One day in 2010, over tea in Barcelona, Antonio Banderas took Jean-Jacques Annaud firmly by the wrist, looked deep into the French director’s eyes and said: “I have always dreamed of playing an Arab. Let me be in your film.” It’s tempting to imagine Banderas saying these words in the same way he says “I am Puss – in boots!” in Shrek, before making his pupils dilate seductively. But it probably wasn’t quite like that.
Annaud was scouring Europe and the Middle East to cast Black Gold, which tells the freighted and fruity story of two Arab kings who unsheath their ancestral scimitars in the 1930s and do battle over a strip of desert, under which some of the world’s biggest oilfields have just been discovered. It was a charged historical moment. Arabia was, if we believe Annaud’s take, balanced between old-world innocence, a place of gorgeous flowing clothes, harems straight out of The 1001 Nights, and gurning camels at every oasis – and a new world in which Arabs got rich and ended up bankrolling everything from Carlos Tevez‘s petulance at Manchester City to the Harrods cheese counter and hideous leaf-shaped real estate developments in Dubai that can be seen from space. One king in Black Gold seeks to exploit the oil wealth; the other dreads the prospect of the desert teeming with big-voiced Texas oilmen and other rapacious western imperialists.
“The story has great relevance for today,” says the 68-year-old film-maker. “Not only for the Arab world, but for all of us. What do you do with money? Is money making more happiness? Or are we happier without it?”
Banderas told Annaud he was the man to play the go-ahead Nesib, Emir of Hobeika, who wants oil money to develop the infrastructure of his sand-rich, cash-poor kingdom. “Antonio’s convinced he is an Arab,” laughs Annaud as we chat in a Parisian hotel. “He is from Anadalucia and he told me that his ancestors had it away with the Arabs who lived there. He even showed me how you drink tea in an Arab way. His enthusiasm was priceless.”
However, Annaud initially had someone else in mind. The 68-year-old director of The Name of the Rose, Seven Years in Tibet and Enemy at the Gates had been scouting for locations in Tunisia and became obsessed with the image of a grinning man, seen on posters around the country. “He looked like a corny actor, with his hand over his heart and an expression that suggested he would sell everything including himself at the right price. He had what I needed. I couldn’t understand what he was advertising because the writing was in Arabic.” One day, a policeman in Tunis walked up to Annaud and said: “Why are you taking so many photographs of our president?”
So Tarak Ben Ammar, Annaud’s Tunisian producer, was then charged with asking President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali if he fancied giving up politics to star in an epic new film about Arabic history. “He laughed and said he was flattered,” says Annaud. “But he declined.” Perhaps he should have accepted: a few months later, Ben Ali fled after being ousted during the jasmine revolution, the first uprising of the Arab spring.
So instead, Annaud cast Banderas, a Spanish star with a global profile; in terms of box office, this was probably sensible. But who could play his rival, the stern, austere Amar, Sultan of Salmaah, with his 1,000-mile stare, scimitar tucked close to his family honour and his complicated turban? An Englishman, of course, in the form of Mark Strong, who had impressed Annaud’s team with his performance as a Jordanian security chief in Ridley Scott’s 2008 film Body of Lies. Strong may do a good Jordanian accent, but is it right to cast a British actor as an Arabian sultan? Annaud shakes his head. “A lot of people think all Arabs look alike. Of course not! It’s between the coast of Ethiopia and India, therefore you have a lot of people who look different. And yes, there have been blue-eyed Arabs ever since the Crusaders slept with the locals – a lot of Arabs princes with very clear eyes.”
Thankfully, the rest of Annaud’s cast is not overwhelmingly white European: among the other leads are India’s Freida Pinto as Nesib’s glamorous daughter, Ethiopian supermodel Liya Kebede as a beautiful slave girl, and two British actors of Asian ancestry. But the star is the French-Algerian actor Tahar Rahim, who played a terrified jailbird who rises through the prison ranks in Jacques Audiard’s 2009 drama A Prophet. “The shoot was a melting pot,” says Annaud. “The camel-drivers were from Somalia and Tunisia; there were actors from Egypt, India, Pakistan, England, France. I had crew from Germany, France, Italy. It was so refreshing.”
