A Fortnightly Review.
Directed by Gianfranco Rosi
1h 40min | Documentary | UK release date 5 March 2021; US 7 April 2021
By SIMON COLLINGS.
IN A 2016 interview, Gianfranco Rosi spoke of his films having the thinness of a Giacometti sculpture, ‘so thin…it’s up to you to create the space that’s missing.’ The question he faces as a filmmaker, he said, is ‘how thin I can go with this before it crashes. So that’s always a challenge for me in a film.’1 Rosi’s most recent release, Notturno, completed in 2020, is his thinnest film to date. The images offer few clues as to where exactly we are, there’s no analysis, and many of the sequences are shown without accompanying dialogue. Grey skies, sombre browns and greens, and shadowy night shots define the documentary’s mood. It was filmed in Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria and Lebanon over a three year period following the collapse of the ISIS caliphate in 2017. Most of those who speak in the film do so out of an experience of deep trauma: a grieving mother visiting a now derelict prison where her son was tortured to death, children who have witnessed executions by ISIS, the inmates of a psychiatric hospital rehearsing a play.
Shots of soldiers exercising on a parade ground just before dawn open the film. The camera is fixed, angled in the direction the men are running. Each group enters the frame from the left, jogs past, and their image recedes, the thud of tramping boots fading. Then another squad announces itself with a loud ‘huh’ as it enters our field of view. The time lapse between one group and the next is just long enough to make us think we have seen the last before yet another appears, a metaphor perhaps for the relentless waves of violence which have swept the region in recent decades. The legacy of these conflicts is everywhere in the film, bombed-out towns, abandoned homes, tented camps, makeshift infrastructure, prisoners in orange overalls, security patrols. Occasional distant bursts of gunfire remind us that it is all far from over.
Rosi likes to work alone, acting as his own camera operator and sound recordist, accompanied at most by a single assistant. He spends many months living in the communities where he films, observing, establishing relationships, listening to people’s stories. He has made only six full-length documentaries (and two shorts) in a career spanning 27 years, largely because of the time he takes engaging with his subject. Working in the Middle East was high-risk because of the lengthy periods he needed to spend in the places where he was filming. Several times he narrowly escaped kidnapping. The director talks in interviews of Notturno having the kind of unity a piece of music has: the intercutting of the various storylines, repeated motifs, the style of the piece creating a sense of wholeness.2 At the same time, the documentary embraces many dissonant elements, and the sense of disorientation it creates is critical to its ability to move and engage us. The cumulative impact of the disparate, thinly signposted images leaves the viewer struggling to comprehend what they are witnessing. The Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu said that after watching the film, he kept quiet ‘for a couple of hours’. In conversation with Rosi, he said: ‘The film left me with a huge emotional impact that it was my homework to deal with and to put myself together and to understand, in silence.’3
ROSI’S FILMS HAVE always been about people living on the margins. His first feature, Boatman (1996), shot in Benares just after the director had graduated from film school, takes a bottom-up approach to the holy city on the Ganges. His 2008 picture Below Sea Level was shot in the desert of southern California where a shifting community of people live in old buses and trailers. Sacro GRA, released in 2013, focused on residents living next to Rome’s outer ring road, people literally on the periphery.
In the interval between Below Sea Level and Sacro GRA, Rosi shot El Sicario, Room 164 (2010), an interview with a former member of a Mexican drug-trafficking gang, now living as a fugitive with a $250,000 contract on his head. Fire at Sea (2016), which precedes Notturno, is about migrants trying to reach Europe, and the local community on the island of Lampedusa where they land.4
These are documentaries, though of a kind which challenges the norms of mainstream liberal documentary practice. Rosi dispenses with narration. There is no thesis being argued, no overt agenda, no script.5 Each project starts with an idea, but the film evolves and develops during its making. Rosi does not know exactly what the final edit will contain, or how it will end, until he has completed it. His goal is to use the language of cinema — framing, distance, duration, light and shadow — to tell the ‘story’.
