Toronto: Gianfranco Rosi on Documenting the "Victims of History" in 'Notturno'

Gianfranco Rosi with Berlin Golden Bear Berlin Film Festival 2016
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Gianfranco Rosi

The Oscar-nominated Italian documentary maker spent two years traveling across the borders of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Kurdistan to meet normal people surviving on the fringes of war, where the shadow of ISIS and generations of conflict still loom large.

After winning the Berlinale 2016 Golden Bear — and later an Oscar nomination — for Fire at Sea, a moving and deeply empathetic examination of Europe’s migrant crisis shot on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, Italian documentary maker Gianfranco Rosi has turned his deeply artistic lens to the original starting point for many of those boarding small boats seeking refuge.

Notturno, which bowed in Venice (seven years after he won the Golden Lion for Sacro G.R.A.) before moving on to Toronto, is the result of a three-year odyssey for the filmmaker, who traveled across the war-torn borders of Lebanon, Iraq, Kurdistan and Syria, documenting the day-to-day lives of normal people existing behind the battle lines, people whose lives have been shattered not just by the rise and fall of ISIS, but more than 100 years of tyranny, invasion and conflict.

Among those Rosi captures, often in deeply emotional and personal moments, is a mother mourning for her murdered son in the ruined cell where he was killed, and another listening to voice messages secretly sent to her by her kidnapped daughter (who we presume never made it home). In one scene a young man hunts in the swamps for ducks, his prey lit up by the red fires of air raids over distant oil fields, while in arguably Rosi’s most impressive logistical feat, he enters a prison housing thousands of ISIS soldiers, now effectively living on top of one another in a cramped darkened room as the world decides what to do with them (or doesn’t).

But Notturno reaches its hard-hitting and gut-punching peak with scenes in which young Yazidi children describe the horrors they witnessed and experienced at the hands of ISIS to a teacher. Without crying, they quietly discuss the torture and brutal extermination of their people, using crayons to draw terrifying pictures of hangings, decapitations and much more.

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Rosi explains why time is always his biggest investment, and his need to spend months with each of his protagonists to understand their lives and routines to build up a level of trust before he could even consider shooting. He also discusses how the moments with the Yazidi children weren't just his most painful to shoot, but made him repeatedly question his role as a documentarian.

Did you start Notturno immediately after Fire at Sea, and did it feel like a very connected story?

I had a natural need after Fire at Sea, a natural need to cross that barrier that was separating the island [Lampedusa] from that reality where the people were coming from. And after I finished the film, after the Oscars, I remember this moment of emptiness. I spent a year promoting the film around the world and when you do that you feel completely empty. So I had to do another. One day, I closed myself in my apartment in New York and wrote this film in two weeks. And then I started the project and the long, long period of searching for the story.

How do you search for the story with a film like this, where there’s no clear narrative direction?

All my films start from the unknown. I have a project, I have an idea and I start a long journey. Time is my only ally. This time I had a bigger budget than my other projects — because it’s expensive spending three years traveling to the Middle East. All I knew came from news, breaking news, from documentaries, from reportage, and nothing else. But I wanted to start in a very pure way. So that’s why it took so long to build the film. But after Fire at Sea it felt like a natural process for me to go to see these countries, and when I arrived there what I found was destruction, violence, death and people that survived the horror of war. But the first thing I knew when I started was that I didn’t want to film war or violence. And if it was there, it was only the echo.

Although we know the countries you traveled to, you never explicitly say where you are throughout the film. Why was this?

I wanted to lose this idea of borders. I wanted those to become a state of the mind, a mental space.

How did find the characters who you would follow and would become your protagonists and storytellers?

I always say when I start the project, I don’t know anything about the place — I call it the "god-ness" of documentaries, and it protects you. But most of the people I met were by chance. I did a lot of research, but then the encounter was always accidental. You see a glimpse, a face and suddenly you go deeper, meeting the person, seeing their life and spending time with them, weeks and months. And I can deal with that time. It’s an investment. Then you collect all the stories and say ok, I can start filming.

Some of the moments you spend with people are so personal and emotional, and in many cases distressing. How did you manage to persuade them to allow you to film, or to even be present at all?

My biggest investment is always time, because without knowing intimately the person, I’m never able to film, I don’t know where to put the camera. Only when I know what a person does on a daily basis and understand their life, then I’m able to start filming, then I know when I have to wait, and when to participate. People have a routine and usually I spend a very long time without the camera building a very strong level of trust.

Was the Islamic State in retreat when you started Notturno?

It was ending. When I was researching and filming the Islamic Slate was defeated, although I can’t really say defeated as it’s right now coming back again. With America leaving the region it’s slowly growing back to where it was in 2014. But I was able to shoot in this frame of light. Noturrno is a film of darkness, a film of shade, and also a film of light in the darkness of history. And what I feel very strongly is that the people I filmed are the victims of history, they have been betrayed by history.

The scene that impacted me the most was with the Yazidi children talking with a teacher about the horrors they had seen and drawing images of torture and murder…

It was very painful to shoot. It took two months. I went back many times. I never really knew how to shoot that story and asked myself the same question many times: should I film, or not film? But when I discovered that they were doing this therapy with a teacher once a week, I decided this would be a good way to tell their story, through their therapy and their drawings. And as I kept shooting I began feeling like this room was becoming the room of memory, where the subconscious of every single kid was producing a moment, a witness in history. I felt like I had a duty to show it, because this is the only witness we have of this tragedy. There’s no photographs, or videos. The whole film was edited to arrive at that story. It took five, six months to find the right balance. That scene was taken out of the film several times, but then I decided that I had to keep it in.

Do you speak Arabic?

I don’t. So most of the time I was filming without knowing what they were talking about. But I knew it was there. It was the first time I was filming something without understanding the language, but there was always a very strong sense that what I was filming was, essentially,  fundamental. I discovered most of the dialog during the editing.

Did that make the editing process, not just difficult on a technical and storytelling level, but emotionally hard?

It was a film that drained all my energy. At the end I was close to collapse, a bit like some sort of post-traumatic syndrome. Right now I’m just surviving on adrenaline. After Venice I don’t know what’s going to happen.

There’s a real sense of darkness, loss and despair throughout the film, and not a huge amount of optimism. But did you find anything that could give rise to at least some sort of hope?

Knowing the situation right now, if you look what’s happened in Lebanon, where there’s been a huge explosion and nobody will say what’s happening there. We don’t know what’s going on in Iraq. Look at the mess there is in Syria at the moment, and also in Kurdistan. It’s such a precarious situation and if you ask me if I see any hope at the moment, I say no. The situation right now is worse than two years ago. ISIS is getting stronger, poverty is extreme. But there’s a lack of awareness from Europe and from America. They’ve been abandoned.

Where do you go after Notturno? Do have plans for another documentary? Perhaps something more uplifting?

I cannot think about making another film. I always say this. But then I have to forget the film and then fall in love with another subject and immerse myself in that all over again. Everything I do is the first and the last.