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Arts & Culture

Persepolis/Interview with Marjane Satrapi

BA: Why did you decide to use animation to tell your story as a film? You could have turned this into a live action film.

MS: For the comics it was not really a choice because this is just my way of expressing myself. I love to draw and I love to write [but] as soon as I only write I become very serious. I lose my sense of humor. The drawing for me is really the narration. Whatever I don't write, I draw. It helps me to express myself. So that was not even a choice for me. For the movie, it is dangerous when you have a comic book to adapt, people think it is just sufficient to take a camera and film the frames one after the other. So knowing this danger, Vincent and I we really concentrated on making a cinematic language, and again animation became an evident and obvious choice because of the fact that we wanted to make the story universal. When you make a real movie you have to put it in a geographical place with some type of human being, and of course it becomes this story of these Middle Easterners, it becomes a nice version of Not Without My Daughter [a movie with Sally Field trying to get her daughter out of Iran]. The animation actually helped us just because of the abstraction of the drawing. It became much more universal because everyone could identify.

Little Marjane in Persepolis (Sony Pictures Classics)


BA: Describe the animation because it is hand drawn and not the kind of 3D CGI work found in Ratatouille or Shrek.

MS: It is hand drawn animation. If you came to our studio it looks more like a studio in the fifties than one in 2007. It is not a battle against tri-dimensional animation because they are masterpieces that are made in this technique. Animation is just a technique. it is a question of narration. For what we wanted to say and for what we wanted to keep from the comic books it was necessary to make it hand drawn. So we made this animation in black and white because we have really different layers of narration. So going from one narration to the other one, without falling into vulgarity, this black and white style helped us to have different narrations and keeping a coherence of style. And the good thing is that people that watch this movie, the best thing that I've heard, is after ten minutes I forget that it is an animated movie. They watch it as a movie and I think that is great.

BA: Talk about the style of animation, how it actually looks.

MS: We have sixteen years of life to cover and we have a one and a half hour movie. So we had to find ways to show the things without becoming boring or too much of something. So for a historical scene, for example, just because we didn't have the pretension of being a historian of Iran, we chose [the style of] a puppet scene that is the imagination of somebody who sees history from afar. For the scenes that Marjane doesn't see, like the scenes of the revolution, we chose the silhouette kind of style. That was a way to make the movie keep the dynamism until the end. So it was just finding solution after solution after solution.

BA: I read that you refer to your animation style as stylized realism.


MS: I don't know if it is realism because it is not realistic. But at the same time it is realistic. I was very influenced by German expressionism for the use of black and white. I'm a big fan of Murnau's work [he made the silent film Nosferatu ]. When we were working on the backgrounds for the animation, we were talking about that to make people understand what we really wanted with the shadings, and the relationships between the black and white and grays. Also I am very much influenced by Italian neo-realism for the scenes of the family. That was actually the most difficult thing to do because making a movie about incredible things is not very difficult. The most difficult thing is to make a scene with the family sitting in the living room and they're talking. How to make that interesting? So we thought about neo-realism. There are lots of things that go from literature to poetry to paintings -- this is the result of a life of the things that you have seen that have touched you, that they have moved you. So the film is all of that.

BA: What did you hope to achieve with this visual approach?

MS: If I have a goal and if there is a message, I think, as an artist I stay humbled to the change that we can make with artwork in the world. But the thing is to ask the question. As artists we ask the questions. If you were me what would you do? So that is me asking the question without having an answer. So if at the end of the book or the end of the movie people could relate enough to say these are people exactly like us, this is just a question of human beings, its not a question of where you were born, its not a question of human type or a question of religion, its just a question of human beings, then we have reached our goal. So it has a very humanistic message.

Persepolis (Sony Pictures Classics)

BA: You had to condense your book and leave certain things out to make the movie, correct?

MS: When you make a movie about 16 years of life, if you want to put everything in it then you make four movies in one. We decided upon the turning point of exile, her exile. When I started writing the script I was very nostalgic and the whole structure of the movie begins at the airport. She doesn't have a ticket to go back [to Teheran], so she sits there and remembers her life. So every choice that we make was to come to this turning point and nostalgia. Obviously if we made the movie today when I'm less nostalgic, it would have gone in another direction.