The filmmaker is and isn’t present in these films. We never see him in the frame, nor do we hear his voice, but Rosi is fully aware that as soon as he starts to use the camera he is changing his relationship with the subject. Objective filmmaking isn’t possible, he argues, but that doesn’t mean that what he presents in his films is untrue.6 He likens the kind of performance which happens when people are being filmed to what occurs in a psychotherapy session, when we tell the therapist things we would not think to talk about during the rest of the day. ‘The camera brings out this form of self-awareness, which is very important to me,’ Rosi says.7 It is Rosi’s presence behind the camera and his relationship with the subject which generates these moments of self-revelation.
Rosi allows the people in his films to tell their own story, without comment or judgement. The informal settlement in Below Sea Level is strictly speaking illegal, but it is so far from anywhere the authorities leave the residents alone. These are people who for one reason or another have fallen out of the system. They have no mains electricity, running water, or sanitation. But amid the hardship and emotional trauma there’s a community of sorts, where people have a sense of themselves as individuals. Cindy, who served in the US Navy during the Vietnam War, now lives as a transvestite and runs a beauty salon from her trailer. ‘Insane’ Wayne, an elderly derelict with intense staring eyes gets it together with a neighbour. Long-term resident Mike writes a song, which he works on with a guitarist who lives nearby. ‘We like it here, and we ain’t going back’, he sings.
In Sacro GRA we meet a similarly diverse cast of characters: the Tiber’s last surviving eel fisherman, a paramedic who works nights attending to the casualties of traffic accidents, an agronomist studying red palm tree weevils who is recording the sounds they make with a view to creating a sonic device which will destroy their social organisation, prostitutes working on the street, residents of high-rise flats, and a down-at-heel aristocrat who rents out his villa as a film location, offers B&B, and poses for pictures for photo-novellas.
El Sicario (slang for ‘the assassin’), is the most extreme character Rosi has filmed. Drawing diagrams in a sketch book, he describes how he tortured and murdered people, how the cartels have infiltrated the police and government in both Mexico and the USA, and how he reached a point where he wanted out. Until then drink and drugs had enabled him to repress his revulsion at what he was doing. While engaging in violent crime he led a parallel life with a wife and daughter, both also now in hiding. He speaks of how beating up and abusing women troubled him. The interview takes place in a room of a motel where he once tortured a man who had failed to pay ‘the boss’ money.
NOTTURNO IS A follow-up project to Rosi’s fifth feature Fire at Sea. For this venture Rosi spent a year and a half on the island of Lampedusa researching and filming. Under increasingly tough migration policies Europe’s southern border has moved out to sea. Where migrants used to land directly on the island, receiving help from local people, now they are picked up off the coast and brought into purpose-built reception centres to be ‘processed’. There is little contact between the local community and these migrants, but clear evidence of sympathy among the islanders for the plight of those making the perilous crossing.
One of the central characters in Fire at Sea is a young boy, Samuele, who is around 11 years old. We see him playing with a friend along the cliff tops with a homemade sling shot, suffering sea sickness while out fishing with his father, rocking himself in a moored rowing boat to try to build up resilience to feelings of nausea. Like any boy of his age he plays at war, firing an imaginary rifle and making the appropriate sounds, his world coloured by stories of the Second World War related to him by his grandmother.
Sections of the film show rescue operations: distress calls, helicopters taking off on search missions, migrants, some in a distressed condition, being taken from sinking boats. We also see inside the reception centres: the new arrivals being documented and searched, life inside the facility. This strand of the film builds to horrific images of body bags being lifted off an overcrowded vessel, reaching a climax with shots of corpses lying in the interior of a boat. This harrowing sequence is followed by a long, silent shot of the open sea, then a further lengthy take of the sun obscured by clouds. The mute sense of grief is palpable.
