The Iranian author and filmmaker talks about the impact her animated film Persepolis as she prepares to screen her latest project, Chicken With Plums, at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.
Filmmaker Marjane Satrapi talks change
To a whole generation of idealistic young people in a dozen or more countries who want to change their world, the 41-year-old Iranian writer and film director Marjane Satrapi is a heroine and role model. Since the publication of her graphic novels, Persepolis 1 and 2, which have sold more than a million copies, and their adaptation into one Oscar-nominated animation film, a large, youthful fan base has been eagerly devouring all her work and analysing her opinions.
The story of Persepolis (the Greek name for ancient Persia) is Satrapi's own coming-of-age. This memoir - in turn charming, serious and amusing - tells of the childhood years in Iran of the outspoken character Marji, the overthrow of the Shah, the harsh repression of the post-revolutionary years under Ayatollah Khomeini, her dislike of being made to wear a veil, her parents sending her off to Europe to escape the regime, and her gradual maturing as a young adult after a rebellious, wayward adolescence.
Satrapi has avid followers in Iran, where she grew up; in France, where she now lives; and across the Middle East and north Africa. They include people of all ages and both genders, but the heaviest concentration seems to be among educated, upwardly mobile young women who believe in gender equality, but who live under governments that find their modern views alarming.
We have seen much of these women in recent TV news footage - usually out in the streets of their capital cities, demonstrating in favour of change. Think of those members of Iran's Green Movement in the past two years, who came together to urge the removal of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from office after what they felt was a rigged election. Consider the street protests in Tunisia, which led to the overthrow of the government in January. Then there's the Egyptian uprising this year, which led to the ousting of the former President Hosni Mubarak after three decades.
In each case, bright-eyed, eloquent young women have been unafraid to face TV cameras and tell the world the changes they want to see in their societies. They have been just as visible as their male compatriots. Satrapi approves of all this: as she sees it, these young women represent the future in Arab and Islamic states.
"The biggest enemy of democracy is a patriarchal culture," she says. "It's not one person or one government, we never have to forget that... So the change in Iran is a deep change, and I have lots of hope for it.
"When I see the Tunisian revolution, I have hope too because I see as many women in the streets as men. But when I look at Libya, I have less hope because I only see men. And until women and men are out together on the streets, I think these cultures are not changed."
Satrapi is a petite woman who makes a big impact on any room she enters. As she talks, she gesticulates wildly, and her mass of black, unruly hair goes flying.
We meet at the Venice Film Festival, where her second film, Chicken With Plums - like Persepolis, co-directed by the French cartoonist Vincent Paronnaud - is receiving its world premiere. Satrapi will be doing the rounds of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival this weekend, including making a red-carpet appearance at the Abu Dhabi Theatre on Friday evening, when her film is due to screen for the first time.
Today, the subject of women in Arab and Islamic countries is the topic that is engaging her. "In Iran, you're in a country where for 30 years they've said to the women they're worth half of the men," she says. "As a result, 65 per cent of our students are girls. These girls are going to be educated - more so than their fathers and their brothers. And they work."
In 1979, after the revolution, Satrapi says most men were happy their wives and daughters would have the veil again.
"My father was one of the few men who demonstrated with the women against the veil. So changes needed to come from deep down. At last they are. That's why I have a lot of hope for Iran."
In her formative years Satrapi blazed a trail for independent-minded Iranian women. Persepolis, apart from providing a potted recent history of her country, also traces her growing awareness of her potential and her struggles against the limitations that Iranian society imposed on her.
As a child she witnessed some grim events. There was the 1979 revolution that drove the Shah from Iran; it was initially welcomed by her family, especially her socialist father, but it ushered in an era of repression, typified by the insistence that women should wear veils. Satrapi was in Tehran for the first part of the Iran-Iraq war; she experienced an Iraqi air raid, and according to Persepolis, the house next door to her family's was hit by an Iraqi Scud missile, which killed one of her best friends.
