Story of Growing Up in Revolutionary Iran

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Author Marjane Satrapi's graphic novel Persepolis has been adapted for screen and opens today. It is the story of her childhood in Iran during the Islamic revolution.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

The writer Marjane Satrapi grew up in Iran during its revolution. She turned that experience into a graphic novel "Persepolis." It became a movie, which opens today.

This is a memoir…

Ms. MARJANE SATRAPI (Author, "Persepolis"): Yes.

INSKEEP: …and I'd like to know, can I presume that everything in here is true and happened this way? Or is it a memoir in some broader sense?

Ms. SATRAPI: I don't like, you know, this notion of reality to tell you the truth. I mean, even if it was all real, I would say, it wasn't.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SATRAPI: You know.

(Soundbite of movie, "Persepolis")

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) I'm the monster of darkness…

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Satrapi says the movie "Persepolis" is based on her experience during and after the 1979 revolution.

(Soundbite of bombing)

INSKEEP: She portrays herself as a rebellious child who loves heavy metal music, a child whose mother eventually declares, today's Iran is not for you.

atrapi tells that story in black and white images that make you think of some cartoon film noir. When Islamic fundamentalists replaced the Shah of Iran, one repressive government replaces another, her family suffers under both.

Yet Satrapi describes herself as a child so caught up in the revolution that she wants to torture an ex-official's son.

Ms. SATRAPI: The game of the children is very much influenced, you know, with what is happening around them. So, you know, we had - we were in this time that, you know, people that were coming out of the prisons, explaining how they were tortured, they say to us. So we were outside and these kid came and - and so, you know, I said, you know, his father was from the secret service of Shah so we have to torture him. So that was the game because we just reproduced what we heard and, you know, we…

INSKEEP: Going to get revenge for…

Ms. SATRAPI: Yes, exactly. You know, the whole feeling of revenge, and he's going to be whipped on his head, but before he actually put this in his mouth and chew it three times. That is - we wanted to eat - make him eat garbage.

INSKEEP: Mm-hmm. What was that transition like as - you would've been in 1980, how old?

Ms. SATRAPI: I was 10 in 1980.

INSKEEP: In 1980, you were 10.

Ms. SATRAPI: Yes.

INSKEEP: And what was it like simply in your schooling going from pre-revolutionary times to post-revolutionary times? What happened to you?

Ms. SATRAPI: Well, you know, when I was in my school - I mean, the big change was that, you know, we had to put the veil on our head, but this was not a big deal. I mean, I - as I remember, I'm very much playing with this veil and everything.

INSKEEP: You actually have an illustration very early in the novel that became the movie. Little girls running around pulling off their veils saying it's too hot. Somebody's saying, oh I'm the monster of darkness, pulling the veil over her face.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SATRAPI: Yes.

INSKEEP: People using it as reins for a horse going on and on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SATRAPI: Yes. But that's just - that is the way it was, you know. I mean, that was, you know, that - we were the generation, you know. Suddenly they told us to put that on the head. But, you know, this for me, has never been the real issue, you know. The real issue, you know, that is for me is the human rights, it's the freedom of expression. It's the freedom of thinking, you know. These are just symbolic of the lack of freedom. But then, some of these is nothing, so.

INSKEEP: I want to play a clip from the movie here if I can. This is a scene where you are described going out in search of punk music.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Going on to a street corner and there's people with long coats standing around muttering. Let's take a listen.

(Soundbite of movie, "Persepolis")

Unidentified Man #2: Stevie Wonder.

Unidentified Man #3: Julio Iglesias.

Unidentified Man #4: Pink Floyd.

Unidentified Man #5: Jykel McSan(ph).

Unidentified Man #6: Iron Maiden.

INSKEEP: Iron Maiden. Is that really what you loved when you were a young teenager?

Ms. SATRAPI: Yeah. Of course.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SATRAPI: It wasn't, you know, like all the young teenagers, I had a very bad taste.

INSKEEP: Well, you know, if you're an Iron Maiden fan, it's good taste, I suppose.

Ms. SATRAPI: Yes, but I am not an Iron Maiden fan anymore, but, you know, at the time I was a teenagers, yes, I was too much in hard rock music, yes.

INSKEEP: Did you understand the lyrics?

Ms. SATRAPI: You don't need to understand the lyrics. Actually, they never say anything interesting, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SATRAPI: They just yell and, you know. It's from the second music, you know that you don't have to yell, everything is fine.

