Jean Claude Carrière is one of France’s foremost screenwriters. He was born in 1931 in Colombières sur Orbe, a village in the South of France. Grown up during the war, he came to Paris in 1945 to continue collage, which at the same time was his first travel. After having studied Latin, Carriere was forced to serve in the Algerian War, so that he couldn’t start working before the age of 30. He then turned his passion for film and writing into his profession and became very successful as a novelist, screenwriter and actor. For his work, he travelled all over the world – 47 times to India alone. In 2015 he was awarded an Oscar for his life’s work as a screenwriter. Carriere describes himself as neither French, nor European, but trilingual: French, English and Spanish.
In his interview with opera director Jeanne Pansard-Besson, he talks about the challenges in making films in communist countries, his ambivalence towards European unity, and his first time flying from Algiers to Paris on a military double-decker plane.
Jean Claude Carrière was interviewed by Jeanne Pansard-Besson
On the meaning of Europe
“What was striking about Europe in my childhood was that Europe was a source of war. It was absolutely impossible to talk about the Germans without seeing them as enemies; as we had been at war before, and one of my uncles had been killed in the 1914-18 war. There was France but there wasn’t Europe. We didn’t use to talk about Europe. We didn’t even know what it was. We used to learn at school that it was a continent amongst others, quite a big one, but during my childhood there wasn’t, what appeared after the war, the European spirit. The more or less arbitrary idea of unification, of a group of countries that are very different from one another – which, didn’t wait long before they divided, tore themselves apart into two blocks, etc. I mean, all we know now about the history of Europe in the second half of the 20th century.”
On European culture and science
“Scientific Europe was born at the end of the 17th century, it is there that everything explodes, and nothing will stop it until perhaps full destruction; until the atomic bomb. The artistic, intellectual Europe is more diverse, varied. It must, like St Thomas of Aquinas and the great theologians of the Middle Ages, either obey to a faith dictated by a credo, by a dogma, follow a dogma, or, at their own risk, look for another way – that is much more difficult and dangerous. We have been through all this. Not only have we been through this in our own countries, but we transported our own problems to the countries we colonised.
The idea today, if you think about it, that we decided in the 19th century to conquer Africa, which we did not know, or know very little of, and to impose our laws, our customs, our food, our clothes… it is absolutely crazy. Civilisations like the Chinese, Persian or Egyptian are infinitely older than ours. The Egyptian civilisation lasted 3000 years and got all it needed and didn’t need. Whereas Europe is a bit like a stone thrown into calm waters. This explosion at the end of the 18th century, of the Enlightenment and the beginning of the 19th century, shook the entire world because each person wanted to fight against it or, like Abdelkader, try to understand and imitate, or just copy, like Japan, and do better if possible.”
On working in communist countries
“We should always be careful not to draw general conclusions from one’s personal experience. I used to work in theatre and cinema, and I worked in Russia, in Poland with Wajda under communism, I worked in Czechoslovakia. For us ‘artists’ of the cinema and theatre, borders were more porous than for others. I lived well under the communist regime without being a rebel, without carrying a weapon, but working, making films and plays there.”
“Actually, Europe, if we look at it on a map today, is a series of small feudal systems, some more important than others, which have a tendency to close themselves off more and more. To say I am better than my neighbour, and therefore I will despise him, close my doors to him, not do him any favours, and most of all, close myself off to people who come from further away – there’s been a sort of strange return to the Middle Ages in the past few years, encouraged by very nationalistic, extreme right parties.”