As a child growing up in Iran, Marjane Satrapi daydreamed of being a beloved prophet leading an Islamic revolution -- or, if not that, then maybe a whirling female version of Bruce Lee. But, now, at age 38, the woman some observers call a generational spokeswoman says she is unwilling to rally rebellions and even less interested in throwing unnecessary punches.
“I have stopped answering, now, well, I am only asking questions,” the artist and first-time filmmaker said with a melodramatic wave of her hand. “And if I pay too much attention to what anybody says about me, then I would have to sit in my house and not draw, and that I do not want.”
Some people wouldn’t mind Satrapi putting down her pen -- certainly not some government officials in her native country, where the Ministry of Culture has publicly denounced Satrapi’s first film, “Persepolis.” The animated feature is a coming-of-age tale about her youth in Iran that is sly and sweet and darkly funny in the face of tragedy and stifling authority. The movie opens in the U.S. on Christmas Day, and it already is snowballing in acclaim and press attention. It won a special jury prize at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, and France (where Satrapi lives and where she launched her art career) has chosen “Persepolis” as its submission in the best foreign-language film category for the upcoming 80th Annual Academy Awards.
All of this is setting the stage for Satrapi to consolidate her image as an iconoclastic Persian voice in the West, where academia, the press and young fans have already parsed the print version of “Persepolis” for insights into Iranian culture. The 2003 book and its sequels have sold more than 1 million copies worldwide, and Satrapi has become a lecturer in demand -- she has a booking at Royce Hall at UCLA, for instance, on April 16. According to her publisher, Pantheon, the illustrated personal odyssey is now being used as a text at more than 200 college campuses, one of them being West Point.
“That,” she said, “is very strange to think about, but it is also something I am extremely proud of. College students -- that age, it is a moment in life when someone can say something to you and you can still change, your opinions and your views are still open. Later it may be too late.”
Satrapi was speaking on a recent hectic afternoon in L.A. when she sat down for a pork chop lunch by the fireplace at a French restaurant in Hollywood. She was in the middle of a frenzy of interviews and meetings and seemed a bit skeptical of the crazed industry circuit; Satrapi is high-energy cafe philosopher by nature, and she pointed out that she resists “e-mail and blogs and websites because if I sat at a computer, when would I have time to have fun and smoke my cigarettes and sleep?”
That drew a chuckle from across the table, where Vincent Paronnaud, her co-director and co-writer on the film, sat nursing a German beer. They met in the French underground comics scene; his work had a far more ironic and acidic edge, and he had already moved on to a music career when Satrapi was given a surprise chance to direct the movie of her book. She called on her trusted old friend so they could learn on the job together.
“In three years,” Satrapi says proudly, “we had no arguments.” She added that they both have a mania for cigarettes and an intolerance to garlic as certain proof that destiny demanded their collaboration.
The animation for the film -- which is presented largely in black, white and shades of gray -- was done in France (as opposed to Asia, which dominates the industry) to give the directors intense access to the artists and firm control over the movement and style. Satrapi’s goal was to create a nuanced portrayal of Iranian life and its textures; the way she struggled to wear her head scarf correctly, the interactions with her parents, the posture of people in Tehran and how it changed as the war with Iraq raged on.
She is careful to note that she has made a story of her life, not quite a life story; the chronology of events doesn’t always match up with reality for reasons of narrative flow, and she has changed names, faces and some circumstances.
“For me, what is important was an expression of the reality,” she said. “The search for truth is much more important than the search for reality.”
The comparisons she has earned to Art Spiegelman, whose “Maus” forever elevated the expectations and ambitions of top graphic novels, are heady stuff for Satrapi. She was deeply influenced by his Holocaust tale and his bravery in opening his family album to pages that were embarrassing or wrenching. Like him, she draws in a simple style, but the clarity of line never leaves out the scars.
“When I talked to Spiegelman once, he said to me that you should never trust the people that draw themselves to look better than they are,” she said in a faux conspiratorial whisper. “I think he is right. I see someone draw themselves to look magnificent and I think, ‘I don’t trust that person.’ ”
No patience for stupidity
Satrapi also doesn’t try to glamorize her reputation. Nor does she worry about offending her legions of admirers in feminist circles -- who had held her memoir up as a shining ideal of a woman’s struggle against a male-dominated culture.
“I am not a feminist,” she said. “What I am against is stupidity. Stupid women? There are plenty of them. Stupid men? There are plenty of them too.
“I’m against the stupid people in the macho culture, but in that culture who is the person teaching the young boys these values? The mother. Who teaches daughters that they are different and cannot do as much? The mother.”
In the film (released in French, with English subtitles; Sony is at work on a revoiced English version) the roles of Marjane and her mother are given voice by the real-life daughter-mother team of Chiara Mastroianni and Catherine Deneuve.
The film shows not just the secret life and rebellions of Marjane -- her search for prized contraband cassettes of ABBA and Iron Maiden, among them -- but also her inner thoughts on the sad dysfunction her family exhibits as relatives are taken prisoner for political reasons and the fundamentalist regime imposes new restrictions that smother the joy and spirit of their daughter. Surely her parents, who still live in Iran, chafed when they saw their household tribulations flashed on a screen?
“My parents are very silent about these things,” she said with a shrug. “My parents are not going over to the neighbor’s house and saying, ‘Oh, our daughter has done this thing . . . . ‘
“No, they are very shy and very silent people.”
Satrapi’s candor and humor in relating tales of family quirks, tragedies, obtuse authority, romance and her struggle for self-expression are deeply endearing. Even in conversation, she uses small tales of family to illuminate the human truths of political theater.
“I remember this old man, a member of my family, he was very much pro-Stalin, and after the fall of the wall in Berlin I said to him, ‘You have seen what has happened, how can you still like Stalin?’
“And now, I liked this guy a lot, but that’s what I asked him. He said: ‘All of my life, I believed in him. And now I am 80. If I say no to Stalin, I have to rethink all of it, my life. That is nonsense. I cannot afford it.’
“At least he was honest.”