Skip to main content

Peter Singer: 'Children at War'

Peter Singer's new book, Children at War, takes a look at the use of children as soldiers -- which happens much more than many of us would like to think. From Afghanistan, Thailand and Lebanon to Sudan, Kosovo and Sierra Leone, Singer examines how children are recruited and indoctrinated into warfare.

33:04

Other segments from the episode on January 12, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 12, 2005: Interview with P.W. Singer; Interview with Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

Transcript

DATE January 12, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: P.W. Singer discusses his new book, "Children at War"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The so-called laws of war have been breaking down. Civilians are often
targeted, and that includes children. But children are not just the victims
of war; they now are the perpetrators of war atrocities. Children are
combatants in over three-fourths of the armed conflicts around the world. My
guest P.W. Singer examples this disturbing trend in his new book, "Children
at War." He not only describes how children are recruited, abducted and
indoctrinated, he considers the implications for armies, like our own, which
have to figure out appropriate rules of engagement when the enemy is 12 years
old.

P.W. Singer is a national security fellow at The Brookings Institution and
directs its Project on US Policy Toward the Islamic World. His previous book
"Corporate Warriors" is about the rise of the privatized military industry.

Let's start with the scope of the problem. What are some of the countries
that child soldiers are used in, and what are some of the wars they've played
a part in?

Mr. P.W. SINGER (Director, Project on US Policy Toward the Islamic World, The
Brookings Institution): Well, the practice of child soldiers is far more
widespread than I think most people realize. Around the globe today children
under the age of 18 are fighting as soldiers in more than 75 percent of the
world's conflicts. So pretty much any conflict that we've heard about, from
Afghanistan to Iraq to some of the lesser-known ones, in places like Uganda,
see child soldiers in them. Another way to think about it is in quantitative
terms. There's more than 300,000 child soldiers out there right now; another
half-million children are serving in armed forces that aren't at war.

GROSS: Why would you--like, if you were a militia or a terrorist group or an
army, why would you want to use child soldiers? I mean, they're not that
strong yet because their bodies aren't fully developed. They're not that
smart and aware because their minds aren't fully developed. And children can
be very, like, rebellious and difficult to control. What's the advantage of
using them?

Mr. SINGER: That's the problem with this practice so far--is that actually
the warlord leaders out there have, really, only seen the advantage side of
it. While children may not be as physically strong, changes in weapons
technology right now mean that for those weapons that are most likely to be
used out there, light weapons, the AK-47s of the world as opposed to--when we
think of war, we often think of the most sophisticated weapons, like jet
fighters. But, really, in most conflicts, it's light weapons that are used.
Children can be trained rather quickly to use them effectively. They may not
reach the level of, say, a well-trained US Army soldier, but with an AK-47,
it's found that a 10-year-old can learn how to use it within 30 minutes. And
the result is that this 10-year-old, with the new firepower and technology of
these weapons and new lethality of them--it means that that 10-year-old can
spray just as many bullets as, say, a Civil War regiment could in the same
amount of time.

Now the organization leaders pull in these kids because they see them as
useful. They pull them in because, in some situations, it may be that they
don't have access to another labor pool. It may be because they have a cause
that's not popular, and they couldn't convince adults to join. And that's why
you see a rise of a lot of these wars without ideology. For example, you
know, conflicts in West Africa were more about controlling the diamond trade
than any kind of politics side of it. In Colombia, it's the drug trade. So
that's one way of doing it. Also, you don't have to pay kids typically;
that's the reason that the FARC rebels in Colombia used them. They were
facing, in a sense, a recruiting war with their adversaries. Their
adversaries on the paramilitary side were willing to pay anyone $350 to join,
$350 a month, whereas the FARC couldn't afford that. So they pulled in kids,
who are free.

Kids are also more malleable than adults. They can be convinced to take on
ideologies, fight with a fervor. In some cases they indoctrinate them not
just for politics, but they also--maybe religious fundamentalism. In a lot of
cases, they infuse them with narcotics or other things to make them more
fierce than adult soldiers might be. They're willing to take risks that adult
soldiers wouldn't be willing to take.

So there's all sorts of reasons, and the troubling part of this is that so far
these leaders haven't seen the downside of it. They've only seen the
advantages of it. And probably the best-case example of that was Charles
Taylor. He was a self-styled warlord in Liberia, and he was a guy who was an
escaped convict from Plymouth jail in Massachusetts, went back home to
Liberia. He invaded the country. He crossed the border with only 150 adult
followers. His invasion was barely noticed. It was back in 1989. No one
even really knew what was going on. But slowly he built up his force by
abducting and tricking children to join it, and within a couple years he had a
force that numbered in the ten thousands. And that force controlled what came
to be known as Taylorland, which was this warlord domain, which did about $300
million worth of trade. Couple of years later he became president of Liberia.
He won the civil war and became president of Liberia. So through kids, he was
basically able to gain a kingdom.

