April 13, 2008|I sat down with Iranian writer/cartoonist/columnist and now filmmaker Marjane Satrapi at Denver's Hotel Monaco, right off 16th Street Mall--just a few minutes from the Convention Center, where this year's Democratic National Convention will be held. I thought it a serendipitous place to interview a figure known for being outspoken on at least two of the three subjects you don't talk about: politics and religion. Colorado is traditionally a Red State, which belies the way its cultural centres, Denver and Boulder, vote--offset, perhaps, by nearby Colorado Springs, home to Ted Haggard's New Life Church, the Air Force Academy, and Focus on the Family. Always dangerous for me to stray too far from movies (I don't actually know very much about anything outside of movies, let's face it), but I savoured the chance to wade into deep water with the author, touring the U.S. with the film adapted from the two volumes of her brilliant Persepolis. Someone who says things impulsively that tend to get her in trouble, Ms. Satrapi's a kindred spirit.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: The film feels more personal than the source material. Less political. On purpose?
MARJANE SATRAPI: No. I'd argue with the essential analysis, really. You know, the film is about fifteen years in the life of one person. If you want to squeeze everything into this ninety minutes, you find yourself at the end with five movies in one. Which is a disaster and happens more often than not. You can't put too much stuff in there. So--well, maybe you're right in that when we started making the film I was in a very nostalgic mood, leading to our framing the film as a flashback. It begins with a woman in an airport, going home, remembering all of her life to that point. An internal journey to this afternoon, in a terminal, on the way home. The turning point of the story becomes exile. This is the structure of the movie.
Stemming from that nostalgia...
Yes, from the moment that we located that nostalgic point of view, we knew that we had the framework for our adaptation. Exile would justify all that would happen in the movie. Every truth will go in this direction and this is the result, that the movie is more personal.
I felt that the best films of 2007 are involved with nostalgia--why are we looking back so much?
That's interesting. I think that the process of going back is extremely important--not in making movies, but in life. We're all the time giving answers to complicated questions without looking backwards because we think that our problems stem from contemporary issues. Human beings, I really believe, have a collective memory that spans generations on generations, transmitted unconsciously, and if we don't look back we never discover the genetics of why we are intolerant--of why we hate some people over others. Without that sober contemplation of where we've come from and how we might have been born hardwired with prejudices, we can never address the hurdles that lie before us now. So, of course, going back is a good thing. Helps you to ask the right questions.
Questions without answers?
Of course. There aren't answers to these kinds of questions--I don't have answers to give. Politicians give you very easy answers to very complex questions. I see as my role asking very complicated questions about very simple situations. I want you to look at what I do and ask yourself how you might do things differently.
Do you feel as though you're fulfilling the mandate your uncle gave to you, then, of being a storyteller for your legacy?
Yes, yes! I came from somewhere. I grew up in this place, I am a product of this place. I owe a lot to this place. If you see what is happening in this place and you just shut your mouth, you consent to those things. I mistrust those people who say, "Well, I had to"--I can't take that, the Fifties, the Americans turning over their friends to McCarthy. You don't have to do anything. You always have a choice in your life to be moral and to be dignified. I can lose my youth, I can lose the people I love, my money, but I will not lose my dignity. The day I lose my dignity is the day I should die.
What's the state of dignity in this world?
Very bad. I mean, we're in a world where everyone goes in the same direction. There's no anti-power. We have created this war against something that we don't understand. Millions of people judged with no attempt to understand them. I'm talking about both sides rushing towards mutual destruction. We're in a time in our development that's so conservative that even the notion of pleasure has been oppressed. Consider that smoking? Cancer. Eating? Cholesterol. Fucking? AIDS. I mean, fuck you. All of these maladies used to be the pleasure of smoking and eating and making love. How much hope is left when there's no pleasure?
Our films reflect that conservatism.
You know, I was just thinking about this. About the last eight or ten years of film in America and how many times in that period is abortion ever considered the good option for a woman? It is a woman's right to have an abortion in this country, you know--it's her legal, protected right and there are many valid reasons to have an abortion, but when is that ever portrayed in the movies as a positive thing? No, in the movies, the girls have the babies and give them for adoption, or raise them themselves--there's nothing that says abortion is your legal right and given your situation you need to make this hard decision--and then celebrates them for doing it. In all the movies, abortion is bad thing.
People have fought for that right, died for it, yes?
Of course. But that conservatism dictates that abortion is bad. The bad guys have cigarettes, the bad guys are Arabs. But the real bad guys are the ones that are clean-shaven, in suits, and full to the eyebrows with bullshit.
