Persepolis: Animated Exile

You don’t have to wind Marjane Satrapi up to get her talking about her terrific graphic novel The Complete Persepolis. Or the funny, heartbreaking, hand-animated movie she’s made out of it with co-director Vincent Paronnaud. Or the complexities of her native Iran under various dictators, or what it’s like to be in self-imposed exile, or the sorry state of the world today, or anything else you might throw at her. Biting into a plum in the obligatory Four Seasons hotel suite, Satrapi, a vivacious round imp clad in head-to-toe basic black — Paris black, not Islamic Republic black — displays the same darting intellectual curiosity, the same irreverent big mouth, and the same warm appreciation for family and friends as does her alter ego in the semiautobiographical Persepolis.

Spanning the years from the overthrow of the Shah and the Islamic Revolution through the war with Iraq to 1994, when Satrapi left her native country for the second time to live and work in France, the lustrous black-and-white film slyly operates on several levels at once, from the sociopolitical to the soulfully emotional. Satrapi readily concedes that, in part, Persepolis is an account of what it felt like to grow up in a nation exchanging one form of totalitarianism for another, an experience that has turned her into an ardent humanist with a scathing mistrust of ideology. And by that she doesn’t just mean the Shah’s feudal blather, or the God that failed her as a child, or the doctrinaire Marxism that sent her beloved uncle to his death at the hands of the same rabid Islamic fundamentalists who also sent thousands of their eager young followers to die as “martyrs” in that other pointless war ?with Iraq.

“The ideologists themselves, they never go and die,” Satrapi says vehemently in heavily accented but fluent English. “And I say, ‘If this is the school of dying for your ideas, why don’t you go and die? Why do you send us?’ With all the blood that has been thrown on the ground for this, and nothing has changed, I say it’s better to die in a very slow way, and just talk and talk and talk.” She laughs. “That has been my decision in life.”

In art, too. Gabby as all get out, Persepolis may be an intensely subjective tale of a stroppy, observant little girl growing up in a loving family, but it’s also a portrait of a society rich in internal contradictions that run counter to Western preconceptions. Satrapi’s secular, open-minded parents, who supported her choices even when they disagreed with them, continue to live in Iran today, undisturbed by the authorities despite Satrapi’s international fame as a dissenter. “Other than maybe at the beginning of the revolution,” she says, shrugging, “I have never heard of an Iranian family being punished for the dissidence of one of its members.” And she’s quick to point out that, for all Iran’s near-medieval patriarchy, its double standards of sexuality, the public harassment of women by the clothing police in absurd rituals depicted with bitterly antic satire in the film — there may be no better place in the world for a woman to get educated.

“The Iranian regime has its bad side, everybody knows about that,” she says. “But calling them the Taliban is inaccurate. They never stopped the girls going to school. Sixty-five percent of Iranian university students are women, even in engineering, and they get good jobs too. These women are more educated than their own husbands, fathers, brothers. The biggest enemy of democracy is patriarchal culture. If the father is the patriarch of the family, the dictator is the father of the nation. So if you want to make a democracy, you have to have equality between men and women. That’s where the changes will come from.”

Still, Persepolis is no polemic. “As an artist,” Satrapi says, “I have decided to take a step back, not to be angry, not to try to answer stupidity with stupidity, arrogance with arrogance, but just to make a completely antifanatic work. I was born in a certain place at a certain time, and this is what I felt and heard and saw. Nothing is more universal than one human being. One human being you can identify with, and that’s why we made it an animation. Drawing is the first language of the human being: Before writing or talking, people drew.” The movie is an artful, deeply and playfully subjective realization of what Satrapi calls “stylized realism,” influenced by German-Expressionist surrealism on the one hand and Italian neorealism on the other. Like many graphic novelists, Satrapi was inspired by Art Spiegelman’s Maus, which liberated the form from its superhero stranglehold. “I realized that the comic book was not a genre but a medium, and I can do anything with that.” She shudders. “Imagine if I had to turn my book into live action with blood and meat and bone and hair,” she says. “Let’s leave reality to the reality show and all those perverts. I want to show the truth, not the reality.”

Satrapi is eager to make another movie with Paronnaud, but after pounding the promotion trail for weeks, she says, “My soul is poor. I’m empty. I need to lie down and read, sit on my balcony, look, smoke my cigarette and think. When I have a rich soul again, then I will be generous enough to write another story.”

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