GROSS: Well, you say that, you know, militia leaders haven't seen the
downside yet of using children as soldiers. What's the downside that we're
going to see more of?

Mr. SINGER: Well, that's the challenge for us. The downside in terms of what
it means for society, what it means for security, is pretty evident. It leads
to more wars. Wars are easier to start because you can pull in a larger
force; because these fringe leaders that wouldn't otherwise be able to get
recruits can convince them to join. A great example there is Joseph Kony and
the Lord's Resistance Army, which is this group based in northern Uganda.
Effectively, Kony thinks that he is the embodiment of the Christian Holy
Spirit, and he's convinced about 200 adult followers that this is the case.
He's been able to build up a force of more than 10,000 soldiers using child
soldiers and fight a civil war for over 10 years. It's left over half a
million people as refugees and killed tens of thousands more. So this is a
guy who would be the equivalent of a David Koresh-like figure inside the US
but, through child soldiers, has been able to cause a civil war and fight
rather effectively in that civil war.

So it leads to more wars, wars that don't have the ideology. It leads to wars
that are more tragic, not only in terms of children being involved, but also
in terms of the atrocities that are committed in them, the human rights
violations, violations of the rules of war, etc. And then, finally, it means
that wars are harder to stop because just when you beat a force, just when you
whittle it down, if only a couple adult leaders escape, they can then
reconstitute their force rather quickly by pulling back in more children. And
so these groups that would otherwise die out are able to linger on, and we saw
that in Sierra Leone, for example, and we might be seeing that going on in
Afghanistan right now.

GROSS: One of the things that makes it possible for people to recruit or
abduct children and make them soldiers is the fact that there are so many
orphans around the world. There are so many people who have been orphaned by
famine, by AIDS, by war. So how do the recruiters take advantage of the many
orphans around the world?

Mr. SINGER: That's one of the real tragedies here--is that despite the fact
that we're living in probably one of the most prosperous eras in human
history, at the same time we're leaving several groups behind. And that's not
only in terms of the problems of globalization writ large, but also there's
special at-risk groups, such as orphans, such as refugees. And within these
groups, children are a major part. They're especially vulnerable for
abduction rates because they're disconnected from society, they're
disconnected from their families. The Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda is a
group that basically has built up its force by abducting children from
orphanages. But, also, they're more apt to be pulled in by recruiting
techniques that effectively tell children that this is their only opportunity
to protect themselves, the only place that they can get a safe environment,
have a gun in their hand as opposed to the chaos around them. It's a place
where they can get a square meal. It's a place where they can be a member of
something rather than on their own, all sorts of ways to trick them.

GROSS: My guess is they...

Mr. SINGER: And you see this...

GROSS: ...have very little to lose.

Mr. SINGER: ...all over. That's one of the other parts--is that they feed
into children's gullibility, so to speak, and tell them, `This is the way not
only that you can become a man, avenge what's happened to you, take part in
society rather than being on your own,' but also in some cases saying, `Look,
you've got nothing else to lose.' And that's--particularly terrorist groups
have used this as a means, saying, `Your life now is so horrible. Think how
wonderful it will be in the afterlife if you undertake these operations.'

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is P.W. Singer. He's a fellow at
The Brookings Institution, and he's the author of the new book "Children at
War," which is a book about child soldiers around the world.

Well, one of the many upsetting things about this--I mean, there is an ethic
in, I think, most cultures that you protect children and that, you know,
adults are often willing to risk harm to their own bodies to protect children.
But I'm wondering if you think that children are used as cheaper life than the
adults; if the adults protect themselves by putting the children in the front
lines and having children take the most risk; if the children are, in fact,
considered even cheaper life than the adults in the militaries are.

Mr. SINGER: Mm-hmm, that's definitely a problem, and there's really two
things to say about that. The first is when we look at human history, when we
look at the history of warfare itself, over the last four millennia the world
held that children had no place in it. They had no place in it as targets,
they had no place in it as participants. It simply was not allowable. Now
there were violations of that, but there wasn't this global practice that we
see going on right now, where you're seeing children targeted. More than 500
children have died every single day over the last decade in warfare, and at
the same time they're acting within war. More than 300,000 children are
serving as soldiers. So we're seeing that rule change, and part of it is
because we're looking at children differently in the context of war. That's
the reality right now. That's the dark reality.

