The Act of Living: Gianfranco Rosi on Notturno

By Mark Peranson

“The night scares me so much,” confesses a courageous Yazidi pre-teen girl to a therapist, remembering the period when she and her younger sister were captured by ISIS. Anyone who was seen crying would be killed, they were told; it turned out to be a vacant threat, but the sisters were still beaten, and now they are attempting to exorcise their memories by drawing pictures of them. Does it help? We never find out. The night continues to haunt her, but is the day any better? No sun shines on Gianfranco Rosi’s Notturno, which finds the Italian filmmaker back on the road and on unfamiliar ground (and water, again, so much water) after two award-winning films shot in his home country (Sacro GRA, 2013; Fire at Sea, 2016). Notturno was entirely filmed in the so-called “Middle East,” or, to be more specific, the area where, beginning in 2006, the Islamic State was active, seeking to erase the regional boundaries that were established at the start of the 20th century by any means necessary.

Notturno seeks out and finds the humanity in the victims of this war—whether in these and other children, mothers mourning their dead sons at the location of their murders, or another mother, in the dark, listening to voice messages from her kidnapped daughter—but Rosi approaches his subject, which has been dealt with in straightforward “horrors of war” fashion innumerable times, with a conscious attempt to subvert viewers’ expectations of what a documentary focusing on the victims of war should look like (in a visual sense) or accomplish (in a narrative sense). (The scenes of anguish are brief and effective; the children and their heartbreaking drawings, for example, occupy ten minutes of screen time at the film’s centre.) After an opening, characteristically Rosi-an scrawl that briefly provides historical background, the film plunges viewers into disparate scenes of characters living lives during wartime or its not-too-distant aftermath, with little apparent concern for drawing explicit links between them. Only after a while do we return to a chosen few: a young boy who we eventually learn is named Ali, who hunts to support his family; a collection of survivors in a Baghdad asylum who are mounting a play that summarizes Iraq’s history; Peshmerga soldiers going about their daily business; a man in a canoe doing…what? patrolling? hunting?…captivatingly illuminated by the distant fires of the oil wells we might associate with Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness (1992).

But even as he returns to these stories, Rosi provides little information as to how they got where they are or even where they are, preferring to capture the here and now, which will surely open him up to criticism of the most pointless kind. Notturno is a film that is shot, as Rosi says at the beginning, “along the borders of Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria and Lebanon,” but at the same time is specifically about erasing those artificial borders, though not in the way that ISIS proposed. Notturno looks and sounds like what we would associate with a bigger-budget feature film, not something shot and recorded by one man over a three-year period. Often bereft of dialogue, the images are carefully framed, and ultimately speak just as loud as words—nothing needs to be said. It’s as if the unfamiliarity or newness of the territory—or maybe the presence of genuine danger, which was also there in his best film, El Sicario, Room 164 (2010)—has propelled Rosi to aspire to an elevated, almost classical aesthetic, composing shots with high Fordian skies and sparse yet affective close-ups.

The spaces between the notes of this nocturne are provided by various haunting ruptures, which often metaphorically evoke the war that is sometimes heard and never shown: cars driving though a flooded dirt road as the earth literally collapses mere feet away, or a horse alone, in the middle of a deserted intersection, staring into the camera lens—the only character who acknowledges the camera, a proud Rosi calls back to add, a mere two minutes after we’ve completed the inter-Zoom that follows. (As I found out, the stories behind the making of this film are endless.) If one wanted to draw a comparison to a wildly different film—and I do so reluctantly and without endorsement—Notturno would make for an interesting double bill with The Act of Killing (2012) (as would El Sicario, for different reasons). But in Notturno we only see the perpetrators of the crime briefly, crammed into a prison cell, and they aren’t given the opportunity to express a damned thing. Rosi prefers the stories of the people who are resisting through the not-so-simple act of living.

Cinema Scope: Before the questions begin, I think that we should both keep in mind what differentiates what you are doing, in terms of pre-production, production, the final product, between what we typically call “documentary filmmaking.” Maybe by the end of this we can decide if what you are doing is documentary or something else. Don’t react to that right now…

Gianfranco Rosi: It’s something else.

