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Iranian secular film maker Marjane Satrapi : The Power Of Memory

World-renowned for her award-winning graphic memoir Persepolis, a global best-seller, Marjane Satrapi is one of the comics creators interviewed in Mark Daniels’ penetrating 2009 documentary movie Comics Go To War. This is being screened for free at the Imperial War Museum London next Saturday, August 20th from 4.30pm, as the finale of Comics & Conflicts, two days of comics-related events and activities. There’s still time to book tickets for the whole programme featuring Garth Ennis, Pat Mills, Mikkel Sommer, David Collier and many more. You can also watch and learn more about the animated film adaptation of Persepolis, which Satrapi co-directed, at Watch Me Move: The Animation Show, a wide-ranging exhibition of animation currently at The Barbican Gallery, London until September 11th .
As well as all this, her next film, a live-action version of her graphic novel Chicken With Plums, is getting its world premiere at the imminent 68th Venice International Film Festival, before hitting screens in France on October 26th and potentially being previewed at the London Film Festival in October. There’s no UK release date announced yet, but it stars Isabella Rossellini and Matheiu Amalric and the story is summarised as: “Tehran, 1958: Nasser Ali Khan, the most celebrated violin player, has his beloved instrument broken. Unable to find another to replace it, life without music seems intolerable. He stays in bed and slips further and further into his reveries from his youth to his own children’s futures. Over the course of the week that follows, and as the pieces of this captivating story fall into place, we understand his poignant secret and the profundity of his decision to give up life for music and love.” Satrapi continues to remember and to astound. Now is a perfect moment to reflect on both her achievements and her ambitions .
Where were you on September 11th 2001? My mum and I were in upstate New York, having flown in the night before. That Tuesday morning we awoke to watch the news of those shocking attacks by Islamic terrorists. Amid the subsequent demonising of ‘the Axis of Evil’, some people wanted to understand more about what Islam really means and how it affects the lives of ordinary people. Then I thought back to interviewing for the first time Marjane Satrapi earlier in 2001, when she had won the Prix du Lion in Brussels, Belgium for her debut graphic novel, Persepolis. I met a charismatic Iranian exile, a gifted cartoonist living in Paris, who was relating with great humanity and humour how she grew up in Tehran under the Islamic regime and the Iran-Iraq war. From the book’s modest origins in French from the alternative creator-run collective L’Association, its first volume sold out of four printings totalling 16,000 copies. After 9/11, as Satrapi completed her story in four volumes, Persepolis would take off and sweep the world, topping two million copies and counting. It has even been taught to cadets at America’s military academy West Point .
Drawing with a spare, child-like directness in bold black and white, Marjane opens her tale in 1980 on the first anniversary of the Shah of Iran being deposed, when the new regime decrees that all women must henceforth wear the traditional headdress. Marjane, just 10, has to start wearing hers at school, which is now sex-segregated and no longer bilingual and ‘decadent’. We then flashback to Marjane aged 6, growing up in Tehran in a well-to-do, politicised family during the final troubled years of the Shah, as she tries to make sense of the injustices around her, even in her own home where her maid is not allowed to eat with her at the same table. In a life-changing scene, her uncle Anouche is arrested as a spy and before his execution is granted just one ten-minute visit. He chooses to see his little niece Marjane and tells her his family’s secrets because they must not be lost. “I will never forget”, she promises him. It is a promise she will fulfil by creating Persepolis .
In 1984, as a teenager, Marjane was forced to leave her homeland, partly to escape the bombings, but also for her own safety, because she had been denouncing the Islamic regime. After her five years in exile in Vienna, she returned to Iran to art school, where she continued to protest against injustices and absurdities, such as a life-drawing class where the female model had to be covered head-to-toe in a tchador. France has been her home since 1994 .
This summer, Marjane Satrapi came to London for the Barbican Centre’s spectacular exhibition Watch Me Move: The Animation Show (open till September 11th), which spotlights the Oscar-nominated animated feature adaptation of Persepolis which she co-directed in 2007. She explained how she might never have become a cartoonist, if not for her exile in Austria. “In an Iranian family, if you don’t become president of the world, you must at least become a doctor or lawyer. I was good at maths so it was obvious I would become an engineer like my father. But in Austria I met lots of alternative people, when I was living in communes with hippies and punks. I had been told that if you don’t live this certain way, you will be miserable, but I realised this wasn’t true. They were much happier than anyone else I knew. I always drew, so I started engineering school for a few months, but I didn’t like the ugly boys in the school, I didn’t want to marry one of those! So I decided to make art studies" .
