by Jonathan Cott
While audiences have long exhibited a penchant for movies about the future, few people expected today’s science-fiction generation to go wild over a film set 80,000 years in the past. Yet that’s what has happened with Quest for Fire, an ambitious work that portrays primitive man’s attempts to understand and harness the elements around him. Shot in Canada, Kenya and Scotland, Quest for Fire aimed for authenticity by employing unknown performers whose physical features fit the image of early homo sapiens, and by calling upon the talents of author Anthony Burgess and anthropologist Desmond Morris to devise, respectively, a language and a movement vocabulary for the cast.
Orchestrating the complicated enterprise was Jean-Jacques Annaud, the thirty-eight-year-old French director. Annaud, who received the 1978 Oscar Best Foreign Film for his Black and White in Color, talked recently in New York City about Quest for Fire.
The discovery of fire has often been seen as the cornerstone of our whole cultural edifice. But we can only guess at how we first found and controlled fire. Quest for Fire seems to suggest just one of the many theories.
I was very impressed with the theory of Kenneth Oakley, the teacher of Richard Leakey, who suggested that man had to steal fire from nature and then keep it somewhere, because to travel with it was difficult. And society changed at that very moment because before that, you just moved on and didn’t care. Now, you’d start building a hut in a better way than you’d done before, and you then had to decide who would keep an eye on the fire, who would hunt or collect fruit — the? whole society became extremely specialized. Fire also created a strong feeling of territoriality, as well as control over the night. And then the idea of facial communication developed, so you now needed symbols to tell your stories around the fire.
It’s a very attractive theory. And since I had to take one theory and stick with it, I picked that one because it was the closest to the naive conclusions I’d felt when I was living in Africa. I’d been there for a long period of time with primitive tribes. And I was very impressed with the Pygmies, who are still, today, keeping fire alive all day long, not letting it die. They know how to make it, but they don’t practice it, really. They walk for one or two days and buy it at the market, the way people buy food. And they even exchange it for game. So in order to make my story work — and my first duty was to tell a story — I saw that the best way to gain credibility was to keep as close as possible to reality as the experts conceived it. I learned a lot from those very scientific books, but I had to make my own personal decisions.
The whole idea of the film started for me in a very strange way. One day I was with my wife in a remote forest of the Cameroons, not seeing any other human beings and not interested in seeing animals. I was deeply in love with that continent, not because of the exotic aspect of it but because of the possibility of having a relationship with people on another level than my usual one. When I’m in France, I relate to people by talking about classical music and the latest movie I’ve seen. And that’s fine. But I had a deeper relationship with my African friends. Much deeper. Man to man and guts to guts. It took me a long time to understand why I was in love with Africa and why I didn’t want to go to the exotic parts of the continent, because I was really quite happy just being in a suburban town or village.
Anyway, one day we decided to drive farther — my wife knew of some distant game reserve. We stopped in some smaller and smaller villages until we finally crossed the country and couldn’t see another human being — only herds of baboons and giraffes and zebras. And it was the first time I was in the wild as the only human being. All the other creatures, which appeared to be extremely organized, were the dominant species… and I was always used to being the dominant species. In New York City, I’m the dominant species.
A Frenchman! There are a lot of French people here now.
I know. And more and more to come [laughs]. Anyway, it was night, and the car started breaking down, and I started to have this strange, unknown fear of really being alone and not being equipped to fight against those fantastic animals. We passed by a few lions, who were not peaceful — they were running to get the gazelles. And I felt, suddenly, that I was a very weak thing in a powerful world.
The car made it to a little hut that I saw on a surveyor’s map — it was supposed to be a place to sleep. We had a quick dinner, and suddenly this little lamp that we had ran out of oil. Here we were in the middle of the darkness with all kinds of strange noises, and I ran into the little hut and tried to close the door. Unfortunately, there was no lock. And there were two small metal beds. I started lying on this bed, and I heard in the distance a “whaaa” kind of noise, and I was petrified. I said, “Oh, my God! Prehistoric man!” And suddenly I had this vision of my ancestors.
I won’t go through the whole story, but a lion really was sniffing around that little hut, and I had the most awful night possible. The funny thing was that, the next morning, I pushed my wife into the car, dressed myself and ran away. And suddenly there was an African on a bike. And I said, “Where were you?” He told me, “I’m coming from the village.” “Where is the village?” I asked. He said, “Just next door.” “Who are you?” I asked. “I’m the warden,” he told me, and I said that I thought there was a beast around the little hut. And he said, “Oh, yes. It’s an old lion. He’s always coming to see our visitors. He has no more teeth, and he likes to lick old tin cans.”