Scope: OK, but keep that in the back of your mind. The natural place to start is with the opening text, which is the first thing that we see, of course, and it’s one of only two times where you introduce historical background, as there is also some in the play…

Rosi: Yes, it’s somehow anticipating what is happening in the play…

Scope: But what you do have in the text is the locations where you shot the film.

Rosi: Yes, but then we forget about it.

Scope: I know that initially the locations weren’t listed, which would have made for an interesting viewing experience.

Rosi: You know how much I had to struggle to not to put the locations on the film? It has been a battle with the distributors, as they wanted me to write the exact locations on each scene to make it easier for the audience. But for me the film was of course shot within borders and within an area that is very mapped. I always have with me a map, which was an essential part of my research where to go and not to go; it was very important to visualize this, and then forget about it. This is where ISIS was, you know, Syria, Iraq, part of Lebanon, and Kurdistan, and I went when ISIS was in decline, three years ago. Slowly the region opened up, and now unfortunately ISIS is back again, with foreign forces abandoning Iraq.

Scope: Why did you want to shoot there in the first place? Was it related to the idea with the migrants who arrive in Lampedusa that you shot in Fire at Sea?

Gianfranco Rosi: Yes, it was that. It was somehow a natural process. When I finished Fire at Sea I was hoping to spend another year without making a film, but during the Oscar campaign, which was hell, I had three weeks off, in December, and I asked myself what am I going to do after all of this, either I have another project or I’ll go crazy—for one year after Berlin I travelled with the film. But always there was this idea, even when I was filming Fire at Sea, “Where are these people coming from? What’s happening there?” I wrote the first synopsis of Notturno in three weeks, I gave it to my producer, and we immediately raised the money. In October 2017 I was ready to leave for the first trip for scouting locations. That was a very important moment. I left with no camera, and my producer was very shocked: “Not even a small video camera? But if something incredible happens?” I always say my work is about missing things. Ninety-nine percent of the time I miss something. When I decide on my frame I stick with it and build a moment. It’s very important not to run around from place to place. I learned you have to choose a frame and slowly fill it with the story. And if you’re good enough, what you don’t see is going to be inside that frame. It’s a pleasure for me to travel with a tripod, a big camera…I want this steadiness, this sense of making a film, creating a kind of narration that you would do with a feature film. Someone told me Notturno looks like a John Ford film, and this is what I want to achieve: the highest quality of filmmaking, but with the strong element of reality. In order to do this I need to go very deep in terms of intimacy with the characters.

The first step is to find the locations. So Syria, Iraq, Lebanon…I went to Tripoli—if you want to know the essence of the Middle East you have to spend one month in Tripoli, and that’s where you understand the conflict, it’s the essence. Once you understand Lebanon, you can go anywhere else. The idea of borders is a Western concept, as in 1916 Balfour and Picot decided to sketch these lines. The border is always shifting, yet every territory has its own strong identity, at the expense of minorities. So the seeds that were planted in 1916 have grown, and that’s what created this mess. It’s so complex. The more time I was spending there, the more confused I was.

Scope: Those are questions for journalists or reporters, not filmmakers.

Rosi: I always say the film starts where the duty of a photojournalist or reporter ends. It’s not about consuming an event. Reporters all cover the same images, and never go deeper. We never discover the human element, because there’s no time. You cover a breaking news story for three days maximum, if you’re lucky; I took three years. When the Turks invaded Kurdistan, everyone talked about it for one week. Do you know what’s happening there now? Nobody knows. It’s not that I’m not interested, but I want to give the voice to the victims, and find an element that is embracing everything…for example, the pain of the mothers is an archetype, it’s the pain of all mothers, it’s universal. The challenge was to find these stories, because I went there not knowing anything, and I came back knowing less. I was able to grab and embrace stories and moments that left a very strong impact. It’s hard for me to talk about this to you, I still have a knot in my throat, as I went through so many things, moments where my life was in danger, with people that I never met before, who became my assistants and my best friends…Lampedusa was like a vacation in comparison! At one point I was in Kurdistan, we arrived at a place with a militia, and they left us, then we went to join another militia that was fighting the first militia three days before. Such a surreal situation. Out of this, you have to erase everything and focus on the elements of narration, which are the people, the encounters.

Scope: So when you went the first time without the camera, was that when you tried to find people who would eventually be in the film?

