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Friday, August 24, 2012

Less Veils, More Poetry -- Marjane Satrapi on Iran and Her Latest Film Chicken with Plums

Posted By on Fri, Aug 24, 2012 at 3:03 PM

  • Photo ©Patricia Khan, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Marjane Satrapi told her story about growing up in Iran, the fall of the Shah's regime, and going to Vienna to study in her multi-volume graphic novel, Persepolis. She and Vincent Parounnaud made that story into an animated movie of the same name in 2007. Now the two have collaborated on directing Chicken with Plums, a live-action film telling the story of a musician who decides to die when his beloved violin is broken, and he can't find a replacement. Satrapi, who based the character loosely on her uncle, was in San Francisco when the film played at the San Francisco Film Festival. She sat down with SF Weekly to talk about her obsession with life and death, her love of '50s films' aesthetics, and how she'd like people to talk about the poetry that's come out of Iran, rather than veils and nuclear war.

Was telling your uncle's story something you always had in mind?

In reality, it's not my uncle's story. A few years ago I saw a photo of this uncle, who is the uncle of my mother, and he looked extremely beautiful and had melancholy in his eyes. He had something wild and profound in him, and my mother explained to me he was a great musician and when he was playing in his garden, people would stop in the street and listen to his music, and he died because he was sad, but that is the only thing I know about him.

I was at a moment in my life when I was completely obsessed with life and death and love and the meaning of art and me and them and how and who, and so I just made a projection of myself on this uncle and lots of things that have happened in the family, but are not his stories particularly. So I used him, and then I went freestyle with the things that interested me. But I guess that everybody who write any kind of stories -- zombie stories, alien stories -- have to do with your personal obsessions inside.

You have said before that you're obsessed with death. How does that come up in the movie?

Normally a movie is made so that it's very important for you to know how he's going to die. So here, I killed the guy at the beginning. After 10 minutes he's dead, so now we are done with it, and the whole challenge was to make the story interesting still. There's nothing better than death to talk about life. We know he's going to die, he dies, and now we have all the leisure -- an hour and 22 minutes -- to talk about his life.

Did you make a decision to do live action, or did you think the story would just be better?

There were many reasons. We are not really animators. When I made Persepolis I never said to myself, "Okay, you are the new [Hayao] Miyazaki of Europe, and you have found this beautiful style and from now on, you're going to make all your movies in animation." People have lots of problems identifying themselves to people who do not look like them or to a geography that they are not familiar with. Then I think the story would have become a story of these third-world people, Middle Easterners who are far from us, and we don't know them. The abstraction of the drawing helps that anybody in the world can identify to a drawing.

The second film is a love story, it's much more universal -- it can happen anywhere. So that was why I wanted to try something new. Plus I thought the story needs a different form. This story is about a man who lies down in his bed. Then it goes beyond that. Then we go in his imagination, we go in his past, we go in his future, but everything is either in his room, or in his brain. So for that, you have to create a whole world. If you want to create a whole world, you have to go into the studio. And it happened in the '50s, and I love the aesthetic of films of the '50s, like Hitchcock, when you have a sunset that is purple and yellow and orange, and you know for sure it's not real, but you believe in it. And from the second you believe, you are in the fantastic world of Chicken with Plums.

I loved all the details in the scene where he goes to see the man about a violin.

In this film, it was a question of equilibrium. You have this story that if you make the pitch, it sounds very boring. You know, here's this depressed guy who decides to die, and after eight days, he dies. Wow, what a bore! Then, how to make that interesting? You know the vision I have of life, you don't have total happiness or total sadness. Always in life, you have ups and downs. In the saddest moments, you always have something funny. In the funniest moment, you have something that makes you sad. So everything we construct and deconstruct. In the last 12 minutes of the film, you have melodrama, which is very difficult to construct. If it becomes too sweet, it gives you the nausea. Nothing should become too sweet. So you have to make it funny and sad and full of hope and cynical.

In Persepolis, the political situation in Iran is very present. Did you see politics in this story?

Underneath you have politics because it happened in the '50s because in Iran, you had the big coup d'etat in Iran that killed the dream of democracy, and in this film the name of the lover is Iran, and that is not by coincidence. So if you notice it, good, but if you don't notice it, it should remain a beautiful love story. But for me, what was the most political is [that] our identity has been confiscated from us. We are the people that, when people talk about us, they talk about what happened after 1979. You either talk about beards or about veils or about the nuclear weapon or about war. Nobody talks about our great poets or our great philosophers or about our great civilization. Nobody talks about in this country people fall in love, and in this country the most beautiful poems about love have been written. So I think the political thing is to say in this country that you have prejudices about, a glamorous man died for the love of a glamorous woman in 1958, and that also existed.

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