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Life During Wartime: 'Persepolis' Creators Talk

Karl Cohen talks to the makers of Persepolis about fundamentalism, growing up in Iran, and the unexpected success of their groundbreaking film.

Marjane Satrapis experience of growing up in Iran pervades Persepolis, as in this scene where she declares to her grandmother that no old women will suffer again when she becomes a prophet. All images courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics I

Persepolis is an amazing new kind of animated feature. It is a work for mature, intelligent adults and older teens about real-life situations that took place in Iran in the 1970s and 1980s. It is an autobiography by Marjane Satrapi, based on her well-known graphic novel of the same name. It focuses on her coming of age and establishing her own political and social values in life. It occurs during a period of history that saw the Shah of Iran fall, a war between Iraq and Iran destroy sections of both nations and the rise of a fundamentalist government in her country. It is a serious film void of the many things we associate with cartoons. Perhaps it is the beginning of a new animated genre.

In December, Sony and the San Francisco International Film Festival brought in the film's creators, Marjane and Vincent Paronnaud, to speak at an advanced screening of the work. The afternoon before the event, I was invited to interview them about their remarkable achievement. What I wasn't expecting was that I was going to meet a brilliant, remarkable, outspoken woman, whose passion and excitement amazed me.

Marjane outwits two Guardians of the Revolution who are harassing her for dressing

On Success

Karl Cohen: How does it feel to be in the spotlight as a celebrated author and successful film director?

Marjane Satrapi: To do that you have to go out to parties and meet people. The thing is, I don't do these things. In my life, I work or I sleep. I'm very shy. I'm not so much of this party person who goes with a glass of champagne and says "how do you do" and all of that. When I'm with people who tell me this is great, I never believe it. If I can do my work the way I want to, this is the best.

KC: Are agents trying to contact you?

MS: I have an agent now in America. So now I think I'm probably an important person. At the same time, I come from underground comic books and there is really no difference between making that and making the movie. I made the movie with Vincent, my best friend. The composer was a musician and Vincent was with him in a band. And the way we made it, really, believe me, the studio looked like a Gypsy camp. The first month we kind of had everything in order. After one month, people were cooking, smoking pot, it looked nothing like a modern studio.

We did it the same way I was making my comic books. I never made any compromises. I never said this is the way we have to think. I am convinced that if I enjoy doing what I'm doing, the viewer is going to enjoy it just as much. I really enjoy doing the things that I do, and I think that the people who watch it see the energy in it and they trust me. The only difference is that before I had to go and convince people I know how to do things, etc. Now my name helps me convince people that I know what to do, so the less time I have to spend convincing people, the more time I have to spend doing my own work. It also gives me money and this is a good thing. Before, if I needed to buy something, I had to budget my money. Now I can buy everything I need. But I'm not somebody who wears jewelry and I don't eat caviar every day. I just continue eating the same things. It just makes my life a little easier.

I'm glad success didn't come when I was 20. If you're 20 it can be really bad. I was older, more than 30. I had more experience. It helps you not to lose your mind.

Vincent Paronnaud believes the film's depiction of the Guardians of the Revolution is less about religion and more about repression.

KC: Your first book, Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, was published in 2003. Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return was published in 2004. Since then the two volumes have been translated into 24 or 25 languages.

MS: That's lots and lots of countries. I was really shocked to see the Hong Kong version of the book, the Greek version. I looked at them and said "wow, what is that?" The English version is sold in Iran. If anybody is going to speak a second language in Iran, it is English. I know it has been available there since 2003. I've even been told there is an Iranian or Farsi version of it, but I've not seen it.

In my country the notion of copyright is kind of vague, so if they want to translate it, they do it. It's not an official translation of course. Like lots of things in Iran, it is not officially there, but it's OK. Having them read it is much more important than the money. I sold the rights to several Eastern European countries for $500, which is nothing; but, at the same time, it is much better that they read it. It's a good thing. I never make a big fuss about this thing.

Marjane listens as her astonished parents greet their friend Siamek, whos just been released from prison.

On Fundamentalists and Repression

Americans first became aware of the film when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. While it won a jury prize, what was more interesting was the ink the press gave the film after Iran protested its being shown. For example an ABC News headline read, "Iran Furious Over Cannes Film Festival Entry." (Of course they hadn't seen the film.)

KC: Did Iran help publicize the work by calling it a "provoking political act"?

Vincent Paronnaud: It was really just a minor note from the cultural service of Iran, but at Cannes at that time perhaps not much else was going on and the world press was there. Anybody seeing the film will realize it is not an anti-Iranian film in any sense of the word. It is not a direct criticism or ideological criticism and perhaps that is why the film is all the more interesting. It is a subjective point of view based on someone's memories. There is not an idea of making the viewer come to a certain conclusion or manipulate them in any way. It is certainly not a documentary or anything about present-day Iran because it took place in the 1970s and 80s.

KC: What has the public's reaction been to the film's content? Do audiences realize that Iran is a mixture of many kinds of people and is not just a state full of fundamentalists?

