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Marjane Satrapi

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Marjane Satrapi film still

LWLies: When did you first actually get into comic books? Satrapi: Comic books… When I finished my studies actually I came to Paris and had a studio. It is very common in Paris that artists will share a studio for economical reasons, and there was a place in a studio that I took that had only cartoonists in it. That was the first time I had any relationship with comic books. Before that I read Maus by Art Speigelman and I realised that it was a media like any other, plus there are so many things that have not been made in comic form – comics is a little bit like the far west, you know, you can do anything.

LWLies: It’s not something that was available in Tehran? Satrapi: Oh, it was. When I was a child my cousins were all reading Tintin and this kind of thing, but the problem with Tintin is that there is no girl character, only this nasty old fat lady and when you’re a small girl you don’t want to relate to that. So it came later, and the fact that I was in the studio with all these people inspired me actually. I wanted to be like my friends, simply, and so I started doing the books being convinced that nobody would want to publish them, and then once it got published I was convinced that no one would read them, etc., etc. I didn’t know that all that would happen. It was really a coincidence. I knew that I wanted to draw and write, but I always thought that comics was for obsessional people because you have to make a story, you have to cut it into pieces, you have to make the frames, all the characters have to look the same, and then it’s different from a book which can finish in the middle of the page, you have to finish at the end. And then after all that you have to ink it, you have to make it beautiful, blah, blah, blah. I was, like, ‘You have to be obsessional to do something like that,’ then I realised that I was obsessional myself.

LWLies: You didn’t deliberately set out to do something subversive? Satrapi: No. Any time I am subversive it’s despite myself. I don’t think that I am a provocative person. I always say what I really believe in – provocation for me is something that you do on purpose in order to provoke somebody, you know what you are doing.

LWLies: But surely in a place like Iran, speaking your mind is not just provocative but dangerous. Satrapi: Yes it becomes that because freedom of speech is banned, but you are the way you are – I cannot change myself. I have always said what I felt, and once in a while I pay a high price for saying what I felt. But it’s always better to pay a high price than to lose your dignity – it’s one or the other.

LWLies: Was there almost an element of therapy about doing the comics? Satrapi: No, no, believe me, no. Because the book is not an autobiography. An autobiography normally you write because you have a problem with your relatives or your friends and you don’t know how to say it to them so you make a book and you make your revenge. I’m not making revenge on anybody. If I have a problem with people, if I care about them I talk to them, if I don’t care about them, I don’t talk to them, I do not talk to them anymore. This whole bullshit of therapy? No, no, no. The reason I wrote it in my name is because I never wanted the story to become political, or a historical or a sociological statement because I’m not a politician and I’m not a historian and I’m not a sociologist. That is the point of view of one person, and I’m mostly just talking about what I see with my own eyes – I want to keep this personal point of view. That is why I put it in my name.

LWLies: But it is about history and politics, just because it’s individual… Satrapi: Everything is political, this is the problem. I’m not interested in politics, politics is interested in me. If people want to make a decision and it only affects themselves then I have no problem with it, the problem is when they make a decision and I have to do it too. I don’t agree about that, but when I say it’s personal, I mean that what I show in the book and also in the movie is not about what the background is, what the history is, what the politics is, whatever, a human being remains a human being. You remain a human being even if your personal reason becomes so much smaller than other reasons, even if you feel completely pressed down, still you are a human being. Still you make something to live, to grow up, and how do you make that? How do you live? For living, it’s not just enough to be alive, you need something extra. The whole thing is that… The idea I refuse is that a human being can be reduced to some abstract notion, that’s why I say it’s a humanistic movie. And I see the result everyday – anybody with any background can relate to this movie, and they understand it, so that means it is not a political statement. Plus, in a political statement… What is politics? Politics is answers, very quick, stupid answers to very complex questions. I never give any answers in none of my work; I am all the time asking questions, I never judge, ‘This is good, this is bad,’ I always describe the situation and you as a reader or viewer, you can make up your own mind.

LWLies: What is your earliest personal memory of things starting to change in Iran? Satrapi: You know, at the beginning I didn’t quite understand. When they divided up our school, you know, boys and girls were not together and they suddenly put on the veil, that is when I understood that something had changed. At this time we were playing with our veils, making fun and all that, but then the war happened and that was a very violent moment in the history of Iran. So it changed but, again, it didn’t stop us from living, you know? That is also the glory of the human being is that in the middle of everything you always manage to find an alternative way to make a life. Just the fight of going to the black market and finding music… As an adolescent you always like rock and pop music, you need it, especially in a country like ours that didn’t want to have any relationship with the outside. This music was a way for us to relate to the outside, to keep the contact with the rest of the world.