Rosi: Yeah, it was casting, basically. I stayed six months around this area, without knowing anything. You hear about a Yazidi village that was destroyed and 6,000 people disappeared, and you arrive there, but which story do you tell? There are thousands of stories, who do you embrace? And then a mother led me to this orphanage, I discovered the kids, and spent two months to shoot what ended up as this little part of the film. Every day I tried to understand how to film that, and then, one day, boom, the therapist is there and they are doing drawings, and that became the story. This is a room of memories, of nightmares…after I finished, every day I cried, hearing the stories of these kids who lost everything. Some spent three years in the hands of ISIS. And I was filming without knowing what they were saying, but the instinct was so strong—I didn’t want my assistant to translate because it was distracting—so I discovered what they were saying after, sometimes when I was editing, but I knew that what they were saying was so unique.

Scope: Sure, you can tell based on the drawings.

Rosi: Even the silence of Ali! I have so many close-ups of him, every one is like a confession. He has this incredible depth.

Scope: Thinking about Ali, there’s something interesting about all the characters in the film, in that you provide absolutely no backstories.

Rosi: You don’t have a before, you don’t have an after.

Scope: You just see them in the place where they are, when you’re filming them. And this allows viewers to project their preconceptions on them as well. Initially I tried to think about Ali’s background: he’s the man of the family, has to support his mother and siblings by working, and from there you think maybe his father died in the war, and the editing leads you in that direction. But you could also think, well, maybe his father fought with ISIS.

Rosi: Yes, but as you said, if that was the case I would have edited it and filmed it in a different way. That’s why this film requires so much…to make the audience see before feeling. And never expect an answer or an explanation, never expect a narrative that is structured, never expect a thesis. I ask a lot from the audience, I’m aware of that…

Scope: It’s much more open, on one hand, but it is structured in another way…

Rosi: Yes, open, but tight in an emotional way. The hardest part in the editing is when you leave one story and move to another story. It’s like in music, you have one note and this note belongs to other notes.

Scope: Well, the film is called Notturno.

Rosi: I’m not sure Notturno is linked to music. If you ask me why Notturno, it was my first title, I tried to change it dozens of times. At a certain point I got close to the word: it’s very mysterious, and there is no need to translate it, it’s Notturno in each country, it’s like a name. At the beginning I wanted to shoot the film all at night, because it’s a world so far away from me that I thought I could be protected if I only shot at night. And I could be protected from the light, as I’m photophobic. But the light became another character. I had this crazy need to always shoot with clouds or with rain, in the Middle East! Sometimes I had to wait for two weeks. But when you wait you have time to build a relationship with the people you are with, and a relationship without a common language is difficult to build. They open their house, we eat together, sleep in the same place, then you watch: what is their daily life? He goes to fish, to hunt, all of these elements become rituals…I follow Ali for four days or so, and then there’s a moment that’s right. You never know when that moment is going to come, but you know that you have to follow constantly. For me it’s important to capture the reality but also to transform it, otherwise it becomes just observational. I need to create a very strong dynamic of narrative, and that’s not written, it’s happening in the moment, in the way you frame. So, documentary, for me the truth is in the distance that I put myself in relation to the character—the key is to find the right space, the right distance. To be able to film the essence of who I’m filming. In that moment we’re two people, and it creates an incredible battle. People say, “You don’t see the camera in your film,” but I’m there, I’m very present and very demanding.

Scope: What do you mean when you say you’re demanding?

Rosi: Demanding to the shot. The shot has to be cinematic, like I am filming actors. I never understood how a documentary has to have a shaky camera, like that makes it more real. We never do it like this in the world: we stay, and we look. It’s more real for me if we lose the sense of the camera, otherwise I become a constant protagonist. A fixed camera, for me, is a way of disappearing.

Scope: Is there anything staged in the film?

Rosi: Well, if someone’s riding a bicycle, of course it’s staged…but the strong moment of truthfulness is never staged. What is “staged”?

Scope: That’s the question.

Rosi: Is it staged that I’m going to shoot these guys at the madhouse, where they are studying? I enter a corridor, I see they are studying in their room, so I ask them to be in the room. When you see an interview in a documentary, you prepare what you are going to shoot, you light it, there is a frame you choose, there is a “stage” also there, then the question becomes how to get the truth out of it. But with setting up the shot, you’ve already created an element of narration.

Scope: What’s the story of the asylum? How did you find it?

