Marjane Satrapi experienced more by the time she was an early teen than most do in their whole lives. Born into a progressive middle-class family in Iran, when Marjane was nine the Islamic Revolution happened. Then a few years after that, war broke out between Iran and Iraq. Because she was an imaginative and outspoken child, at a time when being imaginative and outspoken could get you thrown in jail, her parents sent her to Vienna (exiled, as she refers to it) to complete her schooling.
Marjane went on to document her experiences with Persepolis, a wildly successful graphic novel. Named after the ceremonial capital of the Persian Empire, the title is a nod to her country’s proud roots. In the prologue, Marjane writes “this old and great civilization has been discussed mostly in connection with fundamentalism, fanaticism and terrorism.” Aside from entertaining the reader, Persepolis sets out to change this perception without ignoring the problems Iran faces. The film adaptation of Persepolis, which opened in mid-January, put smiles on critics’ faces at major festivals around the globe. If 300 left a bad taste in your mouth, the touching humanist story in Persepolis is the cinematic Listerine you need. I had the opportunity to talk to Marjane before the Canadian release of her film and almost every answer she gave was punctuated by laughter, hers and mine, as she enlightened me about the difficulty of adapting your work for the screen, Marxism, Kung-Fu movies and how to make your breasts look amazing without resorting to implants.
The first thing I wanted to ask you about your film is the animation. It’s cinematic, but remains true to the source material. How important was this for you?
We tried to do a movie but it happened as an animation. Animation as we talk about it today is not a question of genre but it is a question of media. For us, animation is a media. We chose to make an animation and not a live action because it was much more convenient for us because we wanted to have a universal story. If it was [live action] it would become a story of people that are far from us and that we cannot understand what they do. There’s something abstract about a drawing that anybody can relate to.
What did you find most difficult about adapting your work for the screen?
The most difficult thing is I had to think about a story for four years in one way and then you have to forget about this one way and then think about it in a completely other way. Comics and cinema, it’s really two different languages. In the books, I had more time. I could write about 16 years of life, no problem. When you have a movie and you want to make 16 years of life, you cannot put everything in because then at the end you can find yourself with a slow movie, which is a complete disaster. We had to find an answer. At the time we wrote the script I was at a very nostalgic point of my life and I hadn’t gone back to Iran in three years… This whole structure was based on a flashback; this woman who is in the airport and doesn’t have a ticket to go back, she sits there and remembers. Then the turning point became the exile. Everything leads to this exile and this exile justifies whatever happens next. So restructuring the whole thing was really not easy.
What was the toughest thing to leave out?
Lots of things. For example, this boy Kia, who is a friend of mine and then after the war he loses one hand and one leg. And he tells this silly joke. This joke, I just wanted to have it because it shows that even when the disaster is too big either you have to laugh about it or you die… The problem is that we never talked about Kia. If we had him coming in, he would just disappear again. He needs a little bit more attention. That means we’d have to add another story. Things like that I was very very attached to. At the same time, either you have this character in the movie and you give them enough space. If it’s just a fun thing, or to express an idea, you cannot just get people in and out. Then it doesn’t mean anything anymore. Things like that you have to get rid of. It’s not always easy but you know, I’m here to serve the movie. The movie is not here to serve me.
Can I ask why you played down your attempted suicide in the movie?
In the movie it said it was a suicide. The way she was in the hand of God and said “I am dead.” The problem was [with the comic] you see the pills she’s taking and the bottle and it’s much more evident. The thing was we made this scene, which was much longer and really described the suicide. The problem was just before this we had the scene in Vienna when she was homeless which goes on for three and a half minutes. It’s a long and extremely sad scene. Then after five minutes we had a long scene of suicide and it would be too long and very sad things, one after the other. It destroyed the rhythm of the movie and we had to choose between one or the other. I’m too much for showing off this kind of stuff. In other movies with this kind of stuff it’s too much and I have to cry. It pisses me off. I would not do this in my own movie.
Given the current political climate in the States, have you experienced any negativity about your film?
Not at all. Really not at all. You always have a couple of people that don’t like it. But it doesn’t matter because I don’t like them either.
When you were young and in Iran and all this bad stuff was going on around, were you able to process it at the time or did it sink in later?