And within that, certain groups do use children because they view them as
cheaper, easier recruits. They see them as a way to spare the lives of their
considered more-valuable adult soldiers. And you can see the way they deploy
children in the field in everything from human wave attacks to--there are
certain groups that use children as live landmine detectors. Basically, they
send kids down the trail first, and that's the way they find out if there's a
mine there--to--in other situations, they put children out at the checkpoints
while adult leaders hide in the bush. And it's something that, when we're
facing these forces, we have to be aware. This is the new nature of 21st
century conflict, that there are children involved. And so we've got to shift
our reaction to it.

GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about how children are transformed into
soldiers and what the indoctrination and initiation process is like. First of
all, what are some of the things they're put through, so that they learn how
to kill and that they feel comfortable taking another life?

Mr. SINGER: Well, they never feel, I don't think, comfortable. It's just
part of a broader change in identity that these groups try and enact. And
what's interesting and disturbing is they often have their parallels to the
way we indoctrinate people into different organizations, like armies or gangs,
even fraternities, those sorts of things. And the most disturbing aspect of
it which happens is when they force the child to kill very early on. It's
meant as a breaking point. And you see these most often in abduction raids.
And--for example, met a young child soldier from Sierra Leone, and basically
the rebels showed up at their village, lined everyone up, shot some people and
then forced the kids to take part in the killing of another, of one of their
neighbors there. And they held them at gunpoint and said, `You kill this
person, or we'll kill you.' And the first kid that balked at it, they shot
him. And every other kid then said, you know, `Well, that's what I've got to
do.'

And these kids then described it as the turning point, when they crossed into
another identity. Once they'd done that, not only were they anathema to their
home village--they felt they couldn't go back again; that everyone knew that
they had killed and killed someone within that village--but also that this
organization was made up of people like them. And so even though they didn't
believe in it, they felt they had nowhere else to go.

Other groups will use techniques like shaving the heads of kids, all the kids
who immediately join, and it's a way of--much like we see with boot camp, it's
a way of creating a new identity and, also, making it harder for those people
to return. They stand out in regular society. Branding is something that
happens. For example, also in Sierra Leone, the RUF there did this, where it
would basically brand the letters RUF, which stood for the organization, the
Revolutionary United Front, and they would put it on forehead, shoulders, etc.
And so these kids would stand out. And they would say, `Look, this is a group
that's hated back home. That's why you can't go again. You're a part of us.'

GROSS: My guest is P.W. Singer. His new book is called "Children at War."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is P.W. Singer. He's a fellow at
The Brookings Institution, and he's the author of the new book "Children at
War," which is about child soldiers around the world.

You know, I've talked to many reporters over the years who've covered civil
wars and regional wars, and, you know, I've heard often about encountering
children with automatic weapons who are high. So you're not only dealing with
facing a child opponent, but also, like, they're addled by virtue of being
high on whatever the local drug of choice is. Is that something that you
think is part of the process of getting them to do the job?

Mr. SINGER: It's definitely something that these groups use. It seen,
really, as a tool to complete the training and indoctrination. And the drugs
that they use can be anything from heroin to cocaine to--there's different
mixes that you'll see. You know, some its' even a mix of cocaine and
gunpowder that's packed together. And what happens is usually the kid is
forced in the first part to use the drugs--put at gunpoint or even held down,
and a slit is made on the arm and it's packed in.

But then very quickly addiction sets in, and there's two things here that take
place. The first is when they're on the drugs, the kids--the sense of reality
is changed, and so it all becomes almost--they've described it as being
disconnected. It was as if someone else was out there fighting, and so the
things that they were doing, it wasn't them. And the risks that they were
facing, they weren't really seeing them. And then the second part is it's
another way of creating dependency on that child-soldier force because now
it's a physical dependency. If they leave, then they're, in effect, breaking
that line of addiction. And so it's another way, it's another tool, that
these groups use. And then the legacy effect of that is, obviously, really
terrible because even when the war ends, you have this mass of adult kids that
not just are scarred by the experience of being child soldiers but also, in
many cases, have drug addictions.

GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about how we got to this point, you know,
'cause societies always had prohibitions against children fighting. And that
was good not only for the children but for the culture as a whole. You say
that the first modern use of child soldiers was in the 1980s during the
Iran-Iraq War. What did Iran do to break this taboo and start recruiting
children or encouraging children to join the military?

Mr. SINGER: At the time Iran was fighting a losing war against Iraq, and it
faced a disadvantage in terms of technology. And so it responded by trying to
amp up its quantity vs. the quality side. And even though it was a supposed
Islamic republic that was guided by Shariah law, it actually violated that law
and declared--and at the time it was Ayatollah Khomeini declared that anyone
as young as 12 could join. And then they set up a rather sophisticated
recruiting program to pull in young boys, as young as 12. And they would
recruit in the schools and the like. And one of the things that they did was
promise that anyone that did join and died in the battle would have an
immediate entrance into heaven. And actually they would give the kids who
joined not just a weapon and a couple grenades but also a key to wear around
their neck because it was the key that would unlock your way to heaven.