INSKEEP: But it spoke to you.

Ms. SATRAPI: Oh yeah, of course, of course.

INSKEEP: Why do you think it was that in the end, you could not find a way to tolerate the Islamic Republic?

Ms. SATRAPI: You know, I'm a really individualistic person. I'm extremely narcissistic and egocentric too. So I have one life, and I have to live it the way I want. And, you know, just to have to behave in a certain way in the street, just having to wear something I don't want to wear, just not being able to express exactly what I want to do, that was - that was something - I just couldn't handle it. I just couldn't, you know.

INSKEEP: Which raises another question that's difficult to pose, you write in the book that became a movie, you write that you want people to understand…

Ms. SATRAPI: Mm-hmm.

INSKEEP: …that there's more than fundamentalism - Islamic fundamentalism…

Ms. SATRAPI: Yes.

INSKEEP: … going in Iran.

Ms. SATRAPI: Well, of course.

INSKEEP: Does your story suggest that in a way, in a sad way, the only thing going on in Iran is fundamentalism because even though people would like to be doing other things, they can't. You have to leave.

Ms. SATRAPI: Oh, no. This is not true. What you say I think is going too far what you said. People - they do exactly what they have to do, but they have to make it in a different way. This is not it. It's that people - they have the life but, you know, it's a little bit more difficult to make it than if they were here. They can listen to the music, I mean, just to take the - just (unintelligible) example, instead of going to the, I don't know, Virgin store and buy it, they have to go to the black market. It doesn't stop them to listen to the music. It doesn't stop them for, you know, doing. It doesn't stop them for living, for having fun or to have a brain and to think about it.

INSKEEP: Can you go back to Iran if you want to?

Ms. SATRAPI: I can go back. It's not sure that I can leave it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SATRAPI: Yes.

INSKEEP: Have you tried in recent years?

Ms. SATRAPI: No. No, no. No. But, you know, that you have a government is something, but saying that all the Iranian people they are fanatics. This is not true.

INSKEEP: Oh, I don't mean to suggest that for a moment.

Ms. SATRAPI: No. No.

INSKEEP: I guess my question is, is Iran's government powerful enough that in the end, Islamic fundamentalism permeates everything or if you disagree with it pollutes everything that everybody tries to do?

Ms. SATRAPI: I don't think that nothing can pollute anything. You know, I mean, that is something in the human nature that is the search of the freedom that, you know, and it always go in one direction. And, you know, even the communist empire with all those KGB and all the big fuss, and the rocket and everything, they didn't stay forever. It never lasts these things, you know. It's always a decline. It always happen.

INSKEEP: Well, Marjane Satrapi, I've enjoyed speaking with you.

Ms. SATRAPI: Thank you very much. Me too.

INSKEEP: The movie "Persepolis" opens in theaters on this Christmas day.

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'Persepolis'

Persepolis

Based on the bestselling graphic novel, Persepolis is the story of a spunky, Iranian girl whose life is upended by the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Above, Marjane outwits two guardians of the revolution who are harassing her for dressing "punk." Marjane Satrapi/Sony Pictures Classics Inc. hide caption

itoggle caption Marjane Satrapi/Sony Pictures Classics Inc.
  • Directors: Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud
  • Genre: Animation, Comedy, Drama
  • Running Time: 95 min

A young, naturally rebellious Iranian girl's life is upended by the fall of the Shah and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in this poignant, animated coming-of-age story. Based on the four-volume bestselling graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi, the film tells of a spunky, independent kid who's used to wearing sneakers and playing ball with boys in 1970s Iran, when overnight, everything about her society changes.

There's excitement in her family at first, as they assume that the end of a hated dictatorship will lead to a more just and open society, but the religious government that replaces the Shah proves restrictive in different ways. Suddenly, Marjane must wear heavy robes, cover her hair and enter school by different doors than the boys do.

Intellectual dissent is not tolerated, and Marjane's relatives are imperiled for a whole new set of reasons. Her parents send her to study in Europe, and at first the freedom she finds there is liberating. But she misses her country and the life she had there with her family, and returns to find the place utterly changed and far less inviting.

The film's nuanced view of social issues is complemented by lovely black-and-white animation work that blends Islamic motifs into a sort of Yellow Submarine-ish world, where Marjane fantasizes conversations with God and Karl Marx, and where imagination runs free.

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