Perhaps surprisingly, Annaud is comfortable with, and indeed encourages, a contemporary political reading of his films, despite the fact that on the surface anyway, many of his period films seem designed as pure entertainments. "I like history when it reflects contemporary times, when it can show the constant functioning of society. 'The Name of the Rose'…was set in the 14th century, yet it had great success behind the iron wall. Because in Poland and Czechoslovakia and Romania it showed a contemporary problem."
Similarly he welcomes the possibility that "Black Gold," ostensibly dealing with the beginning of the 1930s oil rush in an unnamed Arab desert land, might be read as relevant to the events and complexities of the Arab Spring. "While we were shooting, those riots started erupting everywhere and we ended up like a ship in the middle of a Tsunami." he says. "Most of the themes of the movie are at the core of what happened in those revolutions...When you have a population that is not united, and the big temptation of easy money, whether it comes from natural resources or whatever, those are very universal themes. We applied them to the situation in 1930, in a time where Arabia was this world of 1001 Nights-style fantasy and suddenly here comes the intrusion of modernity into this old world."
Perhaps that's why, for a man whose back catalogue is on the surface somewhat eclectic -- encompassing prehistoric man, warring brother lions, the siege of Stalingrad and medieval serial murder -- he sees more common elements than points of difference. "I’ve been always very, very involved in the writing of the screenplay...and I must say that one thing that is becoming amusing to me is I have the impression that I’m always doing the same movie," he confesses, "It’s always about a person whose life is transformed by the encounter with a new civilization or with a massive problem that will change his perception of the world. You know, even a movie that looks different…like 'The Bear' for instance, it’s a story of a young bear whose life is transformed by his encounter with civilization."
Of course, it relates to a formative experience of the director's own, namely being sent as a consultant at the tender age of 21 to Ivory Coast to advise on the development of their nascent film and TV industry. "I was this sort of snobby little French student. The typical, pretentious Sorbonne graduate -- we have very selective film schools in France, and back then only four French people got a diploma per year. So you can see how important I felt to be a consultant at the age of 21. And then I discovered the ridiculousness of all this, and I discovered what was important was to discover the jungle of one’s heart and this is where and how that transformation happened to me. And I feel it so strongly that all my movies are around that theme: the theme of being changed by the contact of another culture."
Annaud's next mooted project will again revisit cross-cultural territory, this time in Mongolia, where he hopes to start shooting in July, though with the caveat that "one never knows about movies, you know? I’m always very reluctant to speak about the future, because the future for a filmmaker is like two days from now."
Our review of "Black Gold" can be found here. It is currently without U.S. distribution.