BA: There's an unexpected humor in your storytelling. And people may be surprised by the points at which humor and horror commingle, as when Marjane is shocked by her uncle's stories about prison and torture but then she and her friends decide to play a game of torture the next day.

MS: Yes, well that's the way things are in real life. When you sit and you complain, it's because the things that you complain about are bearable but there's a moment when the thing you complain about are unbearable then either you know you have to laugh about it or you have to die. And also humor is a question of intelligence I mean people with no humor they are just stupid I think. And also humor is the height of understanding of the other one. We cry for the same reasons in the whole world. We cry because our father is dead or our mother is sick but laughing with someone is understanding the spirit of the other one. And laughter is something that you share with someone. You cry all alone. But you laugh with somebody. So it's a question of communication and it's the height of understanding of the other one. No matter where we show it people laugh at the same places so it gives me hope actually.

BA: My mom grew up during the war in France and when she described things to me she pointed out that kids are kids no matter what, and that's what I think you captured in that scene with the kids playing torture.

MS: Yes, exactly. Kids are kids everywhere, humans are humans and that's it. In this separation that they have made in the world like the East and West, and the South and North, and Christian and Muslim, as if all the Muslims were one person and all the Christians were another person, but it's not like that. If there is a separation then it is between the fanatic stupid people and the rest of the people. But the fanatics are all over the world we don't have them only in Iran.

Marjane and her Grandmother in Persepolis (Sony Pictures Classics)

BA: Now your grandmother comes across as quite a strong influence on you. What was she like?

MS: She was of course a major character in my life because she was a very straight person and it was not very easy to live with her. Like for example I would wake up and say, Grandma I feel so ugly, and she would tell me this is not just a feeling you really are ugly. So that is not the kind of thing that you want to hear but at the same time it was like something very like direct with her that made life much easier. She became like the role model for me like not to lose my time on people or things that don't have any importance for me. To be straight. If I don't like somebody, I don't like them. This is much easier in a relationship because at least when you tell someone that you like them, they believe you. You criticize people when you love them. You tell them the truth when you love them otherwise it's so easy to lie to people to make them comfortable. Yeah she had lots of love for me but that didn't stop her from being nasty to me once in awhile. Yeah she was one helluva woman.

BA: Talk about the mix you achieve in your film between the very personal details of your life and the politics you touch on.

MS: I think the only universal thing is one individual. If you talk about a country or a nation or a culture, it's so vague. I mean what is a nation? A nation is full of nice and bad and long and tall and short and thin people. It's not like everybody is the same. So I thought for the universality is extremely important to keep it at a personal level. I think it's Tolstoy that says, If you want to talk to the world, write about your small village. So that is what we tried to do.

BA: It was also interesting the way you showed how you had the same pop culture interests as kids in the U.S. but there were greater social implications for those choices. You could get into real trouble for listening to punk music.

MS: But that was the kind of music I listened to. Anywhere in the world you want to have this music and if you're a rebellious person and if you have access to these things, everybody likes it. This idea that we have that people on the other side of the world that they don't listen to the same but the pop culture is international. I just describe what I really listened to and how I really was and of course we can relate to each other. But believe it or not when I grew up in Iran it was very American in Iran I had burger with my cousin in Big Boy, you know Big Boy and we were playing bowling so I mean is there anything more American than eating burgers in Big Boy and then going bowling? So I grew up with that.

BA: Have you been surprised by the reception the film has received? It already has picked up some awards.

MS: It's always surprising when you make a work that is very personal, and you don't make any compromise, and you do it exactly what you want, and then to have people respond to that it is extremely surprising. It's a benediction. It is the biggest gift you can receive as an artist. So yes it is always surprising. When you make a book or you make a movie it is almost like hitting on somebody. It's not because you want to seduce people that you will seduce them, you can hit on somebody and it doesn't work. But when you hit on them and it works then it's really cool.

BA: Are you planning to make another movie?

MS: If I survive the promotion for this film then I will make another movie.

You can listen to some of my interview with Marjane Satrapi on These Days .