. You're completely right.
Q. The "Persepolis" projects force you to live with bad memories for years at a time. What's the effect of that?
SATRAPI: You know, I deal with that. I wasn't going through psychotherapy by writing the book -- I wasn't wanting to get rid of something. I deal with my life. These are bad memories, yes ... but I don't give myself the right to complain, actually. I had the life that I wanted.... I lived with who I wanted in the city I wanted. If I complain, what should 95 percent of the people in the world do?
There's a question of distance, also. I've had a very good life.
Q. That's a big message in the book, I think: If you want success, you must take it. You must go and educate yourself.
SATRAPI: You must educate yourself. You won't always get it. Most of the time, when you try, you won't get it. But you must try. Life is about trying. So is the movie. I was never scared to direct a movie, because I said to myself, "In the worst case, I will make a very bad movie -- so what? I'm still alive. I can do other things. And for three years, I have learned something that I would never learn otherwise." From the second I learn, I'm winning, and I can never say I lost my time.
Q. You've said that you're planning to chart Iranian history in comics even further backward -- "Persepolis" is the '70s through the '90s, "Chicken with Plums" is the '50s through the '70s. Is that still your plan?
SATRAPI: Yes. I want to do that, I want to make another movie.... There are many things I want to do. But I've been doing promotion for "Persepolis" for such a long time; I'm just waiting for that to be finished. Then I'll take a vacation, smoke some cigarettes, take my time, and think about what I want to do. Because right now I feel as if I'm empty, and to tell a story, you have to be full. I need time to fill myself, and then I will be able to tell beautiful stories again.
Q. In the very near future, you'll have lived out of Iran as long as you lived in Iran. What do you consider home these days? Do you consider yourself a Parisian?
SATRAPI: It's everywhere and it's nowhere, you know? Once you leave your country, actually, you can leave anywhere. At the same time, you know, I've lived in Paris now for 14 years, so of course I'm Parisian -- I have all my friends there. Wherever I have friends, this is my city. In New York, I feel very welcome, because I have lots of friends there. Wherever there are people that I like, this is a city where I feel good.
But anywhere I go in the world -- I have a hotel room, a nice bath, a small suitcase -- this is it. I feel good. There's nowhere I feel a stranger, actually, and everywhere I feel a stranger at the same time. This is not such a bad feeling.