Dr. Karine Chevalier

Film director and lecturer at the University of Roehampton

Can you tell us about your education and how you arrived in Britain?

I obtained my French Baccalaureate, and went onto university, where I soon realised that there was not much I could do with a degree in modern literature. I then did a multidisciplinary DEA (Master’s) in literature and sociology. There were people from all over the world, notably Palestine, Britain, Spain. I then came to Britain to see how it was. I started to take up casual work and temporary jobs, like being a nanny, and took English classes. But I thought it was a pity not to carry on, and I considered doing a PhD with the idea to use both countries and both academic traditions. So I started my PhD in comparative literature in Grenoble (for financial reasons) whilst living in London. My supervisor was in France but I found a co-supervisor, Debra Kelly, at Westminster University who was very helpful and supportive. She was interested in my work so I ended up having two supervisors. My university in France required more intellectual references for example, whereas in Britain I was encouraged to meet people, give papers at conference earlier than in France. In the UK, postgrads are much more involved in research and university life.

My PhD was on postcolonial literature and on the representation of memory through masks, trace (which is a Derridean concept), the palimpsest and chaos. All these concepts sound very French, but the good thing was that postcolonial studies were very trendy in Britain, whereas France was very backwards in that field. So it enabled me to write a thesis which was rather new to the French system.

In France people told me “now that you have your PhD, you need l’agrégation” (a further French qualification for teachers). Whereas in Britain, I was told “now you need to publish your thesis.” So I spent time rewriting my thesis to have it published and I thought it was the right choice because now, if a person does not want to go back to France, employers are going to look at your profile and your publications. So L’Harmattan published my thesis in two volumes and after two or three years, I was lucky to obtain a position at a university.

Do you think that there are major differences in academia in France and in Britain?

I am now a lecturer at the University of Roehampton in the Media, Culture and Language department so I work with English and Spanish people, and because I have a PhD in comparative literature, I can give lectures on a wide variety of topics – ranging from languages, cinema, civilisation through to translation. Here, lecturers are asked to be more multidisciplinary and more flexible than in France. Had I worked in France, I would have remained in one field: comparative literature and it would have been very difficult to evolve towards other fields.

Another thing is that in Britain, lecturers have a lot of paperwork but we are also an integral part of policy making (in the teaching and cultural life of the university). This allows us to have an impact on the sort of courses we want to teach, on the curriculum. For example I created a new module where I asked my students to use languages in a film that they made. That gave them an idea of what it is to shoot a film, and as they are using a foreign language it is more real and fun than just writing in a foreign language; also, they’re in a fantastic place: London. It is an incredible platform for cinema.

For me, working in an Anglo-Saxon world is challenging because there are more responsibilities and academics needs to be flexible – but at the same time, it is great on a lot of levels: personally, because one can feel fulfilled, professionally because one learns a lot of new things which can be re-used in different work environments.

What is the advantage of working in France, then?

Well, apart from the family and the weather you mean?! I think it is a disappearing asset: that of being fonctionnaire (public sector worker). In England, we have a contract with an institution- if your department closes down, you have to look for jobs elsewhere. Besides, it has always been said that a lecturer has more time to do research in France, notably over summer – and this is true. But in some British universities, lecturers get to have semesters off teaching just to conduct research and this does not exist in France.

I think that there is no money anymore in France and that the country is afraid of the Anglo-Saxon world. But now that research is becoming competitive, and this competition is worldwide, a lot of French researchers work in the US, in Canada or in the UK, and there is an easy explanation for that. They are not only better paid, but above all, research centres are much more dynamic. But I know that France is going to develop -it’s still a country were abstract research is valued highly, whereas England is more pragmatic and lecturers are encouraged to do a variety of activities, not just pure research. For instance, I am writing for L’Express magazine about art in London at the moment. (http://blogs.lexpress.fr/london-by-art/)

Is cooperation between France and Britain, in the field of research encouraged? Does it exist?

I think that research in France remains very Franco-French. Once you have left France, it is as if you had denied your country. It is not recognised. So people who go to Canada for instance find it difficult to come back to France and work there. I am just talking about humanities though, I think it is different in science. But in the arts, the French and the British traditions are very different and are not compatible.

In my experience, i.e. in postcolonial studies, there is a permanent philosophical fight; you either belong to one side or the other. Hence why it’s important to adopt various approaches, and keep a critical mind. But this goes back to the issue of funding.

But for a few years, lecturers who belong to French institutions contacted me and they were eager to organise bi-national conferences, and I feel some sort of change coming.

How were you first introduced to filming?

In France, I had always been surrounded by people who made films, but I never thought about it. After spending years in a library, I thought ‘why don’t I make a film on the topic of my PhD thesis?’, meaning memory and immigration. And I wanted to work with people. So I gave it a go, without taking any classes. I learnt as I was making my first film, though I had already given cinema classes, but I had a more theoretical approach. My first film was a feature film, which I co-produced and co-wrote, and for which I helped on the set. It was an amazing adventure, and I enjoyed editing, which is a bit like writing a PhD thesis: you need an introduction, a conclusion, you get rid of what is unnecessary…! And just like for a PhD thesis, you need to publicise, and sell your work, send it to festivals…

My second film was much more experimental because I wanted to escape constraints. I know it is not for a wide audience but I would like to carry on that path, because I think it is where one can actually find freedom.

Dr. Chevalier’s books:

* ‘La Mémoire et l’Absent. Nabile Farès et Juan Rulfo de la Trace au Palimpseste’. Paris : L’Harmattan, 2008, 325 pp.

* ‘La Mémoire et le Présent. Daniel Maximin et Salman Rushdie du Masque au Chaos‘. Paris : L’Harmattan, forthcoming, 2010.

Dr. Chevalier’s blog: http://blogs.lexpress.fr/london-by-art/

Interviewed on 9 May 2012 at the Institut Français du Royaume Uni, London
Franco-British Portrait Gallery
© Charlotte Faucher