And they used these kids in a way that was pretty much seen as cannon fodder.
They were to advance first and break up the mine field, serve as extra
targets, etc. And it was expected that most of them would die, and so the
losses were rather high. And one of the worst parts of it, which indicates
that, really, they did intend for them to die, is that a small percentage were
captured, around a thousand. And so at the end of that war, the Red Cross
said, `OK, do you want these prisoners back? Do you want these former child
soldiers back?' And Ayatollah Khomeini commented on it that, `These captured
children, these are not our children,' basically that, `Our children were the
ones who died. The ones who are captured, we want nothing of them.'

GROSS: So what happened to those children?

Mr. SINGER: Many of them ended up being refugees and sent around the world to
finding asylum across Europe and the like.

GROSS: OK. So Iran played a big part in this trend of child soldiers. Iraq
played a part, too. What did Saddam Hussein do to mobilize child soldiers?

Mr. SINGER: After the Gulf War, the regime faced a real problem: a crisis
of legitimacy and a crisis of forces. And one of the ways it answered that
was creating a whole system designed to build up child-soldier forces as a way
to pulling them in the regular forces. There were summer training camps,
where basically kids would spend up to three weeks getting political
indoctrination but also learning how to use an AK-47 and the like. The real
backbone of it was a special unit that was created called the Ashbal Saddam,
Saddam's Lion Cubs. And it was for boys between the ages of 10 to 15, and it
was almost like the--you could think of it in terms of an equivalent of the
Boy Scouts, except aside from, you know, the regular type of community, they
would also learn how to use weapons, they would get political indoctrination
and the like.

And it was intended as a feeder organization into what was the Saddam
Fedayeen. This is this paramilitary force that was led by Saddam's son Uday
that--during our recent invasion, it was the Saddam Fedayeen which was the one
that actually fought back as opposed to the Iraqi army. So they set up this
whole system designed to train and indoctrinate children.

GROSS: You know, your previous book was about private military corporations.
So, you know, your previous book was about mercenaries and corporations that
are now involved with war. And the new book is about children who fight in
wars. And so reading these books back to back, it just feels like everybody's
getting into the act, everybody's at war.

Mr. SINGER: Well, I think one of the ways to think about it and what
motivates me is that I think we've got it wrong when we think about war. When
we think about war and when we say the word `war,' the image in our heads is
of men in uniform fighting for the political cause of their nation-state. And
the reality of warfare in the 21st century is it's not like that. It's men,
it's women, it's children. And they're fighting in organizations that range
from armies, rarely now, to warlord groups, drug cartels, terrorist groups,
you name it. And the causes they're fighting for are rarely political in
nature. They include economic causes, like these corporations and the like,
but also like these warlord economies that are really about, you know, drug
trade, diamond trade, you name it, maybe religious causes, social causes. It
may even be for no cause at all. Some of these--you know, the child soldiers
are in it because they've got no other choice.

And so warfare is messier, and a lot of people would describe it as
postmodern. And that's what we have to own up to--is until we understand the
way it really is, we can't respond to it properly.

GROSS: P.W. Singer is the author of "Children at War." He'll be back in the
second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, child soldiers in Iraq that the American military is
facing. We continue our conversation with P.W. Singer, author of the new
book "Children at War." Also, we talk with Jean-Pierre Jeunet. He wrote and
directed "Amelie." His new film, "A Very Long Engagement," is set during World
War I.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with P.W. Singer. He's a
fellow at The Brookings Institution and the author of the new book "Children
at War." Children are now combatants in about 75 percent of the conflicts
around the world. Singer writes about how they are abducted, recruited,
indoctrinated and trained and what the implications are for armies, like our
own, which face child soldiers.

Are US troops facing child soldiers in Iraq now?

Mr. SINGER: Yes, and far more extensively than anyone's been willing to talk
about. As the insurgency grew, child soldiers were seen as a pool for it and
are seen as a pool for it and pulled into it. And perhaps the best indicator
was the fact that the same week that President Bush made his `mission
accomplished' speech on the aircraft carrier landing--that same week an Iraqi
12-year-old shot up a US Marine force in the city of Mosul, and since then
the use has grown and grown and grown. And they range from child sniper
incidents to Iraqi 15-year-old that tossed a grenade into a US Army truck and
blew off the leg of an American trooper.