LWLies: Were you worried both in writing the books and making the film that there might be consequences for people you knew? Satrapi: No because in Iran it doesn’t happen this way. The consequences are over yourself, they are not over people that are around you. Things like that happened in the first two years of the revolution, but so far I have never heard of, like, they will stop somebody’s husband because the wife has done something. The regime is bad already, it’s not necessary to make it worse than what it is. No, I knew that there would be consequences and it would not be very wise for me to go back to Iran but this is the kind of decision that you have to make in life – are you going to do that or aren’t you going to do that? I wouldn’t feel comfortable if I didn’t do that, you know? For me, I had a way of expressing myself and it was necessary to have also the other version of the story. I’m not saying that what you see is not true, but that is not the only truth.

LWLies: What do you miss most about Iran when you’re away? Satrapi: Everything, everything. The smell of the pollution, having this big, big, big mountain with eternal snow over it that’s, like, a guardian of the city of Tehran, the humour, lots of things like that. Without something specific, when you’re born in this place, no matter if you’ve lived in another place, it’s even maybe a genetic memory or something, you always have a very incredible relationship with this place that is very immediate and very direct. You don’t have it with anywhere else. For me when I’m going down the street where I grew up with all my friends, we were playing soccer in that street, just remembering how I played soccer in the street.

LWLies: How different or how similar would life be for a young child growing up in Iran today? Satrapi: I don’t know because that’s 14 years that I don’t live in Iran, and eight years that I haven’t gone back to Iran. Not only do I not trust the information that I hear because it is second hand information and, you know, 14 years ago the things that I was hearing just when I had come out from there was so much not true that, why would it be more true today? Second of all, my relationship, because of this eight years that I have not been back is so much full of melancholy and nostalgia whatever I would say would be so personal that it is better not to express it because I can harm more than it could be useful for something. And also I always prefer, you know, to take a step back and view the thing with a little bit of distance. When you’re too emotional, too much emotion never leads to anything good. So it’s always better to cool down and then you can talk about this stuff.

LWLies: What do you think is the biggest misconception that we have about Iran? Satrapi: You don’t understand that we are human beings! We are reduced to ‘Axis of Evil’, harbouring terrorists… The biggest misconception about us is the question of humanism and humanity. We are reduced to abstract concepts and people forget that behind all this bullshit you have human beings who have a brother and sister and parents and they go to the movies, they listen to music, they laugh, they have a sense of humour. Just that. I don’t have the pretension of stopping the war or changing the world but if people say, ‘Oh, these people are just like us,’ this is enough.

LWLies: Americans are talking at the moment of bringing ‘freedom’ to Iran. Does Iran need freedom? And if it does, does it need America to provide it? Satrapi: I don’t think that anybody needs to be freed because democracy is not a gift that you give by bombing them. Secondly, democracy is not a painting that you paint the wall with and suddenly you have democracy. After this has happened in Afghanistan and in Iraq I think it’s a shame to think that this kind of thing works. I mean, even in Afghanistan nobody talks about it but the whole country is led by the Taliban. It’s not because you put a guy in the head of the country and he is shaved, and you have two new distributors of Coca-Cola that it means you have democracy. The changes should come from within a country and we should help the changes that come from within a country. For instance, the United States of America created Al Quaeda – they created it – they gave money to Al Quaeda. So what I am saying to the western world is that instead of creating Al Quaeda and the regime of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, etc., feed them over so many years and give them money, and when they go too far you start bombing and kill all the innocents, stop feeding these people and maybe the situation of the world will start getting better. Nobody needs to be freed. If we want to free people, I mean, 80 per cent of countries in the world are dictatorships. If it is a question of human rights, etc., etc., then they can go and bomb China because human rights in China don’t exist whatsoever. It’s just a question of oil and money, and that is where I get angry. If they said, ‘We are the most powerful in the world. God has made 85 per cent of the oil in the world belong to this region so we want to come and destroy you because we are the most powerful so we’ll take whatever you have,’ I would say, ‘Okay, this is the law.’ But then they give me this bullshit about human rights and democracy… At least don’t be this cynical. At least say it directly, then I can take it. But this whole bullshit of, ‘We love you!’ Yeah, of course! I love them too.