VP: I think people are intelligent enough to draw that from the film. It's not like we are trying to throw that in their face. It's obviously not a piece of propaganda, it's an honest approach and I think it works. They are moved because of that. It's more like: here is the situation, a lot of questions. It doesn't give the answers to the questions. People have to think what the answers might be. Nothing has been thrust upon them. They can come to their own conclusions.

The war affected Marjane deeply, intruding on everyday life, even in her middle-class neighborhood.

KC: What about the film's depiction of the religious police enforcing fundamentalist values?

MS: It isn't so much a question of religion as it is a question of repression. Stalin was an atheist and was the worst fanatic in the world. He was a fundamentalist in his own way. The mentality is a way of behavior that says, "if you are not with me you are against me." That is their only way of thinking. George Bush is a fundamentalist, although on paper he is the president of a democracy. Fundamentality is not so much about religion as about the ideology of thinking that, if you don't think this way, you are not with me, so you are my enemy, which is not always true.

That's why the movie works everywhere, we can all identify with it. I also don't point my finger and say, this is it. In the film I'm not always saying you're the bad guys. One of the worst things in the film is the woman who turns in an innocent man to the Guardians of the Revolution to save her skin. That's me. I did that! I turned this poor guy in. Why? Because I was full of fear and that describes how it is to be full of fear. You don't think and you lose your dignity, your integrity, you lose yourself. I was not proud of myself. You can lie to anybody, but you cannot lie to yourself. At the end of the day, I'm brushing my teeth in front of a mirror and I have to look into my eyes. So let's not be fearful.

If one believes that one group of people are bad, or in the idea of an "axis of evil," or it's a religious or ethical thing, whatever, it is a very dangerous idea because you are reducing people to abstract notions. This is very bad. If the evil has a name and an address, this is the beginning of fascism. That can lead to "let's go and destroy and kill and exterminate all of them." All fundamentalism is the same, be it Christian, Jewish, Moslem, Buddhist or secular.

At the end of the movie, if people watch this movie and say "this girl could have been me, this crazy chick, I can understand what she is talking about," that is all that I ask for. Just to celebrate that she is a human being. There is one thing in this world that has to be put in the center of interest. It is the human being itself. The human being, the individual is the basis of freedom and democracy.

On Marjane's Childhood

KC: What was your family life like under the Shah?

MS: I was a child and it was a dictatorship. There was no freedom of speech; you could never ever criticize the Shah. I can understand people being afraid. I don't think my family was happy with the Shah, but I never knew that because, if they said that to me, I might repeat it in the school, so they didn't talk about it. So I grew up in this middle-class family. My parents were well-educated. My father was an engineer. Sometimes my mother did fashion design, we could go abroad to Europe and they were living in a nice flat. I went to a bilingual school. I was an only child, but I had lots of cousins and friends. There was a club I would go to with my cousins in Tehran to go swimming or ice-skating. We ate Big Boy hamburgers and after that we went bowling. A very American childhood I would say.

After the revolution people were thinking something good was possible. From the media, people believed it was the beginning of a democracy, etc. It didn't finish this way. Just afterwards, the war started. When it started, Iraqi airplanes came and bombed the airport of Tehran. The thing I realized was, "Shit, now we are in trouble." There was a climate of fear. But having a loving family made it bearable. Just because you are living in a repressive society doesn't mean you don't have any life, because you always have this fantasy that truth and happiness exists. You always find ways to live because just living isn't sufficient reason to be alive.

The war came very close to me. Tehran wasn't bombed every day, but bombs fell in our neighborhood and we had friends living in the south of Iran near the frontier that had to move and find new homes. The supermarkets were completely empty, so there was a black market. We got coupons to get our oil, sugar, and this and that.

KC: How did you maintain your positive attitude through all this?

MS: You know, I think I'm a lucky bastard. Not only was I born in the family I was born in, I was lucky to be born in a middle-class family in Tehran. I could have been born in a small village by the frontier of Afghanistan and this would not be my life. I had the chance to leave the country. I studied abroad and now I live in the place I want with whom I want. I have a profession, so now I can eat.

If I start to complain, what should other people do? They should die. You have to understand, 25% of the population in the world is really in trouble. A huge percentage of the world cannot eat properly. So I think it would be indecent for me to complain. There are people, for example, that stayed in Iran, who have talked about dissent as I do, and they go to jail.

I've lost lots of things in Iran, my uncle, my adolescence... but there are a lot of things that I gained as well. I'm alive and I have my dignity. Because of my dignity I have to smile and I have to go on. If I don't they will have destroyed me and people like me. They will have succeeded.

On the Future

KC: Do you have any particular plans for the future?

VP: There was a book I started years ago and I put it on the back burner when I got involved with this. I would like to go back to working on that book. And there are short animated films I'd like to do.

MS: Right now my soul is very poor. I've talked so much, I'm just empty of myself. I have a very miserable soul. I have to have some vacation and lots of cigarettes. I just need to be with myself, to watch the sky, to wash my brain and to make my soul a little bit richer. After that I can think about something.

Karl Cohen is president of ASIFA-SF and teaches animation history at SF State University. He is the author of Forbidden Animation: Censored Cartoons and Blacklisted Animators, as well as hundreds of articles about animation, many published by AWN.