A doctor on the island attends both local patients and migrants. He explains that the costs of passage for the migrants vary. Those who travel in the hold pay least, those on the outside the most. The crowded, hot interior of the boat is a death trap. He describes his distress at the condition of some of the migrants he receives – severely dehydrated, malnourished, exhausted, sometimes covered in chemical burns from spilled fuel – and his sense of failure when those in his care don’t survive. ‘It’s the duty of every human being, if you’re human, to help these people,’ he says. ‘When we succeed we’re happy, we’re glad…that we were able to help them out.’ He describes how colleagues say that he must by now be used to dealing with scenes of tragedy, but it’s not true. ‘How can you get used to seeing children, pregnant women, women who have given birth on sinking boats, umbilical cords still attached?’ he asks. Both Rosi and the doctor were crying when they filmed this take.
The scenes of death, Rosi says, had a huge impact on him. Among those taking this hazardous journey were people fleeing the war in Syria, and he decided he wanted to visit the Middle East, a region he had never been to before, to better understand what was happening there.
ONE STRIKING QUALITY of Rosi’s films is their visual beauty, the artfully framed shots, the dramatic skyscapes, the almost dream-like quality of some of the imagery. These aspects of his work create a constant tension with the subject matter. In Notturno, for example, there’s a scene where the elderly woman mourning her son in the abandoned prison is shown looking at two grisly photographs of her dead son’s body, the face bruised and bloody, a rope tied around his neck. We’re shown the woman seated on the ground to the right of a doorway which opens onto a corridor stretching away into the distance. It’s an image of extraordinary power, the corridor in the empty building perhaps standing for the woman’s emotional state, the enormity of what has happened, the endless questions, the receding of memory and time.
In another sequence, Rosi films two horses in an urban area at night. We see the horses waiting for their owners, then one of them, a small white horse, standing alone. Later the two horses gallop toward us down the street and pass out of the frame, followed a few moments later by someone on a motorbike going the other way. These are actual events Rosi observed and filmed, but they might equally be from a dream. Everything Rosi records is transformed by his vision.
The documentaries achieve this quality because Rosi spends a long time waiting for the right feeling. He will revisit the same location many times, seeking the light he wants, that unexpected moment when something happens which he knows he has to catch. Out of these myriad images he constructs the film in a manner he compares to composing music. Each image is like a note which has to link to the next note in a way which flows. The mistake, he says, is to include too much of a particular subject. Then we get lost.8 Each sequence prepares us for the next. The repetition of patterns, the reappearance of certain locations and people, create a sense of a narrative though the film avoids any kind of resolution.
THE BOY SAMUELE, in Fire at Sea, has a counterpart — Ali, in Notturno. Both are around the same age, they even dress in a similar manner, but where Samuele is talkative, Ali is silent. The only time he speaks in the film is to confirm his name. Ali lives with his mother and siblings, and as the oldest male in the household seems to have an important role as a breadwinner. We see him winching in a fishing net, an echo of the fishing scene with Samuele, hunting small birds for food, hiring himself out to a hunter for $5 for a day’s work.
Samuele also hunts birds, though unsuccessfully. With a friend he goes out after dark, imitating bird calls to discover the whereabouts of possible prey, and firing off a sling shot when he glimpses something moving. Later we see Samuele in the same spot, alone this time, and again impersonating the sound of a bird. He finds a fledgling on a low branch which he illuminates with his torch, gently touching the bird’s head with a broken piece of twig.
The birds in Notturno fare less well. Ali brings back a dozen small birds from his hunting expedition which he plucks and disembowels in the kitchen sink, ready for his mother to cook them. In the scene with the hunter Ali spots a bird flying over which the hunter shoots and kills. Ali scrambles off across a ploughed field to recover the tiny corpse, which the hunter pockets. There is something desperately poignant about the slaughter of these birds, a reminder that the casualties of war are not just humans.