Annaud didn’t want to direct Black Gold at first. “I was going to direct a film called Shores of Tripoli, about the US invasion of Libya in the early 19th century.” That, I suggest, would have had even more contemporary echoes than Black Gold. “Yes, but neither I nor Buena Vista knew how topical it would become, thanks to Gaddafi’s fall. It was about the US getting annoyed at pirate raids on their naval ships from the Barbary coast. That was the first time the US fought a battle outside its territory.” Annaud and John Collee, screenwriter of Master and Commander, knocked up the story of William Eaton, a US army officer and Consul to Tunis who persuaded his government to restore the ousted ruler of Tripoli.
Unfortunately, another film project called Tripoli, to which Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe had been attached, was being developed by Fox; it dealt with the same material. “Ridley’s a friend – we both worked in commercials and my film debut, Black and White in Colour, and his, The Duellists, came out in the same year.”
Annaud dropped out. Why? “Tarak gave me a book and said, ‘If you want to understand our culture and make a good film, you have to read this.’” The Tunisian producer handed Annaud South of the Heart by Swiss writer Hans Ruesch, which became the basis for Black Gold. Ben Ammar had been trying for decades to get it turned into a movie, approaching every Arab billionaire and bank he could think of. Although unsuccessful, he still went on to become a globally successful producer, luring Steven Spielberg and George Lucas to Tunisia to make Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars.
Annaud read the book on holiday in Oman. “I was reading it amid the dunes and camels and was transported by this Arabian Nights-like adventure. I texted Tarak and said, ‘Forget about Shores of Tripoli. Let’s make this.’” What was the appeal? “I have done a number of movies in Africa and Asia; in between is the Middle East. I felt it was a mistake for me not to make a film there. I was intrigued: there was so much negative information coming from the west about the Middle East. I didn’t believe everybody from this part of the world was so bad.”
Ben Ammar found that rich Arabs were keener to invest in the film this time around. Shooting began in Tunisia in autumn 2010. “We shot one scene in which Banderas is toppled from power by his son-in-law after an uprising. Meanwhile, a few miles away, the Tunisian people were chanting, ‘Death to the dictator!’ That was when the shoot came alive. All the Tunisians on the set were talking about a revolution.”
On 14 January 2011, the president fled and some of Annaud’s crew were evacuated. “I decided to stay with my wife [the script supervisor] and so did Freida Pinto. We were staying in a hotel that usually served 1,000 people lunch and dinner. There were only four of us in that dining room. Freida wanted to be a witness to history – and so did I.”
The crew then moved to Qatar. “We needed to shoot there because I wanted a scene where the dunes roll straight down to the sea.” But there was a problem: as the Arab spring spread, and repressive governments sought to control their peoples, Annaud had a suspicious package to transport. “We had 300 guns and six tonnes of explosives.” How did that go down at customs? “They were suspicious because there were riots going on in Bahrain only a few miles away from Qatar,” giggles Annaud. Fortunately, the guns were replicas, so got through.
For all its non-western viewpoint, Black Gold will still ruffle conservative Islamic sensibilities. There are a few sex scenes, for instance: one has Freida Pinto unveiling herself before her new spouse. “When we showed the film at the Doha film festival,” says Annaud, “I was terrified of what the Arabs would make of it. But it turned out they liked the scenes, including the one in which the prince and princess have sex in a car. My reward at Doha was young film-makers saying they were pleased Arabs were not presented as terrorists.”
Annaud’s next film will be an adaptation of Wolf Totem, the semi-autobiographical 2004 bestseller by Lü Jiamin. Written under the pseudonym Jiang Rong, it tells the story of a young Beijing student sent to the grasslands of Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution. “I’m getting the same excitement I did on Black Gold. I’m discovering Mongolia and Chinese actors, getting ready to work with horse trainers whose language I can’t understand. You know that French phrase ‘Pas facile de sortir des sentiers battus‘? It’s not easy to leave the beaten path. Well, I like to. I’m more comfortable on the difficult paths.”