What's worrisome is that the broad insurgent forces that we're facing, each
one of them has started to use child soldiers: the former Baathist forces,
the old Saddam loyalists. They're trying to tap into this old network of
Ashbal Saddam groups. It's also taking place in the Sunni triangle,
including, for example, the fighting in Fallujah last November; saw US Marines
fighting what they described as children with assault rifles; and then, also,
even in the Shia sector. For example, Moqtada al-Sadr is this radical
religious cleric there, who led an uprising against us, and the fighting was
particularly fierce in the city of Najaf. He openly talked about how great it
was that they had child soldiers. And in the book there's some pretty
disturbing quotes from some 14-year-olds and some 12-year-olds about their
experience of fighting US forces.

GROSS: The question this poses for US troops, I guess, is also being faced by
other armies around the world. I mean, American troops want to think of
themselves as being where they are to help children, among other things, and
to protect children. You know, our favorite images are of GIs, you know, in
World War II giving out chewing gum and stuff to children. And now we're in a
position where they don't know whether the children are going to shoot them or
not. And so what kind of instructions do American soldiers have about whether
to shoot children who seem to be soldiers?

Mr. SINGER: It's perhaps one of the toughest dilemmas of this doctrine, the
fact that soldiers face very real threats from a foe that they would rather
not do harm to. Simply put, a bullet from a 40-year-old kills just like a
bullet from a 14-year-old. At the same time, though, you're facing a child,
and no soldier wants to be put into that situation. The worst part of it--and
this is one of the things that the book is arguing--is that US forces right
now don't have this type of intelligence preparation, training doctrine,
equipment, etc., to give them that kind of support. And I'll give you a
pretty pointed example.

Last year US forces were ready to deploy into Liberia, which had a civil war
that was going on there. And there was a Marine unit that had 2,400 Marines
in it, and they were right offshore. They were about to go into an area that
had 60 percent child soldiers. And I ended up getting an e-mail from one of
the officers in the unit, and he said, `Look, we've been reading on the news
reports that this area that we're about to go into has about 60 percent child
soldiers there. We've gotten no preparation, nothing about it. Can you help
us out?' And so I ended up sending them a--I e-mailed a draft of the book to
them. But that's not the way it's supposed to be. That's just simply not the
way it's supposed to be. And so just as our forces have had to change, too,
in their training for 21st century warfare dealing with more urban
environments, the fact that we're not facing armies that use tanks anymore,
but they're insurgents, another part of this is the fact that the adversaries
out there are very likely to be children. In fact, it's almost inevitable
that they will be children. And they have been children, and we've got to own
up to it.

GROSS: So once you sent the advanced copy of your book, do you think it
accomplished anything? Was it helpful? Did you hear back from this person?

Mr. SINGER: I hope so. Yeah, I mean, they were thankful for it. And
actually the Marines have been one of the more progressive organizations
looking at this issue. For example, they held at conference at Quantico on
the child soldiers issue, and the speakers at it included myself, a former
British military officer who'd faced child soldiers in West Africa to a former
child soldier himself. And so the Marines looked at it and said, `Look, this
is one of the ways that warfare is changing, and we need to catch up to it.'
Unfortunately, it hasn't been integrated into the broader training doctrine,
war-gaming, etc., the equipment, you name it. It was really just a small
conference that was held, a `Gee-whiz, isn't this interesting?'

GROSS: Well, you say the United States doesn't really have a policy yet.
They haven't thought through how to handle child soldiers. Are there any
countries who have?

Mr. SINGER: Not holistically. There's different countries that have built up
different experiences and deal with different aspects of it quite well. For
example, some countries have very good programs in terms of how they do
rehabilitation; you see that in the Philippines or in Colombia. In other
countries, the type of support that they give to their troops afterwards are
quite good.

We also should be willing to learn from the mistakes that others make. And
one of the things that's worrisome is that we haven't been willing to do that.
Not only do we not look at the experiences that our allies have had--for
example, the experiences that the British army had in its operations in West
Africa, a lot of them that didn't go quite well--with child soldiers. There
was one that the book talks about where a British army force was taken by a
child soldier force, and they had to launch a rescue raid, and all sorts of
things happened from that. There's other armies that we don't typically work
with that have a huge experience. For example, the Sri Lankan army has been
fighting the civil war for almost two decades and have built up a wealth of
experience. So it's one of those things that we should be willing to learn
and--but, really, at the end of the day, it's about facing up to the way war
is rather than the way we wish it was.

