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Gianfranco Rosi waited three years to get the shot.
It’s a short scene in Notturno, Rosi’s new documentary, which is Italy’s submission for the 93rd Academy Awards in the best international feature category, as well as a best documentary feature contender. A woman from the Yazidi community of Kurdistan scrolls through audio messages on her phone. “When you hear this, answer me right away or ISIS will be listening.” Messages from her daughter, kidnapped by ISIS.
Rosi met the husband of the kidnapped woman when he first went to Iraq to begin work on Notturno, which looks at the devastation wrought by terrorists — as well as local dictators and foreign armies —across Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Kurdistan. The man showed the Italian director the cellphone with the voice messages but didn’t want to be interviewed on camera.
“So I had this phone but I didn’t know how I could use it for my story,” Rosi explains. “Every time over the next three years when I was in Iraq, I went back to see him. Five, six, ten times.”
Finally, when he was finishing Notturno, Rosi went back a final time. The husband still didn’t want to be interviewed, but he gave the Italian director the phone and the number of the girl’s mother, who had escaped and now lives in Germany.
“I met her. We spoke from 8 in the morning to 4 in the afternoon,” Rosi recalls. “At the end of the day, I was ready to go, without having shot anything. But she said, ‘Aren’t you here to make a documentary? You have the messages of my daughter on the cell phone. I want to hear my daughter.'”
Rosi set up the shot in a backroom in her Germany apartment, amid piled up blankets. “It looked like Kurdistan,” he notes. He put the camera down, the mother sat on the bed, and started scrolling through the messages on the phone.
“At a certain point, the scene became so emotional and we understand that the daughter is not there anymore, that this was her last phone call, her last scream for help,” he says. “It took three years from the beginning of my journey in Iraq to the final one with the mother in Stuttgart. It’s just three shots in the film but it’s enough. Her daughter’s voice is like the territory, the landscape, that had been destroyed.”
The mother never speaks. There is no voiceover to explain who she is or her situation. There is no insert on-screen to tell us she’s in Germany, not Iraq. In Notturno, like in his previous documentaries — the Oscar-nominated Fire at Sea about migrants to Italy, El Sicario: Room 164 about a hitman for the Mexican drug cartels — Rosi used the tools of the journalist to interview scores of eye-witnesses and shoot hundreds of hours of footage, but his goal is to tell a deeper, more personal story.
“I think my films start where journalism ends. After the big headline news is over, that’s when I arrive, trying to find something, extremely personal, an encounter, an intimacy that somehow goes beyond the breaking news,” Rosi says.
The flood of imagery and headline reporting out of the Middle East, Rosi believes, can numb people to the human tragedy on the ground. “People get used to it. If you talk about six hundred thousand dead, those are just numbers. You don’t relate.”
In Notturno, he is careful to avoid the easy pornography of trauma. We hear gunfire in the distance but there is no violence on screen. The most graphic images are crayon drawings of an ISIS massacre, made by a child in therapy, who, with little obvious emotion, describes what they depict: including the headless bodies representing his murdered family.
Those who criticize the Italian director for manipulation are missing the point. Rosi never pretends he just happened to capture the images in his films. Every shot in Notturno — the Kurdish mother mourning a son murdered in a Turkish prison camp, the doctor in a Baghdad psychiatric hospital rehearsing a play about Iraqi history with his traumatized patients, or Ali, the fatherless boy who does odd jobs to support his family — is composed and deliberate. Rosi will spend weeks or months getting to know his subjects before shooting a frame of footage.
“When you take out the camera, it changes the relationship, so what I have to do is create the relationship with the people before,” he says. “I’m working as a one-man crew, and this allows me to wait three weeks if I need to for the right light for a shot. For the right moment that makes the scene is bigger than just documenting something. Of course, there are documentaries that are more didactic, more like journalism, more about explaining. But I want to use documentary with the language of cinema not to give you an answer but to put the audience through the experience that I had in those three years.”
Part of that experience, Rosi says, was understanding how meaningless national borders have become in the region. In Notturno, the audience is never told if we are in Lebanon, Syria, or Iraq. All the stories become one.
“I realized that there was no division in the pain, in the horror that they were living,” he says.
Rosi finished editing Notturno back home in Italy, completing the movie as his country went into lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I was locked in a room with this invisible enemy outside, with death outside, and I had this sense of a future suspended. For the first time, I experienced what the people I had met the last years feel every day,” the director says. “In a way, it’s what we’re all living all over the world right now: this sense of suspension right now, the sense of a future that is not there, that’s not tangible.”
The experience, Rosi says, led to the decision to end Notturno with a close-up, a long take of Ali, staring in the distance.
“We don’t know what will happen. Will he join ISIS, will he become a victim? What is his future?” says Rosi. “There are no words. But his face, that shot, is I think worth a thousand questions, a thousand answers. The whole journey of the film brings you to this, to put you in his point of view, to put you into this frame.”
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