The ones with bullhorns and fingers pointing.
Yes! But, see, I hate to preach. I don't want to make a political movie--I think movies that preach are unbecoming and turns people away more than asks them to think. Thinking. Individuality is the basis of democracy. If you don't develop a personal point of view, you lose your democracy. That's why my film is about one person--that's where it starts.
With a healthy middle class, too.
Yes. The best bellwether for a totalitarian state is the shrinking of the middle class. In every totalitarian system, economically, the middle class is the first casualty--if a country's becoming a fundamentalist dictatorship, you take the temperature of that class. It's these people with education, not rich enough not to be productive workers in their society, not so poor as to depend on social systems. Without a middle class, there is no healthy democracy.
It's a very insidious way to push your views.
Yes--you don't say anything outright, you pack it into movies for young people in attitudes and depictions and in no time at all your society is rebuilt along these loathsome, fundamentalist ideals, and now we're primed for a holy war.
How do you feel as a focal point for so many of these concerns?
Unqualified! Look, people look to me now as some kind of spokesperson somehow for anti-Muslim sentiment because I escaped from this totalitarian state--have suffered from this regime. But I cannot be anti-Muslim, I'm not anti-Muslim, I have no problem with Islam. Islam, you know, is just like any other religion. My problem is a common sense one, I have a problem with people killing in the name of Islam. So should every Muslim. So should every moral person in the world. Christianity's hands in the past are not without blood but Christians had an Enlightenment that separated the affairs of the state from the affairs of the Church--that's what Islam should aspire to.
And what we should resist.
So where is hope?
(laughs) The hope that I have is that I can make a movie that I believe in that I can screen in Switzerland and Japan and America to find that the places that I laugh are the places that everyone laughs. We cry for the same reasons: we're sick, or our mothers are dead. When we can communicate this way we're touching one another's souls and it gives me hope. But at the same time, you have to be some kind of pervert to even want to be responsible for; to influence so many people.
Meaning we're fucked because we're led by only these kinds of people.
(laughs) The problem is the wrong people are the ones that want to be powerful. Technology is another problem. It's too advanced. Not just bombs that can destroy states, but the dissemination of information that can be so easily corrupted--you can change sound, and video, and intelligence, and opinions. Your news does it, our news does it, Arab news does it, French news, BBC... Everybody has their own agenda and technology makes it easy to manipulate and easy to distribute. Now with this other technology, it doesn't take raising an army of a million men to start a war--it takes a dozen angry boys with laptop computers and dirty bombs.
In the news today, Bush disregarding new intelligence about Iran's nuclear intentions.
What a scary fucker that one is. He does the same thing in Iraq now he wants to push into Iran but Iran is not Iraq. Iran was always a state in tension--it took a madman like Hussein to hold them together uneasily. It's a country that had only a hundred years of history. Iran is a country with four thousand years of history. It's a big country. It's not fragmented like Iraq was. It's trouble. Bush... I can't conceive of it. He can't. I hope he can't. Listen--you attack Afghanistan and that you can justify: you overthrow the Taliban, you were attacked, how can you argue with that? But before you're finished... What a mess this has become.
How did it feel to hear your country identified as one of the "Axis of Evil"?
I felt scared. Not just for my country but for all of us. I felt angry, too. Angry that so many people would follow this man, would elect him twice to this office and put him in a position to do this, to say these things. I began to think about taking sleeping pills and putting plastic bags over your head when you hear those air raid sirens begin. I don't know. It's very complex, right, we know that things never are that black and white, but I'm scared and I'm frightened. I look at Bush's declining popularity and it doesn't fill me with hope, it fills me with fear that he'll seek new enemies to distract the people with another threat that he can protect his sheep from.
No validity in his antagonism towards Iran?
Listen, my leader is crazy; your leader is crazy, we are suffering under bad leadership--but your bad leader, by doing these crazy things, has just made my bad leader look like a hero to a lot of people afraid of what the United States might do to them and their families.
My fear is that if we didn't make these maniacs outright, we're supporting them for their oil wealth, thus turning the population against the United States for contributing to their oppression.
There's no question. How could this crazy man in my country become a big man, an important man? It's insane. They know that it's going to happen--they do these things, and they make Ahmadinejad a big man, a hero for some, a protector against the invaders. Listen to how Bush talks about us, they say, look at how our media fans that fire--how yours does. There is so much information that there's no information.