GROSS: You know, just one more really frightening thing about the tens of
thousands of children who are fighting in these wars now: If all they've
known is violence and if they have been fighting from the age of 10 or 11,
then how do they get to the point, how are they given the opportunity, to
develop any empathy or, you know, feeling for other people? And is it
possible to learn that after years of having killed people? I mean, can you
ever become, you know, fully human and social again, or are we going to be
surrounded in the world by the grown-up version of the child soldiers, who
never learned the meaning of empathy?

Mr. SINGER: It's one of the abuses of this practice that normally doesn't get
talked about, and, really, it's the destruction of childhood itself. And the
worry about that is that this is a period in our lives where your identity is
shaped and your whole sense of right and wrong is shaped. And so that's one
of the worst abuses of this. So the challenge to these children after the
conflict is that they face huge issues in reintegrating; that could be
everything from finding their families to the psychological scarring, the
physical scarring and ailments that have been dealt to them, to basically lack
of vocational opportunities, you name it.

And so the programs that help them, they're everything from these camps that
basically offer them, you know, just a safe place to get away from it all
to--there's some very great programs that do things like help them catch up in
their schooling, to programs that help the local society reintegrate. And,
for example, there's a radio station in Sierra Leone that's not only designed
for kids to listen to but also is run by former child soldiers themselves. So
there's a lot of these programs out there. The problem is they're almost all
underresourced, and they're not as widespread as they should be.

GROSS: Thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. SINGER: Well, thank you for having me to talk about this important issue.

GROSS: P.W. Singer is the author of "Children at War."

Coming up, the director of the film "Amelie" talks about his new movie, "A
Very Long Engagement," which is set during World War I. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Jean-Pierre Jeunet discusses his new film, "A Very Long
Engagement"
TERRY GROSS, host:

The writer and director of the films "Amelie," "Delicatessen" and "City of
Lost Children," Jean-Pierre Jeunet, has a new film called "A Very Long
Engagement." It's about two engagements, one of love, the other of war. A
young woman played by Audrey Tautou, the star of "Amelie," is separated from
her fiance when he's called to fight in World War I. Driven mad by the gore
and insanity of trench warfare, he intentionally gets himself wounded, so that
he can be sent home to his lover. But he and four other soldiers accused of
trying to get sent home are court-martialed for self-mutilation. Their
punishment is to be exiled to no man's land, the space between the French and
German front lines, where they will either be shot by the Germans or starve
and freeze to death.

The movie alternates between the story of the soldiers and the young soldier's
fiancee. When the war is over and the young soldier doesn't return home, she
obsessively tries to reconstruct what happened to him. The film is based on
the novel of the same name.

Filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet grew up near the battlefield of Verdun and read
everything he could about World War I to the point of giving himself
nightmares. He created two different visual styles for the film, one for
trench warfare, the other for pre- and postwar life in the French countryside.

I really love the way the World War I scenes are shot, and the scenes almost
look like they're based on photographs of the period. Can you describe a
little bit the look that you wanted to get and the lighting that you used to
get that look? And I should say here that it's not exactly shot in black and
white, but it's almost closer to black and white than it is to color.

Mr. JEAN-PIERRE JEUNET ("A Very Long Engagement"): Yes. The First World War
is very graphic. I tried to avoid too much aestheticism before the war, but
about the war, I tried--it's not a question of style, but I tried to avoid
imagination. I used only with ...(unintelligible). For example, the film
opens with a shot with a broken ...(unintelligible) and it's exactly a real
picture, a real photograph, you know. And you can see later a dead horse on a
tree, and it's also a real picture--from a real picture. But for the rest of
the film, of course, I brought my own imagination. And we asked
(unintelligible) of my director of photography, Bruno Delbonnel, and we
understood something.

We are so used to watch the picture from, first of all, or--in black and white
or in sepia, we decided to get something a little bit like this. And, of
course, the sepia and the brown tone, the brown color, it's pretty warm. And
for the war, we tried to get something colder. And we tried to avoid the blue
color because it's--you know, you see every war film in blue color. And we
got something between green and yellow, and the mud is pretty yellow. And you
can feel how it's wet and disgusting. And for the rest of the film, the
romantic parts, we used the sepia tone and--exactly like in "Godfather" number
two. It was our reference. And for this film, we had the chance, we had the
luck, to use the digital processor. They couldn't use it. It was 20 years
ago, of course. For example, in the Matisse bedroom, you can see only the
bed. It's a little bit purple; in the rest of the frame is brown, you know.
And for that, we make just a mask on the bed, and you can fix the color just
about the bed. It's very useful.

GROSS: I went to see the movie without having read anything about it
beforehand, and in one scene I was thinking, `That really looks like Jodie
Foster.' And then I was thinking, `That's got to be Jodie Foster.' And, of
course, she's speaking French in the movie. And my suspicion was confirmed at
the end of the movie in the credits. But it doesn't seem to be something
that's been particularly advertised, and I was wondering if that was
intentional or not.

