Interview: Marjane Satrapi
An acclaimed Iranian graphic artist and filmmaker tells FP why Iran is changing -- and how her stories have become a window into revolutionary Iran.
One of the most gripping accounts of the Iranian Revolution doesn’t come from a historian or a songwriter or even a photographer. It comes from a series of graphic novels, Persepolis and Persepolis 2, written by Marjane Satrapi, an artist now living in France who grew up during those turbulent times. Her childhood, sketched out in black and white, has become a window into the changes transforming Iranian society after the fall of the shah in 1979. In 2007, she helped turn the book into an animated film, which was nominated for an Academy Award and screened throughout the world — except in Iran, where only illicit DVDs got through.
Now, Satrapi is gearing up for another project — a live-action film called Poulet aux Prunes (Chicken with Plums), based on another of her graphic novels by the same title. In an interview with Golnaz Esfandiari (who attended grade school with the artist), she speaks about her upcoming work, her connection to Iran, and the way forward for her country.
Foreign Policy: You will soon head to Berlin to start shooting your new movie, Poulet aux Prunes. What motivated you to undertake this project, and how do you envision it?
Marjane Satrapi: Vincent Paronnaud [co-writer of the Persepolis film] and I wanted to do a live-action movie to, in a way, express our love for movies. Waiting for Azrael is going to be a love song for all the forms of cinema we’ve always cherished — the cinema of the 1930s, expressionist cinema, and also the American movies of the 1950s, especially Technicolor movies.
I love the world of dreams and imagination, and I want to create this movie based on my imagination. I can’t go back [to Tehran because I might get arrested], so filming in a studio gives me the liberty to do things according to my imagination. The film takes place in the 1950s, and we will be using mechanical techniques as much as possible rather than digital techniques. That’s why it’s been said that this is going to be made in the tradition of the so-called "old cinema." But the way the story is narrated and filmed, the rhythm, etc. is going to be modern. We will start shooting in less than three weeks, and if everything goes well, we hope it will be released next year.
FP: The movie will be based on your graphic novel Poulet aux Prunes, which is about your great uncle Nasser Ali Khan, a well-known musician who dies of a broken heart after his musical instrument, his tar (a type of lute), is broken. To what extent does the film remain faithful to the book? And how truthful is the story?
MS: I was told that my mother’s uncle was a great musician and that he was loved for his music. When he would play music in the street, people would become silent and listen. They would sit and watch and cry sometimes because of the way he played his tar. I saw a picture of him, and he was very handsome. I was told that he died for unknown reasons. From this point, I embroidered a story. In my film, there are some facts and true stories from the lives of different people I’ve met. I put them together and weave them, but I also make up a lot of things. So there is a lot of truth in it, and a major part is based on my imagination.
FP: There is one Iranian actress, Golshifteh Farahani, in the film, and the others are mostly French. How did you choose them?
MS: I live in France, I write in French, I live among French people, and it’s normal that when I make a movie, I make it in French and I choose actors that I really like. There are French actors in the movie but with different backgrounds — Portuguese, Italian, and Armenian. I love the idea of making an international film in French.
FP: Your animated film Persepolis was banned in Iran, and the government protested against it. It is highly unlikely that your new film will be screened in public theaters in Iran. Do you think Iranians inside the country will get to see it anyway?
MS: The film will definitely not get a screening permit inside the country, like the many other films that are banned. I guess officials would say it’s because women are not wearing the hijab in the movie and because they fall in love. It is too Western and it is un-Islamic and maybe anti-revolutionary.
But Iranians will find a way to watch it as they do with all the other movies that are banned. The DVD of Persepolis in French was released on December 27, 2007. Two days later, a friend of mine called me from Tehran and said, "I watched your film on DVD with Farsi subtitles!" It took them less than two days to get the DVD to Iran and prepare the Farsi subtitles and sell it on the market.
FP: How did you experience the past year — the disputed presidential vote and the street protests and violence that followed?
MS: I, like millions of other Iranians, was hoping for a positive change. All the news and images that were coming out of Iran from the days before the vote showed young people with their green shirts and bracelets and other green symbols being happy in the streets. There was hope, lots of enthusiasm and excitement, and it almost gave the impression that the election would be free and fair. It felt like something good was going to happen, but unfortunately it didn’t. There was vote-rigging and on top of that, people were killed and many were jailed.
At first, I was happy because I thought there would be a change, and even now I still believe something changed. When I was the age of the young people who took to the streets in Iran, we wouldn’t talk about politics. We wouldn’t dare criticize the system because we felt it was too dangerous. We knew about the executions of political prisoners, and we grew up hearing about young people being hanged and jailed. The biggest change that has taken place in Iran since last year is that the notion of fear — which I grew up with — has completely disappeared. [The Islamic Republic has] ruled the country for 30 years because, although many people are not happy, they were afraid to protest. All of a sudden, we saw a significant number of people in the streets protesting, chanting slogans, demonstrating, chanting "Allahu Akbar" at night on their rooftops. They had the courage to do that despite the use of force by authorities.
Irreversible changes have occurred in Iran, and many of them are the result of the work of women. For example, I’ve learned that in a small village in Iran called Abhar, all women were dressed very conservatively. They wouldn’t leave their houses without the chador. Things changed after a university opened there. A few young women from Tehran went there to study, and under their influence, the women of the village started to change. The first change came in their appearance — they started going out with only a scarf and [long coats] like women do in big cities — and they also started becoming more aware of their rights.
There are cultural changes taking place. If you look at the older generation, there is a very big difference between the people who grew up in big cities and those from villages. But in the young generation, these differences have shrunk. The Internet has played a role because now even villagers get online.
I think there will be democracy in Iran one day — a democracy created by the people of Iran and a democracy that will belong to the Iranians. [But] we have to remain realistic. I also witnessed some political games outside the country by people who wanted to exploit the crisis inside the country for their own benefit and interest. There was also pressure on me to become involved, but politics is really not my thing. If there is anything I can do, it can only be through my artistic work. Politicians are too often attracted by power, and the ones who are attracted by power are exactly the ones who should never be given power.
I did Persepolis not as a political act, but because I had enough of all the nonsense that was being said about my country, and I thought I would tell my story as a part of the truth about my country.
FP: What did you think of the artwork, songs, cartoons, drawings, and other work by artists that were inspired by the Green Movement and events in Iran? Did they reflect the realities on the ground?
MS: It’s difficult to create art based on events as they’re happening. I generally think we shouldn’t overestimate the role of art and literature. I think we artists need to remain humble. We cannot create big changes. The main credit should go to the people for their struggle.
FP: What surprised you and touched you the most when you look back at last year’s events in Iran?
MS: For years we’ve been told that Iranian youth are momma’s boys and sissies. When I watched those so-called "sissies" and "momma’s boys" taking to the streets while they were being beaten up, arrested, jailed, tortured, and killed, I said, "The next time someone calls them sissies, I will punch that person myself."