Definitely a civilized lion.
But I experienced a very uncivilized fear. And that story to me was revealing of who I was when I wasn’t in my own town with my usual tools. And I sympathized a great deal with my ancestors who had to overcome all those difficulties. Then I put all of this in the back of my mind until the day I met Gerard Brach, the screenwriter, who was fascinated with this period.
The French philosopher Gaston. Bachelard wrote an extraordinary book, The Psychoanalysis of Fire, in which he says, “In actual fact, fire was detected within ourselves before it was snatched from the gods.” And later he speaks of the “double primitively of fire and of love. If we set the beloved on fire when we love, this is proof that we ourselves loved when we kindled this fire.” And it’s interesting that Quest for Fireseems to demonstrate the truths of both of those statements.
It’s amazing you mention that, because I had a full page of lines from Bachelard that I had my film unit read. For half a million years we’ve been the only species with that flame. Suddenly we realized that we had a power over nature, suddenly we started thinking that we were thinking. And love, in the human way, is lagging behind, and we cannot escape. Love was no longer just a basic procreative reflex, it was a way to survey the other’s mind, to go into the mind rather than just into the body. Fire started to make man feel different and made him aware of this difference. So in the poetical notions of Bachelard, there is, in fact, a lot of the scientific approach. It’s just that he feels it in a very brilliant and spontaneous way. For him, as well as for Oakley and Anthony Burgess, it is clear that fire really helped the development of the human mind, and that without this human mind, there’s no human love.
But the Bachelardian idea is also very erotic with its connecting the rubbing of sticks and the rubbing of bodies together to make heat.
I was very impressed with his book when I first read it years ago, and later I had a more rationalistic approach to the whole thing. But yes, I think the basic point he’s making about the connection between the making of fire and the making of love is true. La flame de la passion.
At first, when you watch the film, you think: Are they my ancestors? They’re just fighting and being aggressive and territorial. And then you read the newspapers about El Salvador and Guatemala or the muggings in New York City and you realize….
Yes, that was also the purpose of the film. What I wanted to show is that we’ve done a tremendous job, we human beings, in trying to get away from the animal. The effort to be different — to stand upright, to dress, to enjoy ballet, to read and be cultured — is quite touching. At the same time, we haven’t progressed much. And I think that on an emotional level, in the way that we fight and love and hate and really act, we haven’t changed. And this is fascinating and frightening. There is not one single action that I cannot relate to territoriality, to dominance, to survival. But there’s a screen of smoke that has been constructed by civilization — and I’m purposely using an image related to fire. We want desperately to escape from the beast, we want to be different, but we’re not. And this is also the beauty, this was the point I wanted to make
A lot of scientists think that the reptilian complex in the brain — the R complex, as it’s called — continues to perform dinosaur functions. And it seems that in your film, you can see these functions operating very clearly.
That’s exactly what I wanted to show — the biological approach influenced me a lot. I wanted to say that the chromosomes and the genetic material don’t change. The dinosaur is definitely in us. One part of the brain is too fast, the dinosaur part is lagging behind, and we cannot escape
Carl Sagan has suggested that what Aeschylus was saying inPrometheus Bound was that our prehuman ancestors lived their waking lives in a state similar to our own dream lives. And there’s a feeling in your film that your characters are trying to awaken from a dream — from dream to enlightenment. Some people think the Enlightenment in Europe created the smoke screen, but, of course, the word ‘enlightenment’ has ‘light’ in it, and those philosophers, too, were trying to bring light into darkness.
These are my real interests and themes: the relationship between mind and light, fire and love, and the emergence of man with stronger and stronger light and fire at the same time that he is attached to his roots and not able to be the pure thing he’d like to be. We all want to be different, we all want to have wings.
In the altars of synagogues, where the Torah is kept, there’s a flame that’s supposed to burn eternally.
Of course. And there’s a fire everywhere in every religion — an eternal fire that, if it goes out, can lead to something disastrous. There’s a symbolic level to this but also a more materialistic one: fire shouldn’t die out because you might not be able to rekindle it. This flame with a few rocks around it — it’s an altar and probably the start of all religions.
There was a scene I shot, though it was cut, in which I tried to show the beginning of a kind of African ritual, with people rocking back and forth, like pendulums. And I directed the whole scene and later screened it. But the viewers who saw it said to me that it looked a little too contemporary, although it was extremely primitive — to me, there’s nothing more primitive than just doing this rocking-back-and-forth movement. And someone finally said, this is a Jewish ritual, dovening. And I had no idea. And suddenly I remembered the Wall in Jerusalem, where I saw people doing that. But the secret is that it’s basic, it’s communication — and that’s the origin of music as well. This is the beauty of it: it talks to the heart.