Mr. JEUNET: Yes, yes. I could say, in fact, it's a fake Jodie Foster, but
she's in CGI. And we are very good in France to make CGI shots. But, you
know, I do all the time the same jokes, so I won't do the joke for you. No,
Jodie Foster is completely fluent; you have to know that. And she has
absolutely no accent at all. And she was in Paris to--I think it was for
"Panic Room" to make the dubbing because she dubbed herself for our French
version. And she called me to have a meeting. And my wife is American, and
she was very surprised because she has the same age and she was a big star
when she was a kid. And we had a meeting at a cafe, Les Deux Moulins cafe of
"Amelie." And so Jodie Foster explained to me she would like to act in
French, and, of course, it was too late for this film because I hired Audrey
Tautou.

And I remember I sent her later the script, and ...(unintelligible) made me
three propositions. The first one, `Get lost.' The second one, it was, `I
accept to be a guest star for your film.' And the third one was, `I would
prefer to act a bigger role.' And she chose the third one, and I was very
lucky because she is very easy, and she's not a star. She was very--a good
example for everybody in France. She wasn't late. She was so simple, you
know. It was a great pleasure.

And about the advertising, she refused on her contract to be on the poster, on
the trailer because she knew by heart just ...(unintelligible) I suppose. And
you can imagine, `Jodie Foster in "A Very Long Engagement,"' this kind of
stuff. And I think it's fair play.

GROSS: I think she's really terrific in the movie. The movie, of course,
stars Audrey Tautou, who also starred in your film "Amelie." I'm wondering,
as a director, what you find so special about working with her.

Mr. JEUNET: For me, she's the perfect actress because, for example, she's,
at first, very technical, and very--she has a great sense of timing. She--but
now we know she's able to make everything. For example, with "Amelie," it was
light and easy, and it was more comedy and she was perfect. And now on this
film, it's--she's always on the razor edge. She almost cry, and she doesn't
cry; it was the rule of the game we decided together. And it wasn't easy for
her, you know, and now we know she is able to do that, too.

And just for the shooting, it was a little bit more difficult than "Amelie"
because for "Amelie," it was just a pleasure for everybody. She made some
jokes on the set every day. For this film, she was more concentrated, she was
more quiet, and she needed some silence.

And I remember the first week I was afraid. I thought, `Well, maybe she is
not happy. Maybe she regrets to accept this film.' And we had an
explanation, and she cried and she explained to me, `It's--the pressure is
very difficult for me. I can't be the same Audrey than "Amelie." I need to
be inside myself, you know.' And I said, `OK.' And I explained to the other
people, and it was a different game. But she's very--she's perfect for me.
And, in fact, I don't know her very well. We are not very close on the real
life. I don't have any dinner with her, you know? But because maybe we are
very similar--we have the same spirit, the same humors, the same humility--we
are very similar.

GROSS: You know, one of the things that bothers me in the casting of a lot of
movies is this: A lot of movies that are set in the past, all the actors seem
like contemporary fashion models wearing clothing of the past. In your movie
and particularly, like, in the World War I scenes, the actors' faces somehow
look right for the period.

Mr. JEUNET: Yes, exactly.

GROSS: And if you could, talk a little bit about finding the right faces for
a movie...

Mr. JEUNET: Yeah.

GROSS: ...set during World War I.

Mr. JEUNET: Yeah. I think I--you know, first, we had so many references. I
think we made a casting with something like 2,000 people, and I chose 300
people, but I saw the picture of each of them, you know. And, you know, it
was very simple. You are from the beginning of the century or you're not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JEUNET: And sometime I made a casting for the supporting role, supporting
character. And I said, `No, I'm sorry, but you are not from the beginning of
the century.' It was very simple. And sometime with a mustache, it was much
better, but sometimes not, you know. And on the trench, I'm very happy
because we made a casting in country; it wasn't in Paris. It was in the
middle of France. And the faces are very different because people are coming
from the farm, or they are worker. And it's very different. On the scene for
the balloon, it was made in Paris, and the faces are less interesting.

GROSS: My guest is Jean-Pierre Jeunet. His new film is called "A Very Long
Engagement." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Jean-Pierre Jeunet. He wrote and directed the film
"Amelie." His new film, "A Very Long Engagement," stars Audrey Tautou, the
star of "Amelie." It's set in France during and just after World War I.

What are some of the movies that you grew up with that made the biggest
impression on you as a filmmaker?

