By Jessica Kiang | The Playlist December 14, 2011 at 10:20AM
For director Jean-Jacques Annaud ("The Name of the Rose," "Quest For Fire," "The Bear"), having served as President of the Features Jury some years ago, returning to the Marrakech International Film Festival with his new film "Black Gold" in tow was in some ways coming full circle. "[Marrakech] is a special city because this is the first Arab city I ever visited. There is no doubt that the beauty and the medieval ambience of the place inspired my desire to make a movie about this world -- this movie," he explained when The Playlist got to sit down with him prior to his Masterclass.
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."
Despite this, "Black Gold" is not solely a political commentary. Part sweeping historical saga, part familial drama, part old-fashioned adventure, Annaud regards this blend of genres as akin to "a bunch of flowers," and a hallmark of what draws him to a project. "Just an adventure story, that doesn’t interest me, doing just a political movie is too much of a hard message, I don’t like it. Family drama in the Arab world in the period with no resonance wouldn’t mean much to me but everything combined gives me all the ingredients that I like when I see movies."
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."
In amongst the historical dramas he is better known for, Annaud also has, to date, made two films ("The Bear" and "Two Brothers") featuring animal protagonists and minimal dialogue. The opportunities presented by using a non-human hero were what attracted him to these stories. "After this movie, 'Quest for Fire', my studies in Africa about anthropology helped me to understand where we are all coming from -- all living creatures, especially superior mammals. I realized that I could tell the story from an animal point of view no problem at all." And, in fact, he believes that he could access a certain truthfulness with an animal as the central character that you might not get with a human: "People tend to relate only to the world of reasoning...But, [like animals] we all function on instincts, though we tend to deny it because we want to preserve our human specificity," he says. "Basically it’s all about instincts."
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.