By Malena Martínez Cabrera
“Choose the precise framing for each scene”, with this premise the Italian-American filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi concentrates the effort of his documentary cinematographic work, since it is from these frames that he will tell his entire story. In Notturno (Italy, France, Germany, 2020), Gianfranco Rosi chooses the people who reflect all the intensity of the moment, predicts the best moment of the day, the necessary light, the precise corner where the camera will be located. Both the image and the sound register fall into his own hands, as Rosi works as a one-man-crew.
Rosi found his aesthetics and cinematographic devices himself during his first films. In each subsequent work he has strengthened this search. In 2010 he made El Sicario, room 164, which consists of a single camera movement that achieves a powerful uninterrupted oral story, and that made a great impression. Rosi considers it his favorite film. In 2013 his work Sacro GRA was the first documentary to obtain a Golden Lion in the history of the Venice Film Festival. And in 2016, with his extraordinary Fuoccoamare (Fire at sea) he won the European Film Award for best documentary and the Golden Bear at the Berlinale.
In 2020, the year of the pandemic, Rosi presents Notturno, a film made in four countries, in a three-year process during which he filmed 80 hours of material that was distilled into 100 minutes of cinema. The area where Rosi decided to place his camera this time were the border areas of four Middle Eastern countries in conflict and occupation: Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Kurdistan; places from where a large part of the new immigrants who arrive today in Europe also come. We were lucky enough to see his film on the giant screen during Viennale 2020, which preserved the spirit of the real film event day before Austria’s second lock down (anti-pandemic lock down), and by chance, a few days before the Islamist terrorist act that casted a shadow over Vienna’s city center, which is where most of the festival cinemas are located.
“My work begins where breaking news ends”
Notturno begins with a brief text on the civilian populations of Lebanon, Iraq and Kurdistan that “pay the consequences of greed and the ambition for power that unleashed in a vicious circle of military coups, corrupt governments, authoritarian leaders, foreign interventions” and terrorism. But, in this film, Rosi does not film the war and does not try to cover or delve into journalistic information. On the contrary, it stops in everyday spaces surrounded by signs of violence, destruction and tragedy, and gives us an overview of how the people of those countries continue their lives. Notturno tries to be “a film of light about the darkness of war.”
The inevitable common content: the permanent state of alert on the borders and the permanent psychological wounds in the towns, expressed through scenes where the theme of waiting and imminence become an ostinato in the midst of the calm impulse or the effort to keep living. Few conversations, one or two happy lovers, a lot of human silence and a lot of bombs. An intense acoustic stage made up of metal noises, military, engine and war sounds.
The range of states of light contained in the open landscapes – sunrises, sunsets, nights, cloudy skies – allows the cadence of the night that is sought through the film, through the habitable and non-habitable spaces that we see. From the comfort of our seats we see the war corps, the soldiers, the troops, the border guards, the mothers who recite responses in the torture houses of their children, bird hunters, Ali, a teenager who must leave home and assume parental responsibilities, we hear the traumatized children and see their drawings impregnated with the uniforms of the bloody terrorists from whom they managed to escape. Adult psychiatric patients practice a play on the political history of their Syrian homeland: “Spring of War.” The inmates, in bright orange suits, rest in an overcrowded shed. A mother finally hears all the messages her daughter, kidnapped by Daesh, left her secretly.
“Transform what you have in front of you. Transform that reality into something else, that’s cinema.”
“Recording reality by filming everything, moving the camera from here to there, is more like‘ marking territory ’than cinema.”
How do you manage to access such intimate spaces and moments of your characters? Rosi spent eight months getting to know the areas and the people. When he returned, this time with his camera, a base of mutual trust had already been built and the characters opened their doors to him naturally. Rosi confesses, however, that filming is an uncomfortable moment for him, because the camera transforms the sensation of grasping moments of truth. It comforts him, but in general it cannot be said that he enjoys it even if he puts his whole being into it.
Regarding his film El sicario, room 164, in a previous interview, he had already told us 10 years ago that: “What can erase the boundary between documentary and fiction is the work of trust established with the character.” Masterfully handling that fine line between fiction and documentary continues to be his aesthetic challenge: “Yes, in this project I continue to work on that fine line between documentary and fiction, using the language of cinema with the authority of the documentary, that is.
For Notturno, Rosi had a field producer in each country, as well as an assistant – translator – guide, in whom he places all his trust to move in the area, however all the work of recording image and sound is concentrated on his own hands.
Desistfilm: Do you have an assistant who takes care of the sound while you film?
Gianfranco Rosi: No, for me sounds and images are one piece, I don’t separate them and I do everything. When I film I must have my headphones on and that’s how it is with the camera.
Desistfilm: Also, do you record separately only the sound as a sound engineer?
Gianfranco Rosi: Yes. I have always been one-man-crew. For me, the elements that are part of the narrative are a whole: image, sound and direction. Then, during editing, I work on the sound as in a fiction film, the sound of this film took me five months, it is very important to me.
Desistfilm: How do you choose the light? The time of day you choose in this film has often been sunrise and sunset.