Mr. JEUNET: You know, I suppose every director have big references, very
important film. And for me, it was two feature--I used to go when I was a
teen-ager. The first one was "Once Upon a Time in the West" from Sergio
Leone, spaghetti Western. I saw it when I was 17, and I couldn't speak during
three days. I remember my parents were very worried and they were afraid
because--they asked me, `Are you sick? What's the problem?' And I said, `You
can't understand. You can't understand,' you know. It was so important for
me. And the second one was "A Clockwork Orange" from Stanley Kubrick
and--because of the aesthetics, maybe because it was a pleasure to play with
the music, with the picture. You know, it was just a pleasure to make a film,
and I--maybe that's the reason I love so much to use short lens and to play
with all the toys of the cinema: the costumes, the production design.

And ...(unintelligible) later on the--but I understood something. In fact, I
started to make movies before to watch movies. And I think it's pretty aware.
I think I started to make kind of movies at nine. I had a Viewmaster; it was
a toy. You put some 3-D picture inside. And I had a projector, too. And I
invented new dialogues with my friend, and we made some kind of movie. And I
was very young. And that's my ...(unintelligible). And I just buy a camera
or find a camera because--we use a video camera now, it's much easier, you
know--and make movies.

GROSS: You refer to using a short lens. What is a short lens?

Mr. JEUNET: A short lens--it's the opposite of a long lens (laughs). A short
lens is a wide angle, and with a short lens, you can see everything behind the
character.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. JEUNET: And, in general, everything is in focus. And it means you have
to pay attention to every detail because, behind the character, you can see
the walls, the paper on the wall. You can see every detail, you know. And
it's not like in a TV movie; it's very different. And, of course, if you are
very close to the character, to the face of the actor, you get something very
expressive because it's--the short lens has a tendency to transform at--a
little bit the faces. And you have to pay attention to it because--especially
with a woman. If you are too close or if the lens is too short, you get
something very ugly. And it's very difficult to use it but much more
interesting. And Stanley Kubrick, Orson Welles, Sergio Leone used--and
(unintelligible), too, for example, they used a short lens. And I try to use
only short lens, the 20mm, 25 and 27, and that's it. And, of course, we lose
a lot of time because you have to pay attention to everything behind the
actor.

GROSS: I want to ask you about something that happens several times in "A
Very Long Engagement." The character who's played by Audrey Tautou
plays--well, has all these, I don't know, superstitions or compulsive
thoughts. I don't know exactly how to describe them, but she says, for
example, you know, `If the dog comes in before I count to 10, that means my
fiance will survive the war. If I get to this intersection before his car
does, that means that he will survive the war.' She's always doing that. Was
that written in the novel that you based the movie on, or is that something
that you added?

Mr. JEUNET: No, it wasn't in the novel. That's exactly the kind of detail
we put with my screenwriter. It's the kind of detail we love. It was--it's
exactly the same spirit as in "Amelie." We tried to avoid too much detail
like in "Amelie," but, you know, not completely. And I love this part because
I made the same thing when I was younger.

And I saw a film one day; it was a French film, very, very French. The author
spoke about himself, you know. And he was a director, so he spoke about his
own story. And he peed on the toilet, and he said, `If I don't put any drop
on the side of the toilet, I will have the help from the government to make my
next movie.' And I thought this story, it--maybe it's kind of the homage to
the French cinema, the French ...(unintelligible) cinema.

GROSS: And just one more question. I understand you started your career
making TV commercials?

Mr. JEUNET: No. I started with short film, animation short film, because I
worked--you know, I was a worker when I was 17. And it was easier for me to
make animation short film than live-action short film. And after the
animation, I met Marc Caro, my partner I worked with. And we made some
live-action short film. One of them, the French title was (French spoken).
It was a ...(unintelligible) of the last shark, something like this. It was
in a theater in Paris during six years with "Eraserhead," the first David
Lynch movie. And it was a kind of cult show during six years. And during
this time, we wrote two or three pictures, but it was very difficult to find
the money because it was so different, so special. Nobody wanted to give
money for this film. And we were waiting for 10 years to get the money to
make "Delicatessen."

GROSS: I see.

Mr. JEUNET: And during to this time, to leave, of course, I made the first
video music--music video and after a while commercial. And it was the best
way because I met my producer making a video--not a video, a commercial. And
she was Claudie Ossard, and at the end she produced "Delicatessen."

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. JEUNET: Thank you.

GROSS: Jean-Pierre Jeunet directed the new film "A Very Long Engagement."

(Soundbite of music)

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

52:30

'Underground Railroad' Director Barry Jenkins Sees Film As An 'Empathy Machine'

Director Barry Jenkin's new series is based on Colson Whitehead's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about an enslaved teenage girl who escapes from a brutal Georgia plantation. He says it was the most difficult undertakings of his career.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue