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On topic of fanatics, she gets animated

(Globe Staff / Dan Wasserman)
By Dan Wasserman
Globe Staff / January 26, 2008
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Comics author and film director Marjane Satrapi left no doubt last week about her reaction to a possible Oscar nomination for her animated memoir, "Persepolis." "I will make the biggest party in the world. I will drink so much."

Let the pouring begin: "Persepolis," directed by Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, got a best animated feature nod Tuesday, along with "Ratatouille" and "Surf's Up."

Satrapi not only likes to drink. She likes to smoke, to swear, and to draw comics about sex, politics, and religion. She is every fundamentalist's nightmare. In 1994, at age 25, Satrapi left Iran for good, moved to Paris and recorded the terrors and ironies of her life under religious tyranny in two volumes of black and white drawings. Her parents, featured prominently in her account of her adolescence, still live in Iran. Her books circulate there clandestinely.

Ebullient, funny, and blunt, Satrapi is nearly unstoppable in conversation. She speaks six languages, but English is the only one she never studied formally. "I learned it from American movies," she recounts, in part to explain her occasional lapses into profanity. Over the course of an hour being interviewed in a Globe conference room, she lit cigarettes in defiance of Boston's indoor smoking ban, sipped black coffee, and tried to keep a mane of jet-black hair out of her eyes.

Satrapi bristles at a frequent characterization of her work: "I hate this word 'graphic novel.' It is a term publishing houses have created for the bourgeois so they wouldn't be ashamed of buying comics. . . . I'm not a graphic novelist. I am a cartoonist and I make comics and I am very happy about it. I never wanted to make a graphic novel. As soon as you become a 'writer,' you have to be intelligent all the time. . . . I like the fact that I have the right once in a while to say silly things."

Transforming her books into a feature-length animated film took two years, 150,000 drawings, and the collaboration of 100 animators. All the animation was done by hand in a studio in Paris. The collective effort was an adjustment. "Working with other people was difficult for me because I am a solitary person. . . . I had to work with these other people that were not only drawing me but they wanted to draw like me. . . . At the beginning really I hated them, then I got used to them, and finally I enjoyed them. . . . People there really embraced the project."

"Persepolis" is merciless in its mockery of the male chauvinism of fundamentalist Iran, but Satrapi is uneasy with the label "feminist." "If feminism means that the men and the women are equal, then I'm a feminist. This is a humanistic concept. But what really [peeves me] is that, when I come [to the United States], people that are feminist, whatever is nasty, they say, 'Oh it is such a masculine behavior.' Come on. . . . You have people who are nice and people who are bad, and it has nothing to do with the gender. . . . The problem is that in a patriarchal schema, who is the one who raises the kids? It's the woman. Who is the one who says to her son, 'You have all the freedom, but your sister doesn't'? . . . Who is the one who mistreats her daughter-in-law? This is the woman. So this woman is just as patriarchist as the men. And then you have some men like my father who was not like that. So I cannot condemn the men. It is not a question of men and women. It's a question of stupidity."

Nothing strikes the cartoonist as more stupid than fanaticism. "A Muslim fanatic and a Christian fanatic, a Jewish fanatic, a secular fanatic, an atheist fanatic, a communist fanatic - all of them are the same. The thinking that if you don't think like me, that if you are not with me, then you are against me, this is something to condemn." She extends the parallels to "the bearded guy of my country and George Bush. . . . One says, 'Read the Koran,' the other says, 'Read the Bible.' One is fighting the axis of evil, the other one is fighting the big Satan. God is their best friend, God is with them. . . . They use different words, but the idea remains the same."

In her youth, Satrapi struggled with the fear instilled by Iran's totalitarian regime. The movie depicts the moment in her life of which she is least proud - she pointed out an innocent passerby to the Guardians of the Revolution to avoid her own arrest. She receives a severe reprimand from her grandmother, the moral fulcrum of her story. "I think that you learn how to deal with your fear. Fear is like a sickness, like being hungry, like being sleepy. . . . You say to yourself, 'If I live with it, I will lose my dignity.' . . . I can lose anything. I can lose my teeth, I can lose my health, I can lose my money . . . but the one thing that I cannot lose is my dignity because if I lose this one, what is the point of living at all?"

She sees art as an antidote. "Any artistic work is an anti-fanatic work, and I will tell you why. Fanaticism presses on the button of emotion, and as soon as [they] play with the emotions of people, they can make them crazy. . . . Any intellectual work that asks from the other person to make an effort is an anti-fanatic work because it doesn't use the emotions of people. It asks people not only to be smart but [also] to make an effort. And not everybody is smart and not everyone wants to make an effort, but that's the only way if we want real changes. Otherwise . . . it's just a question of manipulation."

Satrapi first visited the United States in 1999 and, with a dim view of America's role in Iranian history, she was prepared to "find good reason to hate all Americans." "I had this fantasy that in a democracy the government was the population. So I came to America and got a big slap in my face. . . . Americans were not what I thought. I thought I was going to see bastards and I saw nice people, very friendly to me." Her affection grew to the point that during the last US election, "I was the one who was defending America in France."

And she loves the English language. "French," she explains, "has no word for 'fun.' "

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