Gianfranco Rosi: Light is essential for me when I work. When I started this movie I wanted to film everything at night, because I felt protected by the light. Then, little by little, I began to open the scene to more dimensions, to the twilight and even to the outside light. But outside I did not want to film with hard light or blue sky, because otherwise everything was going to turn into something else, so I was always waiting for the clouds to come, the rain. In this way, it was possible for me to place the camera exactly where I wanted. For example, having a 360 degree view, and then finding the correct distance to shoot. Doing this is fundamental for me and it is where storytelling begins, when all the elements, light, sound, camera, and everything that the language of cinema gives us are put at the service of the reality that is being filmed. I don’t accept the fact that filming reality has to be raw. Why would moving the camera be more real? That is something that I was always opposed to. I think that by choosing a frame and putting people into that frame, you create an identification with what you are seeing. One does not always need to go through camera movement to be more true. From a young age I always looked for a cinematic approach and I tried to be able to tell the story within that frame, and always have a structure. That is the great challenge. That takes patience and to wait, wait a lot.
Desistfilm: Of course, for this you must first understand the dynamics of your characters.
Gianfranco Rosi: Exactly, you have to anticipate them.
Desistfilm: When you don’t know them much, on the contrary, you need to dance more with the camera. In any case, you have chosen the option of waiting …
Gianfranco Rosi: A huge part of my job is waiting. And in a way this also reflects what I found there. In Notturno you notice that the feeling of waiting is enormous, it seems that everyone is waiting, the enemy, the unknown, the future, political decisions, even the Americans are waiting, mobilizing or waiting to mobilize. And that’s part of the storytelling.
Desistfilm: It seems that everyone is guarding its borders. There is a hunter in the lake …
Gianfranco Rosi: Yes, the guard who is hunting is also waiting for the birds, and he does not make a single shot, it is a constant wait.
Desistfilm: This time we appreciate that in Notturno there is a lot of silence, in the sense that there is an absence of dialogue. Is it because they were countries where you did not know the language or for other reasons?
Gianfranco Rosi: Well, that’s probably part of it. But this time I felt that this film should be like music. I felt a strong need to include spaces between the notes. Silence is as important as the notes themselves, because it marks separations in musical compositions. So, between characters, I quite explored the feeling of silence and whiteness, that somehow helped me to have a comfort zone there in the silence.
Desistfilm: The situation is so tough that people don’t talk much in such circumstances, perhaps, for example, when female soldiers get ready in the room and go out again.
Gianfranco Rosi: Well, these women are coming from a fight, from risking their lives, they are not exactly into partying. Silence is part of the feeling of being suspended from the film, of not wanting to speak, there is more introversion and a pain that you do not want to share with everyone. Many times I felt that pain was a strong part of daily life, silence with the echo in the distance of war, constantly.
Desistfilm: In the discourse that comes from documentary film, many authors repeat: “I don’t want to be informative.”
Gianfranco Rosi: Yes, because we live in the middle of too much information in this world. You just go to the internet and you already have it. For me, documentary cinema must become something more emotional. I want to impact the audience in an emotional way. I don’t want to give an answer. To every question you have, each audience must answer themselves, that is very important to me and that is my challenge when making documentaries. It’s the same thing that Flaherty looked for with Nanook, they didn’t want to give you answers but something more emotional. The word “poetic” is also used, when there is a feeling of suspension. It is the same difference between reading prose or an essay, and reading poetry. In poetry one must read between words; in an essay you follow a writing process exactly.
Desistfilm: Can we say that you choose poetry?
Gianfranco Rosi: I don’t want to say that because it is a bit reductive but I do like to transform things into something else, to give a feeling of suspension to what I see. Transform reality. Because reality itself is not interesting, you know?
Desistfilm: Isn’t it?
Gianfranco Rosi: Not always.
Desistfilm: I tell you that in Peru we do not have a film school, we do not even have a record of our own history or events of the present, in that sense we do have, as in Europe, too much information but not about our own history. How do we avoid falling into snobbery when we talk about cinema in terms of quality compared to the precariousness of other societies or filmmakers who film differently? Sometimes when I think about Peruvian cinema, I fear that when from Europe there is a lot of talk about just keeping the camera still, observing, “only that is cinema and the rest is not, it is reportage”, it may sound derogatory. In our society we deal with precariousness, including time, I think that having time is a luxury. The quality time is also in the end a western criterion.
Gianfranco Rosi: When I put in my time, I finish making the film and I don’t have any money. Not that they pay me for three years of work. They pay me to make a film and the budget for a documentary is not very large. I have a budget, but I invest it in time. The more time I put in, the less money I see. For me it is not a matter of being poor or rich or privileged. I am a filmmaker and the question is to find the right cinematographic language for me. When I was a student I did Boatman (1993) in India, with no money, and it took me five years. I was not privileged, it was a matter of obsession. It’s not about being of some social class but about finding your way of telling the story. Below sea level (2008) took me three years, and in between I had to do other jobs. So, I don’t think putting it as something snobbish is the right thing to do, they are decisions that individuals make without crying because others are privileged and one is not. You can make a film that takes ten years and in between you work, you do other things. My first three films had zero budget and cost only time. I’ve been working doing everything, but I was obsessed with getting an idea of making movies out of there. That is, it is not about being from the East, from the West, neither rich nor poor. It is an artistic and individual choice.
Desistfilm: Could the other option be a “historical” choice, then, that of filming despite the precariousness and the unstable camera?
Gianfranco Rosi: Well, now everyone can make films with the phone, it is no longer about the budget but about what you see and the story you want to tell. It is about how an individual sees reality and films it and not about the country where he belongs.
Interview conducted by Malena Martínez Cabrera, in Vienna, on October 31, 2020.