Decades of conflict in the Middle East have had a massive environmental impact. The Guardian newspaper recently ran a photo-story about the lucrative illegal trade in flamingos in southern Iraq.9 Notturno also includes footage of a hunter in the marshes of southern Iraq, paddling his small boat, the night sky bright with the orange light of flaring oil wells nearby. Sporadic gunfire can be heard in the distance but out on the water there’s a haunting sense of tranquillity. The hunter deploys decoys to attract ducks, and waits patiently, rifle at the ready, looking up into the sky. None appear.
THE PLAY PERFORMED by the patients in a psychiatric hospital is the primary source of contextual information in Notturno, and another powerful metaphor. This material, which is returned to at various points in the film, was available to the filmmaker only because he visited the hospital many times, convinced there was something to be realised here. Faced with restrictions on what and where he could film, Rosi was on the verge of giving up. But then he heard voices in a room and decided to see what was happening. The play is wordy, involving little dramatic action, and the performers are amateurs, but this only adds to the emotional power. The characters lament different aspects of the tragedy of their ‘homeland’. They are casualties of despotism and corruption, a foreign invasion, and extremism. Though they express hope for the future, they do so within the confines of a psychiatric institution.
Rosi’s earlier films all focused on adults. In his last two films he has given important roles to children. In Notturno, we hear from several children undergoing trauma therapy after being rescued from ISIS. One boy, Fawaz, describes seeing people tortured and beheaded. The therapist has the children drawing pictures of their experiences and talking about them. Bearded figures in black fire automatic weapons at people, blood spurts from a severed arm, a man hangs in a noose with a woman beside him weeping. The camera dwells silently on these images for some time. Then Fawaz, in a stuttering voice, starts to describe the killing of members of the non-Muslim Yazidi community by ISIS.
Notturno leaves the viewer with a sense of the incomprehensible magnitude of what’s happening in the Middle East. It confronts us, as all Rosi’s films do, with people’s lived experience: the hardship, the stress, the sense of surviving one day at a time. Rosi has, in the past, avoided close-ups, but in Notturno we see Ali’s face several times, always with the same sad expression. It is with this image the film ends, the boy standing beside a muddy road at dawn, hoping to be hired by a hunter for the day. His coat-hood is pulled up, his face inexpressibly tragic and vulnerable, as he awaits who knows what future.
Simon Collings lives in Oxford and has published poems, stories and critical essays in a range of journals including Stride, Journal of Poetics Research, Café Irreal,Tears in the Fence, Ink Sweat and Tears, Lighthouse and PN Review. Out West, his first chapbook, was published by Albion Beatnik in 2017, and a second chapbook, Stella Unframed, was released by The Red Ceilings Press in 2018. An archive of his work for The Fortnightly Review is here. His latest book, Why Are You Here?, a collection of ‘very brief fictions’, has just been published by Odd Volumes, our imprint.
- Interview in Film Comment by Yonca Talu, 24 October 2016.
- See, for example, Rosi’s interview with Adrian Wootton or the interview he did last year for his screening at the Toronto International Film Festival.
- Filmed interview between González Iñárritu and Rosi which accompanies the film on MUBI.
- Rosi’s two shorts are Afterwards (2000), a film about a man who lives alone, with animals his only companions, which Rosi made with Jean-Sébastien Lallemand and Carlos Martinez Casas, and Tanti Futuri Possibili (2012), a companion piece to Sacro GRA, in which the architect Renato Nicolini reflects on various subjects as he travels the Grande Raccordo Anulare.
- Rosi has said that producers who expect a film to be shot to a script are ‘the death of documentary filmmaking.’ Interview in Screen Daily, 23 November 2020.
- ‘Documentary Filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi: ‘I Don’t Believe in Observational Cinema’’, by Damon Wise, Variety, 23 November 2020.
- Interview in Film Comment by Yonca Talu, 24 October 2016.
- Interview on Vimeo with Adrian Wootton.
- ‘Looking for a flamingo?’: bird-trafficking in Iraq – photo essay, Guardian, 1 March 2021.