Marjane Satrapi is an Iranian-born French author, graphic novelist, director, and illustrator. As a child, she attended the Lycée Français in Tehran, where her family was involved with communist and leftist political groups partly responsible for the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Her graphic novel, “Persepolis,” is a memoir of her childhood growing up during the Revolution, the subsequent Islamic regime that took control of Iran after the Revolution, and the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. In 1983, her parents sent her to Austria, where she attended the Lycée Français de Vienne. After graduating from high school, she returned to Iran and attended University there. At twenty-one, Satrapi married an Iranian man, but the marriage lasted only three years. Satrapi has written about these events in her later life in the second installment of her graphic novel series, “Persepolis 2.” She became well-known for her work through the publication of the “Persepolis” novels. First published in France, the novels were published in the United States in the early 2000s, and won numerous awards and much critical acclaim. Satrapi co-wrote and co-directed the animated film version of “Persepolis,” which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007. In 2008, the film was nominated for an Academy Award. Satrapi made her feature debut, “Chicken with Plums” in 2011 and subsequently directed “Gang of the Jotas” that premiered at the 2012 Rome Film Festival, “The Voices” that had its first festival bow at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and “Radioactive” that premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.
Tara Karajica talks to Marjane Satrapi about her latest film, “Radioactive,” starring Rosamund Pike as Marie Curie, and her career in Film, for which she has received the Vision Award at this year’s Evolution! Mallorca International Film Festival.
Can you talk about your jump from comic books to filmmaking?
Marjane Satrapi: I didn’t jump, really. The thing was that I was very happy making my comics and it was a friend of mine who wanted to become a producer and said: “Oh! Let’s turn Persepolis into a film.” I was very much against it because, first of all, adaptations are not fine and then, made by the author, it’s always a disaster. So, I was like: “Why should I think about the story for four years in one way and then rethink it in another way?” At the same time that I was thinking that, I was also thinking: “They’re going to pay you to learn something new. Normally, they don’t pay you to learn something new; it’s you who pays to learn something new. You’d be stupid not to try!” So, at the end, I said to myself: “I will probably make the worst film in the history of Cinema, but let’s give it a try!” And then, I started working on it and two things were really interesting: It’s the effect of surprise because when I make a book myself, at the end, when it’s finished, I have controlled everything – I know everything that is written. So, I don’t read my own book being very surprised. Never. There isn’t this notion of surprise. Then, when you make a film with people, the D.o.P. has an idea, the actor will propose something, the editor will make something new at the end and you have something over which you don’t have control and it will evolve into something that is different from your first idea and it is quite rewarding to have this effect of: “Wow!” Sometimes, it has happened to me that the actors do stuff and you’re like: “God! I’ve never thought about that!” And, it’s very nice. And another thing is that Cinema is a machine that creates empathy because it’s an experience that you go through with other people – even during the times of Covid, people watch a film together – so it’s a shared experience and it creates lots of emotions. The power of the image is quite incredible. So, actually, I went into Cinema a little bit against what I wanted and I enjoyed it a lot. And then, you have to do things that you really like to do; otherwise, it’s better to work in a bank and have a salary every month. It has to do with what you really feel like doing. You have to have the freedom of choosing what you want to do.
Persepolis and Chicken with Plums were based on your personal stories and those of your family. Can you talk about that?
M.S.: That was quite good because, at the same time, it is my world in which I feel very comfortable because I know each corner of it and I don’t need to document it to find out what it is, what it isn’t and so on. At the same time, it is easier and it is harder because things that are quite normal and obvious for you, you understand that they are not obvious for other people, so as much as I cannot control if people like my films or not, I can’t control if they understand what I want to say the way I want to say it. But my world is limited to my own person, so it’s not huge. When I work on other people’s scripts, it has the advantage that I will actually work on something that is really not my domain and I have to make efforts to understand what it is and go from there, so that makes it very, very interesting.
In that sense, you later moved on from your personal stories to someone else’s stories and someone else’s scripts with The Voices and Radioactive. Was that liberating in a way?
M.S.: Very much so! Very much so, because you already have lots of things to think about. So, if I write the script myself, if somebody tells me: “Oh! This is too much!” It’s like if you ask me to cut my arm or my nose. Everything is important to me. I can have the distance to say: “OK, this works, that does not work…” We already have this distance and it makes it easier. But, at the same time, in the case of The Voices, I could never imagine myself, sitting at my desk and saying: “I’m going to write a story about a serial killer who talks to his dog and his cats and kills women and puts their heads in the fridge.” I would never think about something like that! But, when it comes to me, then it becomes very interesting to me and I have to research what it means to be a schizophrenic and I have to go into the world of a serial killer, which I would normally not know. And now, I’m a specialist in serial killers! Anything you want to know – I know about serial killers! These are the things that open a door to you when the story and the script are good enough that you want to do it and you have to make all the efforts to make this story yours, otherwise I cannot do it. I’m not a doer. I really need to bring something, my vision and make it mine. So, by wanting to make it mine, I really have to know everything about it. It’s very enriching as a process, I guess.