I was knowing what was happening because I was surrounded by people who were not idiots. I was surrounded by people who were knowing what was happening. I find myself [less] afraid to be born in the place I was born than, for example, if I was born in a Mormon family in Salt Lake City I think it would have been much more hell. If my parents were stupid I would have disliked it much more. I think I was kind of lucky really. Imagine if my father had been a newborn Christian? I probably would have killed myself.
So you lived through the Islamic Revolution and war with Iraq. But one of the most difficult experiences of your life was falling in love with an asshole in Vienna.
It doesn’t depend so much on the place. People, they have this fantasy that if you are from Iran then of course you’re retarded or you’re living in the 19th century. It’s just a question of human beings. Retarded people, you have them everywhere in the world. They can be in Canada, they can be in America, they can be anywhere. Open minded and cultivated and articulate people, you have them everywhere also. That is what the movie is about… it’s a very humanistic point of view. The fact that I came from a place, of course I had to go through all these things, but I always had the freedom of thinking. That really helps you in your life.
A lot of the humour in Persepolis comes from exposing the absurdities of eastern and western culture. Talking with you as well, it’s obvious you enjoy a good laugh.
For me, humour is a matter of intelligence. People who don’t have any humour are just stupid to me. When you laugh with somebody, it’s really to understand the spirit of the other one. It’s not like “Michael, me hungry,” and then you give me a sandwich. If we laugh together it is that we are talking about some abstract concept. That means that you are touching my soul and I am touching your soul. For me, laughing with someone is the height of understanding the other one. We always cry for the same reason. It’s such a shame to show a mother holding her baby dying in her arm and everybody cries. It’s not as easy to make everybody laugh. You have to understand the spirit of people.
Do you think you’ve lived an exceptional life or is it just you’ve lived through exceptional events?
It happened that I was born in a certain place and a certain time. It is exceptional because when I was nine years old I just discovered myself that suddenly a revolution happened. Then I was 10 and war happened. Then I had to go into exile without my parents. At the same time I’m a very normal person. I’m from a middle class family. I’m not the princess of Russia. I think I’m kind of lucky after all because I ended up doing what I wanted. I come from a family that, thank God, they had enough money to send me abroad and they were open-minded enough to let me live my life.
Why do God and Karl Marx look so similar in your movie?
I don’t know. Ask them. Maybe they go to the same hair-cutter.
Well is Marxism still something that’s important to you?
Dialectical materialism and the importance of the economy are things that you can see every day in the current world. There are lots of things that he said that are not bullshit, you know? Once in a while people tell me “You’re from the extreme left.” I don’t know what is extreme left but I think if you want people not to be angry… there is something that can save the world that is like a weapon of mass construction, it’s cultural instruction. To be able to give cultural instruction to people they have to have somewhere to live and they have to be able to eat. I think we have to give a minimum of life to people. If that is called being a Marxist, well I’m a Marxist then. I think that healthcare should be free for everybody and I think that education should be free for everybody. These are the kind of things that I do believe in.
I don’t know if that’s being a Marxist. It sounds more like being a good human being.
Are you still watching Kung-Fu movies?
Oh yes I like that a lot.
What Kung-Fu movies are you watching these days?
I still watch them, I don’t know if there are five or six of them but all of the movies of Bruce Lee. I’ve got all of them. I watch them when I’m all alone. The problem is when I watch these movies I get overexcited afterwards and if someone is close to me I might kick them. I’m like “Let’s fight, let’s fight.” When I’m all alone by myself at night it’s better.
Yeah, you can shadow box.
Yeah, it gives me a big heartbeat and all of that. I’m like 38 years old and I should say these things. I do it anyways.
What are you more likely to listen to these days: The Bee Gees or Iron Maiden?
Iron Maiden. When I was 12 I thought they were very fun. I have very bad taste. I really really do. I listen to music. I hate RnB. I want to kill myself when I hear RnB.
No R. Kelly for you then?
AH! It just drives me mad. I just feel like hanging myself when I hear these people singing. On my iPod I have all of the music of Iggy Pop. This morning in the Four Seasons Hotel in the middle of Beverly Hills I had a rock concert in my room.
Finally, you had an amazing grandmother. She recommended dipping your breasts in ice-cold water twice a day for 10 minutes to keep them looking great.
It works? So this is something you endorse?
It works. I tell you it works.
Do you do it?
Not everyday but when I can I do it. It’s better than having fake boobs.
published february 2008 in ion magazine