The documentary filmmaker talks about the challenges behind shooting Notturno, Italy’s entry for the 2021 Academy Awards
Gianfranco Rosi’s Notturno is set along the borders of Iran, Kurdistan, Syria and Lebanon. Told over three years, Notturno tells the stories of ordinary people in war zones. The film, which is Italy’s entry for the 2021 Academy Awards, won three awards at the Venice Film Festival, where it premièred. Speaking from Rome, the 57-year-old director spoke of how Notturno came to life.
What is the significance of the title, Notturno, which means darkness?
In the beginning, when I didn’t know much about the region, I imagined the film would be articulated in the darkness. There is also the fact that we cannot see too well in the dark — a stick could be a snake and a snake could be a stick. I felt like I was protected by the darkness and I was filming mostly in the dark. And then, the more time I spent in the region, the more I felt the need to come out of this darkness, and the film became one of shades. However, Notturno stayed as the title as it signified a sense of suspension.
You have said ‘Notturno ‘is a political film, but it does not take on the question of politics. Could you elaborate?
The borders of the region were drawn on a piece of paper by France and England. So, of course there is an incredible layer of politics. I decided to follow the borders. They were an invisible limit, the stratification and margin of history, memory, and a story. Borders are a place that usually divide and separate but for me, they became spaces for occasional encounters.
So I did away with the idea of borders as separation and explored psycho-geography, the mental space driven by the stories of the people I met. I created a world in the presence of war, a sense of a future that is not there. In the film, Ali represents that extremely well.
Filming is always political. Where you fix the frame and put your camera, is always a moral and ethical issue. You transform reality by entering deep inside the story to create an intimacy with the subject. My films have always been the result of research, of places, of character and situations. What was important to have a point of view and to go beyond the reportage.
How true is the truth of a documentary?
The truth belongs to the person I am filming. That is my duty as a documentary filmmaker; to create something so intimate, that it is a synthesis of life. I have to know the person I am filming so well that when I pick up the camera, he is exactly him. I never manipulate the story.
The difference between fiction and non-fiction is not important. What is important to me is the difference between true and false. This applies to anything—poetry, sculpture, painting or an essay.To create something that is so profoundly intimate, that is the truth of what I feel. It could be a landscape or a person and my duty is to portray it in such an intimate way that the subject becomes an archetype.
Do you believe that documentaries are more powerful than features?
I don’t think so. I like to use the language of cinema.
What is the toughest part of shooting a documentary?
The toughest part is gaining trust. You have to trust your subject and they have to trust you. You also have to gain the trust of the audience. On Notturno, sometimes the toughest moments were the ones that are not on film, outside the camera. Moving from place to place was difficult. You never knew if checkpoints were real or not. The logistics were tough. I never film in a day or two. I spend a lot of time. Everybody was concerned with the fact that I spent so much time there, I became a target and was very close to being kidnapped a couple of times.
You talk about the audience trusting you. What do you have to say about fake news?
I am not on social media. If someone really wants to talk to me they can call. The one time I opened Facebook, there are so many people who don’t even put their name. Being nasty is so easy when you are anonymous.
You have made documentaries on life on the banks of the Ganges (Boatman, 1993) and one on the life of a hitman from a cartel (El Sicario, Room 164, 2008). How do you choose your subjects?
I do not decide I am going to make a film on this or that subject. It is like you do not choose your friends, you encounter them and they become a part of your life. The subject comes to you and hits you in a certain way.
What would you say is the difference between news footage, a documentary, and a docu drama?
(Laughs) I don’t like to categorise. I would like to make a film one day where there is everything.
Have streaming platforms helped or hindered documentaries?
Yes and no. All my films have been screened in theatres. When I was filming Notturno, I had always thought it would be watched on the big screen in a dark room. Streaming platforms help reach a wider audience, but I am not sure how much people concentrate when they are watching at home. If you see the film on the big screen, you will watch a completely different film. Maybe worse (laughs)
What are your memories of shooting in Benares?
I was a young filmmaker when I came to Benares. When I arrived at the airport, there were no taxis. Someone told me to wait at the checkpoint. A vehicle was going by and the police said ‘they are going to Benares, go with them.’ I took my camera and got into the truck and there was a dead body! I realised that this was the only city in the world where the dead and the living inhabited the same space. After spending three months trying to film, I decided I would give up this project and just be a tourist. That is when I met this boatman and spent the whole day with him. I miss India and would like to return.
Notturno is streaming on MUBI from March 5