Radioactive is based on a comic book. Was that a coincidence?
M.S.: Yes! I first read the script and I thought it was fantastic! And then, two months later, I understood that it was based on a book, and then, even later, I understood that it was based on a graphic novel. I didn’t know about it. But even with the best book in the world – let’s say, for example, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez – it’s a fantastic book, but how can you make that into a film? It’s just impossible! A good book is not always a good idea to turn into a film. A book is a book and a film is a film. It was just pure coincidence.
You always create a fantasy world in your films and pay a lot of attention to the visual style and the color coordination of your films. Does this have to do with your past as a painter?
M.S.: Obviously, it has to do with my past as a painter! But also a little bit like Gabriel García Márquez – all is this parallel life. For me, it’s not something odd; it’s like: “This is the world as we see it and there are lots of things that are happening that we don’t see, but I’m completely open.” And, I always see extremely weird things and I don’t think I provoke them. I only think that my eyes are just open enough to see them. People don’t look at things. It’s sufficient to look and you see lots of incredible things happening – even during your half-hour walk, you will see lots of incredible things happening. But then, I always find an angle because otherwise it’s not interesting to me. The things I have already seen, I have already seen them, but I want to create something I have not seen. And here, for example, in Radioactive, it was great because suddenly you are like: “How am I going to show the atom? How am I going to show the electron? How am I going to show the radioactivity?” All of these things that are invisible. So, this woman is in grief, she has lost her husband, she has a nightmare, so let’s actually show the nightmare. What will it be like? How do you visualize a nightmare without saying: “This is a nightmare”? So, all of that is very interesting because visually it demands a lot of effort from me to imagine how to put that into reality and this is why I have come up with this idea that she has a little flask in which she has this green thing. Obviously, she has never done that, but you have to show this relationship that she had with this element that she discovered. So, these are the things that made it much more interesting to me.
In Radioactive, you show Marie Curie as a human and not a very easy character, which you make very clear. You don’t idolize her at all and you want to show that imperfections in women should be accepted. Can you elaborate on that?
M.S.: Do you know how many times I have been told: “Marie Curie is not very nice!”? And, I was like: “OK, a genius man has the right to have all kinds of behavior. He can be erratic. He can shout at people. It’s OK. He’s a genius, I will forgive him. You will say, Pablo Picasso was an as*hole with women, but he was a genius. Both of them are true – he was an as*hole with women and he was a genius. And, obviously, he fell in love with one and then he drew her many, many times and then, it was enough and he had to go to the next, and the next and the next. That’s OK, I can accept it, but why can’t you accept that for a woman? Why do you think because she is also a genius, she doesn’t have the time to think: ‘Does my neighbor like me?’” Genius people are difficult people, obviously, because they are focused, they don’t have the time to think about everything else and try to please. A man who doesn’t try to please, you find that he is really a pure person who does not care about pleasing, but when a woman doesn’t like to please, then it becomes a problem. I don’t like people in general who like to please. People are who they are and basically, most of the time, I love them more for their negative side than for their positive side. It’s what attracts me the most. Marie Curie was a genius and I don’t think that by baking apple pies, she would be the genius that she was and that is what I always say to the people.: “If she’s as nice as your wife, then she doesn’t become Marie Curie. She’s just your wife.”
What kind of impact do you think the film will have on women and girls who watch it to see Marie Curie in particular and women in general in a different way?
M.S.: Themselves, too. That’s why I didn’t want to idolize her because when you make an idea then, it becomes inaccessible. You have to think: “I can be this person.” Just being a little bit less unapologetic is very nice. I don’t think women should behave very well. If they are very well-behaved women, they don’t achieve anything in life. We need to behave a little bit badly. It’s very important not to do the things we are told to do. All my life, I have heard: “A real lady does not do that. A real lady does not do this…” One day, I was like: “You know what, f*ck the lady! I’m not a real lady! But, I’m a free person!” And, believe me, between choosing to be a free person or a lady – big time free person! I mean, f*ck the lady! Now and forever!
I agree with that! What is also very striking in Radioactive is that you talk about radioactivity. It’s not only about Marie or Pierre Curie, but it’s also about the discovery, radium, radioactivity, what a discovery means for the future of humankind and its domino effect and usage.