As a young girl, she and her younger cousin were not widely read in comics. “This toyshop near our house was selling American comics including Dracula. Inside it said that if you want to become Dracula yourself, you have to eat raw chicken, so the whole summer we were stealing pieces of raw chicken, and as a result both of us got worms! After that, I stopped reading comics completely.” What brought her back was discovering Art Spiegelman’s memoir of his parents’ survival of the Holocaust, Maus in 1994. “I realised that comics is not a genre, it is just a way of telling a story where I could feel exactly what was going on. Drawing is much closer to a human being than a photo, because you create the world in your own image, it’s very personal, it’s an international language. Before humans started talking, first they started drawing.”
It was the ignorance she encountered in the West towards her country that inspired her to share what she had witnessed through the graphic novel medium. “I left Iran twice, first in 1984 to Austria, then in 1994 for France, and both times, when I was asked ‘Where do you come from?’, if you answered Iran, it would take forty-five minutes of explanation. ‘I am Iranian but my father is not Ayatollah Khomeini! And he doesn’t have fifteen wives!’ I didn’t want Persepolis to become a political, historical or sociological statement, it is only my truth, the way I saw it. It happens in Iran but a dictatorship anywhere in the whole world works the same way. You have a revolution made by idealists, it’s recuperated by the cynical ones who create a climate of fear, so you don’t think anymore and they can manipulate you. The same thing happened in Germany, Chile, China, the ideology might change a bit, but the mechanism is the same. I wanted to describe this mechanism. Because as Pushkin said, if you want to talk about the whole world, write about your small village" .
Considering these sombre circumstances, Persepolis is surprisingly humorous. “In the worst moments of life, you make a joke. I don’t think I laughed so much as during the Iran-Iraq war because that was our only way to survive. When you have a regime that arrests you when you have one hair out of place, with all the executions, bombings, no matter what happened, the next day we could make jokes about it, because it might be your last day.” Her self-portrait as a teenager also surprised many Western readers. “People here might think that kids in Iran in 1984 were sitting listening to the Koran and crying, beating themselves and wanting to blow up the world! No, they listened to rock music, they had posters. I remember when Duran Duran was so popular, we all had that Simon LeBon haircut. That’s why I put the Kim Wilde chapter in, because when I was l listening to her, kids around the world the same age were listening to her, so that makes a connection" .
When the offer came of 5.5 million euros to make a movie of Persepolis, Satrapi tried to avoid it by asking for the impossible. “I want animation, black-and-white, 2D, everything should be drawn by hand, the studio should be in the centre of Paris, because no way I would go to the suburbs, I want Catherine Deneuve, and I want this, I want that. And two months later they say yes to everything, and I’m like, ‘Shit! Now I have to make this movie!’ I didn’t have a clue how animation worked so I had to learn everything.” She also got her wishes for the English translation. “I’m a fan of Iggy Pop since I was thirteen, and he said yes! I met Iggy Pop in London and suddenly he takes of his T-shirt because the guy has to always be naked"
In her second graphic novel Embroideries, Satrapi recounts some of the hilariously frank conversations that her grandmother, aunts and friends used to have about love and sex. “It’s important to talk about women’s sexuality. The biggest enemy of democracy is not a Mullah, it’s patriarchal culture. Half of society has less rights than the other. If we don’t use the talent and intelligence of half our society, of course we cannot advance.” She has just co-directed a live-action adaptation of her third graphic novel, Chicken With Plums, about her great-uncle, a musician, who tells his life story over the last few days before he dies, which is released in France on October 26th .
Satrapi has not been back to Iran in twelve years but she expects to return one day. “I grew up in Tehran with the mountain six thousand metres high, with eternal snow, like the guardian of the city. In Paris I just see the Eiffel Tower! I have to go back there, even if it is not for living, then for dying. Today when 65-70% of the students are women, later they’ll have to work and they are more educated than their father, their brother, and their own husband. This new generation has much more guts. When the Green Revolution started in 2009, I believed that change would come. I still believe that" .


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last update: 3/17/2016 8:00