Marjane Satrapi: After Persepolis

Consuelo Solar interviews Marjane Satrapi

Like an unofficial mandate, knocking down Western misconceptions about Iran is at the heart of Marjane Satrapi’s work. As an immigrant in France, she wrote the riveting autobiographical graphic novel Persepolis, which became a window for the West into the changes transforming Iranian society during the turbulent times of the Cultural Revolution. Originally published in French between 2000 and 2003, the novel combines stark black and white artwork with sharp dark humor to portray Satrapi’s childhood in Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, the Khomeini years, and her adolescence as a lonely exile in Europe.

Satrapi found herself becoming mainstream in 2007, when in collaboration with fellow comic book writer Vincent Paronnaud, she adapted Persepolis into a brilliant animated film, that was screened worldwide and went on to garner several awards, including an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature Film of the Year in 2008.

This year, Satrapi teamed up once again with Paronnaud for the adaptation of her third graphic novel, Chicken with Plums (Poulet aux Prunes), into a live-action movie of the same title, which was part of the official competition in this year’s Venice Film Festival, and an official selection of the Toronto International Film Festival.

Loosely based on a series of true anecdotes she heard as a child about her great uncle, Chicken with Plums tells the story of Nasser Ali Khan, a celebrated violin player in 1958 Tehran, who falls into despair when his violin is broken. Unable to find another to replace it, life without music becomes intolerable for him, so he decides to stay in bed, and wait for death.

In a recent visit to Toronto, I had a chance to chat with Marjane Satrapi, who talked about her beloved new project, her connection to Iran, and her belief that art can contribute to overcoming culture clashes.

How did Canadian audiences receive Chicken with Plums?

The Canadian audience was extremely enthusiastic; they have an ease for laughing that is extremely refreshing for us, because sometimes in Europe people are a pain in the ass, they don’t laugh so easily. I feel that the opposite is true in general for the whole American continent. The European civilization has gotten too old and too cynical, while Americans still enjoy the pleasure of smiling and laughing. The people who came and talked to us [after the screenings] are any kind of people. Like today, there was this guy full of tattoos and needles all over his face, and then there was an old woman, and then this fancy 20-year-old couple, so here you have all sorts of people who like the film.

There are some aspects of this adaptation of Chicken with Plums that seem to be somehow “westernized”, like different names for some the characters, and having a violin instead of a tar [the original instrument in the novel]. What is the reasoning behind these choices?

The original names of the children were harder to pronounce, but the names that we chose instead are very much Iranian names like Lily and Cyrus. So I would say that the Western has been using those Persian names, and not the other way around.

And why is the tar gone?

We changed it because the tar is a very large instrument and there is a lot of mystery around it, and in the movie the instrument is there only as a symbol of the love story, so we were afraid that if we put this instrument that nobody has ever seen before, it would get too much attention. But we chose a violin to replace it because you have it in the Persian tradition, but it is also used in many, many cultures, and since we wanted to talk about the universality of the movie’s theme we chose a universal instrument. And I don’t think it is more westernized than that because if you go and look at the picture of Iran in the fifties and sixties, it really looks like the picture we’ve painted in the movie, and for me the question to ask is what happened to this place that no longer looks like that, and it’s the same with the rest of the region. You look at Egypt in the fifties, for example, and it is not at all the Egypt that you see today. We should be wondering what happened to the world that all these places that were completely secular have become the places they are now.

Do you want your work to help wipe out some of the misjudgment about the Middle East?

Yes, and already we should stop talking about Middle East, because what is Middle East anyway? I say to people that I’m Asian, and they say that I’m not, and I’m like ‘Yes, Iran is in Asia’, and they insist on grouping all of these countries under this Middle East category, when we don’t even speak the same language and we don’t share the same culture. If people watch my movie, and they can see past their prejudices, and what they take away is that in 1958 an Iranian man decided to die for love, for me this is better than any slogan I could write, and we have achieved what we wanted to achieve.

Do you believe that art can bridge cultural gaps?

Vincent [Paronnaud] and I are an example. We don’t believe in a clash of cultures; he is a French man and I’m an Iranian woman, and we’ve been working together for ten years, and even though sometimes we fight a lot and act like morons [she laughs], we respect and trust each other […]. Then we take an Iranian story, shoot it in a studio in Germany, with actors that come from Portugal, Italy, France, Morocco and Iran [the cast includes Mathieu Almalric, Isabella Rossellini, Chiara Mastroianni, and Maria de Medeiros] – everybody speaks in French – we make a film, and everybody believes in it, so to me that shows that there’s hope for humanity, that we can make things work despite our cultural differences. So instead of writing slogans, it is better to act, and that is what we tried to do with this project.