There's wisdom in making Persepolis personal in the sense that if we humanize the enemy, it becomes harder to kill them.
Yes, exactly, this temptation to dehumanize people--"Muslims," "Terrorists," "Arabs"--okay, there's something very dangerous because the moment that human beings are not human beings anymore, it's very easy to annihilate them. Hundreds of people die every week in Iraq, and nobody here gives a shit. The Towers fall with thousands inside them and people celebrate in the streets in the Middle East. The power, the potential, of film is that we can maybe reach a lot of people with this little message that people everywhere have the same dreams and desires, are full of the same concerns, the same love of their families. It also has the power to make people crazy, to implant them with ideologies and aggression that they don't even know that they are learning but they take it to their hearts without filtering it. The situation is bad. You know, it took a madman like Hussein to pull the madness of Iraq's tensions together and now the United States has put itself in the unenviable position of being the new Hussein.
A bad strategy.
It's all cycles--it's all about propaganda and politics and money at the expense of others. Caesar tells Rome that these poor people the Gauls are going to come down and kill us so he takes the most advanced army in the Ancient World and exterminates them. Listen, we have bad leaders in the Middle East, I know this, it's obvious, we're behind, we're rushing to the Middle Ages in many ways, our religious leaders have done us no favours. But here, if I'm in my house and my husband is abusing me, but you break in, then I stand behind my husband and ask him to protect me from you. It's better the devil you know and at the end of the day, we're blood and you're in our home. There has to be a better way to support the dream of freedom of thought and body and spirit.
What concerns me a lot is that I believe that our leadership knows this.
I agree. Bush is an asshole, but he's not stupid. We're both, you know, we're both going backwards. We're in a race to turn back progress. They know what the infection is and how to spread the infection and they know how to kill the infection too, but they need the infection, they want the infection, because infection is good business.
No boom business like war.
You want to know where we are going to war you read the financial pages of the WALL STREET JOURNAL. Politics push the buttons of emotion. Emotion is very easy. You make them wild, crazy, afraid and then you turn them out into the street. When you ask questions you ask them to make an effort, it takes a long time--but the questions, the conclusions you come at on your own you carry next to your heart forever. These politician's phrases that you snatch out of the air: they're gone before you can bring them to your mouth. Our culture is not of destruction, exactly. It's of, in a lot of ways, ease. You don't trust your people--I'm talking about all of us now--you don't trust your people to be smart and they will not disappoint you.
"Nuance" is a bad word, though.
Yes, it makes you a pussy, a faggot--and that's another fundamental conservative idea, right, that it's bad to be effeminate because you only make love to create children. So here we have this abridgement of personal freedom, of pleasure, and it's all based on this essential, conservative religious viewpoint that is the root of all of the troubles of the world.
There's this fallacy that we flirt with that just because it's always been this way, we consent to the idea that it always shall--and should be.
You know, interesting that you say that because I was talking to this journalist, this tiny, short little man, about the problem of health care in this country. He tells me that this is the law of nature that the strong survive. And I look at him and I'm thinking that if Darwin had his say in a law of nature debate, you wouldn't have the right to reproduce, to eat, to survive because of your size. The big, powerful male hoards the females--a little man like you has a lot of gall to make pronouncements like this and you find that everywhere you go, the presidential palace, the churches, the mosques, are full of little men who are drunk on their unnatural power. But listen, we're not animals. We don't live by the law of nature, because we are civilized.
(laughs) You can't change the world with what you write, I can't change the world with what I write or with my movie, but you try and in the trying you meet others who are trying and there's your hope.
(laughs) That's it. If I know that they're going to push the button, I'll shout and hopefully others will shout with me, and maybe we shout loud enough that something happens. There's your hope.
I heard that you had a bet with Art Spiegelman about Bush getting re-elected--did you pay off?
Yes. Not only did I have to live with the knowledge that America had re-elected this man, but I had to pay for a very expensive dinner in Paris. I lost twice. I lost my hope and my money.
It's worse than that because now with Sarkozy you have to move again.
Tell me about the period immediately after the Shah was deposed.
Ah, you know, let me tell you about this time. He was gone for about a month. We didn't have an army, no police, nothing. And for this month, we had the lowest rate of theft, of murder, of anything. Everyone was behaving well--it was this moment of grace where everyone believed that they had an opportunity to create something great. It was a moment where everything was possible, the moment that we all dreamed of, that we all fought for and talked about all into the night. We had one moment in time to be as good as we wanted to be, to show that we deserved this civilization.