LWLies: One of the things that I didn’t understand after watching the film, was why some Muslim women volunteer to wear the veil. Even if they want to, aren’t they just buying in to this patriarchal ideology? Satrapi: Yes but this is not the case in Iran. In Iran the veil is the law, it is not a choice.LWLies: Can it ever be a valid choice?Satrapi: Well, I can agree with you but at the same time I am really not in the brain of a religious person. I don’t know what can push somebody to put this veil on. What I know from my experience is that in Iran the veil is really not a choice – you cannot go out without a veil, they’ll stop you and put you in jail. I felt violated the day that they told me, ‘You have to put the veil on your head.’ And I guess people that want to put the veil on have to feel the same violation. You know, my grandmother told me that the father of the Shah in 1935 banned the veil, so the women would be wearing the veil and the soldiers would come and pull it off their heads. What the women would do is put their skirts over their heads because they felt so nude that they preferred to show the down than the up. The result of that is that 40 years later the veil came back quickly in this country. Why? Because we didn’t make all this sexual revolution, etc., etc. For me, secularism is a question of tolerance. I personally don’t have a problem, it only becomes a problem if I am forced to do it. For me, the best society would be the one where even if somebody was completely naked in the street then they would be able to, and if somebody wanted to cover themselves then they would be able to. Who am I to judge people? I don’t like people to tell me what to do, so I cannot say that to other people.

LWLies: Can you tell us a bit about your experience in Cannes and how much of a whirlwind was that? Satrapi: Imagine! I made this first movie, black and white, animation, an unsexy subject and they said, ‘Oh, you have been accepted into this competition in Cannes.’ Okay. Then you go there and you have 25 minutes of standing ovation, with everybody saying, ‘I’ve never seen anything like that!’ I was on my way to collapsing! Then I go to Paris thinking, ‘That was great,’ and they call me back saying, ‘You have a prize – you have the Jury Prize,’ this is too much. I don’t know what to say.

LWLies: What was the highlight? Satrapi: I will tell you: at Cannes there is no highlight. The Cannes festival is like a wedding day – everybody else enjoys it except yourself. This is the way it is. While watching the movie I was taking anti-anxiety pills, before that I was close to a heart attack. After that I had interviews over interviews so there was no highlight in Cannes. The highlight came afterwards – the highlight is today!

LWLies: What’s been happening over the six months since Cannes? Satrapi: Mainly just promotion. After Cannes we released the movie in France and I went to all these different provinces. Then in July and August I was taking care of the English version, I was in LA and I was in Miami. Then I came back and did promotion in other countries – Switzerland, Belgium, then I was in New York, then I was in Tokyo, like, four days ago, I came back and I was in Spain for two days, then Monday morning I came to London. It will continue until the end of February so I haven’t had any time to rest. In this whole two years I have taken eight days off for vacation. That is all.

LWLies: How much pressure was there to make the film in a modern style rather than in black and white? Satrapi: No, no, because the fact was that it was a friend of mine who wanted to become a producer so we started to make the movie. There was no fight – if, at any time, somebody said, ‘Yeah, we should not do it like this, we should do it like this,’ I’d always say, ‘Okay,’ then I’d go and make the movie anyway. The question is not to make a movie; it’s to make a movie that you like so if there was pressure then I wouldn’t do it. I have another career as a cartoonist, I’m a very successful cartoonist and I make a good living. If I do other things then I have to be really convinced, and because I must do six months of promotion and talk with passion I didn’t make any compromises. If I did have to make these compromises I wouldn’t be sitting here in the first place.

LWLies: How do you think the discipline of being a cartoonist helps to prepare you for the challenges of filmmaking? Satrapi: It’s not so much being a cartoonist, it’s coming from the underground scene. When you come from the underground, you’re used to working a lot without being paid, so lots of work does not freak you out. It’s not like anything you do, they have to pay you a euro. The budget of this movie was, like, six-seven million euro, it’s not a very consequential movie budget for an animation so there are things that we couldn’t have. But you know, anything we couldn’t have, we just made it by the work that we did. Vincent and I worked four times more than a normal director would. And the good thing was that it came from the school of the underground, you know, where you work and work and work and most of the time it’s for the pleasure of working. So that was a very good school, and that is what art should be about – you work because you like your work, not because you work to get paid.

LWLies: In terms of coming from the underground, is there a phase you went through that you regret? Satrapi: No, never. I mean, I always thought that if I made good choices then that was the choices that I made of my life. No, that was the best thing that I did. And even when I made the movie, we made the movie as if we were making a short feature, a short underground feature, it was made the same way. I mean, we were working the same way. At the beginning we made this studio and two months later it looked like this gypsy camp, there were things leaning everywhere, people were smoking pot all over the place… Because that was just us, it couldn’t look like something else. The way we did it was as if we didn’t have any money – we did it exactly the same way as when I was making my comics in my corner. Just to push it as far to get the best. Also, you know, when you grow up like that you understand that this whole bullshit they tell you about how you should become a doctor otherwise your life goes to hell, then you meet people and they have an arty nature in life and they’re not unhappy, in fact most of the time they’re much more happy, so it opened a whole door to me that others said was not possible. Of course it is possible.

LWLies: How did your family react to the film? Satrapi: They have not seen it, and if you want to know their reaction you will have to ask them. I could never talk in the name of my family.

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