M.S.: Thank you for saying that! That is exactly it! This discovery is a discovery. Why do we discover? Because from being monkeys to becoming human beings and instead of being scared of everything that is happening, we tried to understand the secret of nature, but how does that work? This is science. The basis of biology, chemistry, astronomy, etc. Science is what makes human beings human beings and not monkeys anymore because they understand what’s happening around them and they are not scared of everything and they don’t go: “uff, uff uff,” hiding in the trees. The question isn’t that, it’s that I cannot talk about Marie Curie without talking about her discovery. She and Pierre were two of the most decent people in the world. They discovered two elements and the notion of radioactivity and they didn’t even patent all that, saying: “These are the elements of the nature, let people use them.” They were this decent. And, they asked: “Are you sure that you can use it to cure cancer?” And they were right because, even today, cancer is cured by radioactivity. And, more than forty years after their discovery, we had Hiroshima. Is it their fault? Of course not. They just discovered it. It’s what we do with the discovery. And, this thing that people say: “You can’t control it.” It’s completely false because more than twenty years ago, they cloned Dolly the sheep and they decided they would never ever clone a human being. And, more than twenty years later, they have not made a human clone. So, there is a committee of ethics that decided we should never do that and they didn’t do it. So, it’s possible not to do it. And, we have to ask ourselves this question for everything, for social media, for artificial intelligence, for whatever we discover… We have to put a limit to it because anything well-used is great, radioactivity well-used is f*cking great to cure cancer, but we just have to know it and set boundaries. But, is it because of that that we should not advance and not discover? Certainly not! Because the day we don’t advance with discoveries, we will become monkeys again.
Can we go back to your vision of women? I’m interested in the feminist orientalism and national identity in Persepolis. Can you comment on that?
M.S.: I don’t know that it is orientalism or not. I never consider myself as being occidental or oriental, I think it’s about the human being. My whole life – I’m fifty years old – I’ve lived eighteen years in my country, and I have not lived in my country for thirty-two years; practically my whole adult life I have not lived in my country, so I’m as oriental as I am occidental. I like feminism that is factual, that is why I like Marie Curie. She’s not a suffragette, she was never part of any feminist movement, but she is a feminist by doing. And, by doing, she shows that she is a scientist as good as men and better than most men in her domain. In general, for women or men, I don’t believe so much in words, only in experience and acts. Action and experience. Not blah, blah, blah… It’s very good that we talk about things. It’s very good that we nail them. The next step is to take action. The #metoo movement and all these women who were dressed in black… What does it mean to be dressed in black? This is not the message that we want to send, but more: “Get dressed in no matter what color. Don’t pout when you’re having your picture taken at a premiere or award show. Don’t put yourself out there as a sexual object who needs protection. Don’t play this game.” Otherwise, be naked, be dressed in pink, show your breasts or whatever… Your clothes are not what makes a difference and it’s not the color that makes the difference. It’s the look that you give. It’s how you consider yourself. So, I don’t like the show-off stuff. I need it to be factual. I need actions. And, in the women’s movement, some get dressed like men. And, I’m like: “So, you’re a feminist, but the message that you are sending is that ‘Oh! To be equal to a man, I have to look like one’ Why?” I’m a woman and I like to do my hair and put makeup on. I like all these things. But does this stop me from being intelligent? Or, have guts? It has nothing to do with it. At the same time, they say that, but it’s five thousand years of patriarchal culture, and we cannot erase that in a few years. I remember a couple of years ago, a man told me after the #metoo movement: “All these mediocre women are going to get all the films now and they’re going to make mediocre films.” And, I was like: “Darling, for one hundred years, all these mediocre men made mediocre films. What happened? Nobody died…” Let’s let mediocre women make mediocre films and among those, there are going to be a couple of very good films, and there will be some very good films by men too and that’s it. It’s not about talking, but doing. Action…
What are your thoughts on receiving the Vision Award at this year’s Evolution! Mallorca International Film Festival? How much does it mean to you?
M.S.: Very much! Very, very much! First of all, any award that celebrates your vision is always good. I love the “Vision” Award. Receiving an award for my vision, I find that extremely cool! But cooler than that is that the festival is actually happening physically and I think it’s extremely important that we keep on living – being responsible and everything, yes… But we need to live. We should celebrate culture in all its forms. I mean, our life cannot be about avoiding getting the virus, eating and sleeping. That cannot be it. We need more because we are human beings. We have to move on and we have to understand that there are things that are the cement of society and this is art, culture…
This interview was conducted at the 2020 Evolution! Mallorca International Film Festival.