In the Sixties in California, everyone started to wear his or her hair long, and everyone looked slightly paleolithic. You felt that people were going back to a much older way of existing. And when I saw your film, I immediately thought of Haight-Ashbury and of various Rock & Roll stars that your characters reminded me of.
That’s exactly what they were after, those Rock & Roll stars. Because they were disturbed to feel the dinosaur in themselves, they wanted to make an attempt to search for their roots, to go back to nature.
Why do you think Quest for Fire is so popular in Europe? It seems to strike a match in people, apparently.
The film is doing very well not only in big towns, where we were expecting some response, but fantastically well in very tiny towns. And I called the exhibitors — because I couldn’t believe the figures: we were doing better than James Bond in little towns. In Paris we didn’t do as well as James Bond, but nearly as well. And I asked them, “Who’s been coming?” And they replied, “The basic moviegoers are coming” because they feel it’s something they’ve never seen before.
It’s as new as Star Wars, but with images that they’re not used to. There are lots of teachers, educators, people who are fed up with cinema, who are coming because there’s an educational value. They’re learning something.
What do children think of it?
They love it. In France and Italy it’s not restricted at all; it’s open to the general public. And it’s becoming mandatory viewing for schools. The French minister of education, in his monthly publication that they send to all the teachers in France, not only recommended it but did a special issue on the film. And my distributors told me that they can’t remove the prints from the cinemas, now because the exhibitors want to keep it for the schools. I don’t know if other countries will react in the same way.
But I had a screening with some American teachers the other day, and they said the same things — in English this time. If you want to discuss the problem of whether the human species is violent because of genetics or because of cultural or social factors, then this film is a good starting point for a discussion.
I gather that the making of this film apparently affected the actors, who felt they had to “decivilize” themselves.
Oh, yes, it was very fascinating for everyone, including my editing unit. I think nobody really recovered from this film, because it gave us the opportunity to experience those things. As for my actors, they were trained for six months to be like chimps. Here were these actors living in New York, coming to London to be trained to be chimps for one month, then trying to be less like that — erecting themselves a bit for the next month, then going up, up, up, up, and just ten degrees before being totally erect, they were told, “Stop! This is where the film starts.”
But look, those guys discovered so much. They saw so many documentaries, they studied all the Jane Goodall films about the chimps, all the books and all that. They had to reinvent everything through themselves, to feel it from the heart. And they finally realized that it was easy to go back — very, very easy. And each one came to me and said, “I’m scared. I can feel it in myself.”
Yesterday I had dinner with one of them here in New York, and he reminded me that the first thing he used to do after a day’s shooting was get rid of all his body paint — I used to put some dirt on them and some color. He wanted to escape from his part, he had to be a “sophisticated person.” He wanted to have a television in his room and a Walkman in his ear, because the beast was there, sitting near him. And I understand that. He said, “Sometimes, I had just one little spot of dark makeup under my knee and I would wash it off.” He was always wearing a tie, whether we were in Scotland or Kenya. He wanted to be a man.
And there’s another thing. Each winter the actors used to get the flu and colds. But last winter we were in northern Scotland — with the drizzle and the wind and the wet and the mud — and in northern Canada in early March, with the ice still floating on the lake. And here are those guys barefoot, naked, going into the marshes, waking up at six o’clock in the morning — in bed at two o’clock in the morning, very often — in the wind…. And none of us had anything like sneezing or colds. Never. And they used to come to me and say, “Don’t you think it’s amazing? It’s because of our own energy. We are back to our own energy.”
I did the dubbing in Toronto, and people were talking the language — Anthony Burgess’ language. They were relating to one another, touching themselves and having body contact for reassurance. It was incredible. People coming in from the outside thought that we were very strange [laughs].
And during this editing period, I would go “Ughhh.” And everybody would say, “Woughh, oughh, aughh.” The whole studio. Very naturally. Here was this sound engineer, an old man, after forty years of work at pushing these buttons, saying, “Uh, uh, uh, uh, uh.“
I won’t ask you how you communicate with your distribution company. Do you have meetings about money matters in the board room like that?
Not yet, although I’ve seen Sherry Lansing expressing her joy after a screening by going, “Ooh, ahh, uhh.”
Rolling Stone, May 27, 1982