Her parents' decision to remove her from this war zone and allow her to continue her education in Vienna proved a mixed blessing. Satrapi was a wilful child, and her abrasive manner caused her problems. She changed residences several times, eventually sleeping rough for a spell. She hit adolescence with a vengeance, smoking, wearing mini-skirts, dabbling in drugs and latching on to unsuitable boyfriends. At times she felt an outcast as an Iranian, and sometimes tried to pass herself off as French.
She missed Iran, and after the war returned to Tehran, to her parents' relief. But the ravaged city felt like a graveyard to her. She was diagnosed with clinical depression. She stayed long enough to get her master's degree in visual communication, and at the age of 21 wed an Iranian man. The marriage lasted only three years. She then moved to France.
Her story has serious, even heart-breaking elements - odd material, one might think, for an animated film, featuring childlike, hand-drawn characters, mostly in black and white. But Satrapi and Paronnaud knew what they were doing.
"Drawings are abstract," she has said. "Work with actors and we'd have a bunch of Arab people in a specific country. It would be an ethnic movie, whereas drawings bring a universality to the whole."
True, and there are also light, funny moments in Persepolis, among them Satrapi's growing maturity being shown via her embrace of various pop artists, songs or genres: punk-rock, the Bee Gees, Michael Jackson, Iron Maiden, Iggy Pop, the song Eye of the Tiger.
Yet the story's major theme is Satrapi's unbreakable sense of family and her deep affection for her parents, her uncle - and her grandmother, who tells her: "Never forget who you are and where you come from." Her advice, of course, echoes Satrapi's deep love for Iran, from which she is exiled.
These thoughts spill over into her new film, Chicken With Plums, which is set in Tehran in 1958 and is about a famous violinist who loses the will to live when his beloved instrument is broken. He retreats to his bed, and thinks back on incidents in his past life - and a woman he loved but lost.
"The truth is that I had this great-uncle, who was a musician," Satrapi says. "He died for some unknown reason, out of sadness. And from there, with different stories that I've heard, that I've seen and gone through myself, you create a story."
Like Persepolis, Chicken With Plums springs from Satrapi's graphic novel. But it's mostly a live-action film with a distinguished cast. The leading French actor Mathieu Amalric plays the violinist; Isabella Rossellini is his mother. It's shot playfully, with dream-like sequences, flashbacks, parodies of film styles (including American sitcoms), touches of kitsch and magical realism - and a little animation.
"It was easier to adapt than Persepolis," says Satrapi. "There wasn't the same emotional burden. With Persepolis, I lived the story, relived it to write the books, then relived it again for the film. That was tough."
Some critics in Venice found Chicken With Plums a disappointment after Persepolis, but that will not trouble Satrapi's fan base. She is now established as a filmmaker of international repute - and was even before Persepolis was a hit; it was originally shot in French, and when she was seeking an English-language voice cast, she already had the reputation - and the nerve - to pick up the phone and persuade Sean Penn (who played Satrapi's father) and Gena Rowlands (her grandmother) to sign up.
"It was the same with Chicken With Plums," she says. "We landed all our first-choice actors. I called Isabella Rossellini and asked if she'd like to play the part. She said with her big voice: 'Oh, of course I want to make your movie'. I said: 'Let me send you the script,' and she said: 'No, no, I just want to work with you'."
Satrapi now lives in Paris with her second husband, Mattias Ripa, a Swedish émigré who was one of the translators of the Persepolis books. She finds Paris an agreeable place for an artist and writer to live, but misses her homeland. She would find it hard to return, fearing she would be targeted. Persepolis is viewed by the Iranian authorities as Islamophobic.
Tellingly, in Chicken With Plums, the woman who is the violinist's lost love is named Iran.
"It exists as a name there," Satrapi says. "It was absolutely done on purpose, because in the fifties the whole hope of democracy in Iran went to hell. It's like this lost love - this man loves this woman but he cannot be with her because her father won't let it happen. So of course there's a parallel. There's this country I love, and this dictator who doesn't let me have it."
Her homeland is always in her thoughts, then?
"Well, of course," she says. "Iran comes back to me in my dreams."
Chicken With Plums is showing on Friday at 6.30pm at Abu Dhabi Theatre and on Saturday, October 15, at 2.30pm at Vox 8.