Marjane Satrapi discusses the complexity of gender and art

The outspoken Iranian-born graphic novelist and filmmaker talks about the universality of stupidity

Marjane Satrapi does not mince words.

Even speaking as a jury member for an online film festival, the groundbreaking, Iranian-born graphic novelist and director (“Persepolis”) can’t bring herself to say she enjoys watching movies on a computer. “I hate it,” she said without hesitation the morning after she had been announced as one of the judges for the sixth edition of MyFrenchFilmFestival.com.

She has a point, but in this case, online cinema streaming is the lesser of two evils—the greater being that audiences across most of the globe don’t get a chance to see the festival’s entries at all.

The decline in distribution of foreign-language films in the U.S. over the last couple of decades has been well-chronicled. In Portland, we’re lucky enough to have events like the upcoming Portland International Film Festival and venues such as Cinema 21, the Living Room Theater, and the Hollywood Theatre, which provide opportunities for those who don’t fear the subtitle. Still, a lot of worthwhile new international cinema never makes it to the big screen in the States.

Marjane Satrapi

Marjane Satrapi

That’s where something like MyFrenchFilmFestival.com comes in handy. This online initiative offers a dozen feature films and a dozen shorts—all French, of course—to global audiences at a relative pittance. The shorts are all free, and the features (ten of which are available in this country) are streamable for only $2.20 each. (A festival pass covering all ten costs only $6.50.) The festival runs through February 18 at myfrenchfilmfestival.com. The films available run the gamut from in-your-face horror (“Allelulia”) to wacky romantic comedy (“Blind Date”) with several stops in between.

I was fortunate enough to attend the annual Rendezvous with French Cinema in Paris last week, and was invited to a gala event where the jurors and the titles selected were announced. In addition to Satrapi, the jury includes filmmakers Nicolas Wending Refn (“Drive”), Felix Van Groeningen (“The Broken Circle Breakdown”), Valerie Donzelli (“Declaration of War”), and David Robert Mitchell (“It Follows).

I met with Satrapi in the bar of the Hotel Scribe, which happens to be the place where, on December 28, 1895, brothers Auguste and Louis Lumiere held the first public demonstration of their new invention, the cinematograph. It’s a spot that has as good a claim as any to being literally the birthplace of cinema. That famous anecdote about spectators fleeing before an approaching on-screen train? That was here.

“The same thing still happens,” said Satrapi. “I still get trapped in a movie very easily. It’s like it was 1920, and I’ve never seen a movie before. I can’t step back and say, ‘Oh, the camera is here, the director is trying to do that.’ Sometimes when it’s bad, I know it. But when it’s smooth and nice, you really believe in the whole story.”

But “your point of view about a movie changes when you have to give a prize. You have to be very analytical about it,” she continued. “It’s a good exercise. Also, it pushes me to watch movies I never would watch otherwise.”

During the ceremony the night before, Refn had been asked about whether the experience of watching movies online was different or inferior to the theatrical experience, and he had answered rather dismissively that for him, it wasn’t at all. Satrapi clearly disagrees.

There are some perks to digital streaming, she admits. “There is a certain ease, I get that.” But as a filmmaker, “there is all this effort that we go to when making the frame. All this detail. Do you see it on the computer? No. It’s impossible. When you see a copy of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ on 70mm, for example, you notice that that thing you always thought was just a black cloud is actually thousands of people on camels. The sound work is also completely destroyed.”

Nonetheless, she acknowledges that digital distribution can allow some films that might otherwise get lost in the shuffle to find an audience. “You can make a really great blockbuster, or a really shitty independent film. Or vice versa. There’s a place for everything.”

Marjane Satrapi is best known for her graphic novel 'Persepolis' and its film version.

Marjane Satrapi is best known for her graphic novel ‘Persepolis’ and its film version.

Her own current project sounds like it lands somewhere between the two. “I’m working on a film that is going to be produced by French people but is going to be English language. It is the story of an Indian who comes to Paris. His cab wrecks, and he finds himself in an Ikea shop on the highway. He sleeps the night in the store, but the next morning people come and take away the furniture that he is hidden among. He then starts a trip around the world in the shipping container—to England, and from there to Rome, and so on.”

The movie has to be in English, according to Satrapi, because it’s a global story, and English is the global language. “People always worry that English is taking over everything, but I think it’s like Esperanto—the idea that if everybody in the world would speak the same language, it would be much better.”

The film, tentatively titled “Extraordinary Journey,” is scheduled to start shooting in June, with an international cast including past Oscar nominees Uma Thurman and Barkhad Abdi (“Captain Phillips”).

Satrapi’s name came up recently in connection with a controversy surrounding the Angouleme International Comics Festival, an annual event in Angouleme, France, that kicks off on January 28. Each year, the festival awards a Grand Prix lifetime achievement award to a living comics creator, and when the list of 30 finalists was released a few weeks ago, the absence of a single female name on it was conspicuous. Some nominees, including Americans Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware, and Charles Burns, asked that their names be removed. The festival later announced that voters could choose anyone they wished, but the conversation about gender equity in the comics world had been sparked, with Satrapi among the names put forth by many as an example of a woman deserving of the honor.

She remains sanguine, however. “It’s hard for me to include myself, since it has been so long since I have made any comic books. And it’s a fact that there aren’t so many women who make comics. But still, there’s like 12%, and with 30 nominees, that would be 3.6 nominees, let’s say four. It would not be 15 women and 15 men. But look at somebody like Posy Simmonds, who is at a level above many men, or Claire Bretécher, here in France, who practically invented comics all by herself. Both with no nomination.”

The outspoken Satrapi has never gone for political correctness, and isn’t about to start. “I think that women are responsible for this, too, though. Because when we talk about ‘female cartooning,’ what does that mean? I am just a cartoonist. When people hear that phrase ‘female cartoonist,’ they think you all the time are talking about your period and your breasts and your love affair and your skirt.”

“You can say historical comics is a genre,” she continued. “You can say that adventure comics is a genre. But female comics is not a genre, because there are also men that talk about breasts—probably much more!”

Marjane Satrapi directed Ryan Reynolds, Gemma Arterton and Anna Kendrick in 'The Voices' (2014).

Marjane Satrapi directed Ryan Reynolds, Gemma Arterton and Anna Kendrick in ‘The Voices’ (2014).

Then, unprompted, she shifted the discussion back to movies. “Take ‘female film festival’, for example. What does that mean? I don’t make movies with my breasts, you know. If you want to make the division between female and male first of all, then you have to make the division between black and white, and dwarfs and very tall people. Because, obviously, your point of view at three feet and at six-and-a-half feet is not the same.”

“I have never participated in an event like that. They’re well-intentioned, but the result is bad,” she added, perhaps demonstrating a difference in perspective between a more egalitarian French film industry and an American one that still struggles with female representation both on and behind the screen. “I am just a woman for my lover, and that’s it. The rest of the time I am a human being with a brain that works more or less like yours. People say men think from the penis and women from the vagina—fuck that, it doesn’t work that way!”

“I have always worked in a very male-dominated field—comic, animation, films—and it has always been very easy. Because if you have a problem with a woman, she doesn’t fucking forget you for five years. With men, it’s like, okay, it’s fine, and we have a drink and it’s over. I’ve had to deal with some stupid, macho guys a couple times, but I’ve had to deal with some stupid women, too. And I got rid of them. Stupidity, I think, does not depend so much on gender. It’s very universal.”

(MyFrenchFilmFestival.com runs through February 18.)

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