Rosi: It’s an incredible place in Baghdad, many survivors from the ISIS war are in there. Imagine how difficult it was to get a permit—it took one year. I have to thank all my local producers, they were immense. The most difficult thing was to enter a place with a camera: the moment you have a camera, you need tons of permits. Everywhere. So this film needed a lot of support, logistics, trusting the people you’re working with and knowing they weren’t going to sell you for $10,000. How much love they put into the film was amazing. But I found the asylum through a story I read, then I met the doctor in charge, and I went back six, seven times. Each time, I thought it was impossible: Where do I put the camera? I know this is a place I had to film, and I didn’t know how. Finally my assistant told me, “Gianfranco, come on, we don’t have the permit, let’s give up, it’s not part of your film.” And I said, “No, let’s go back tomorrow, I still think we can find a story.” So the next day I heard people laughing and I entered a room, which is the theatre. They were watching a play, essentially watching themselves on the stage. I asked the doctor about it, and he said, “It’s a play we work with them for rehab that I wrote, which is about the history of our country.” So I read the play with my assistant—it was very complicated, as it was long—and I said, “This is fantastic.” So the doctor did a shorter version, about ten pages instead of 40, and finally they said, “Yes, this you can film.” Every day I went there for three weeks during rehearsals, and at one point I asked if I could film where they practiced the script. They gave me another permit, so I went into this corridor and there I discovered a whole world…it became an incredible element of narration, the truth from the voice of the madness, the most authentic moment I could find. It was luck, necessity, stubbornness, knowing you have to go back and back and back and never give up that idea. It’s about following an instinct.

Scope: You must have dozens of similar stories.

Rosi: Like the hunter with the bike. We were travelling from Baghdad to Basra in the south…Basra is another incredible place, three million people died there. Sometimes I feel I could fill in the film with all the background elements, add archival footage, I could make another 15-hour film. There was always a reason to go somewhere, which then became the background element. Whenever I go to a place I need a strong history, and the people that I find reflect that history, even if I don’t tell it. For me it’s very important that the people reflect the power of the place, but then I want to know their own stories—but their own stories are only possible because they are in that place.

So after eight hours of hell on this road to Basra, I see this guy on a bike with an incredible face. I say go back, follow him. I asked him what he does, and he said, “I’m a hunter, we hunt in the marshlands at night.” “But how?” I asked. “With the fire from the oil wells,” he says. Incredible. Then I go to his house, we spent two hours eating with them, and our plan was to go in the other direction. I said, give me all of your information, next year I’ll come back. He gave me his contacts, and he was cast. One year later I went back and didn’t even know if he would be there. And again, we couldn’t shoot after 6:00pm because there are problems with Iran, so I had to wait a week to get the permit to shoot at night. So again, waiting, waiting…that’s why it took three years.

Scope: In a situation like that, how much did you shoot? How much did you have to edit down?

Rosi: We had 80 hours in total, which is not much if you think about it. And generally when I film I know exactly which story works, so we cut maybe 50 hours out to begin with, then we started the editing. For the first time in my life I struggled. In all my other films it was easier, faster: El Sicario in one week, Below Sea Level (2008) one month, Sacro Gra two months, Fire at Sea three months…this film was enormous, because the story was so spread out, with thousands of kilometres from one story to the other, there was no unity. To find the right rhythm and the right sequence from one character to the other was a big challenge. It was almost abstract. If I ask you to tell me the story of the film, you can’t.

Scope: That’s for sure.

Rosi: Imagine this film scripted with actors, the way it is: it would be a total disaster! So why did this film become…watchable? Because of the weight of life, the unity that reality creates and gives to you. So is this a documentary? Yes it is, a hundred percent, it’s all real, nobody’s acting…maybe they are acting, as Aeschylus said, the best actor is the one that acts without the knowledge of acting. When there’s a camera, people transform themselves; I don’t pretend it’s not happening. When there is a camera there is a space you have to fill, a way you have to move, you know someone is shooting you…but this for me isn’t important. The truth that I have to find is in another element. So when I’m following Ali as he’s hunting, he’s acting his own life. Was he natural? Extremely natural. Why? I don’t know. Was there ever a moment where he was faking? Never. Did he forget the camera was there? He did.

Can I tell you another incredible story? When I was in Sinjar, one of the first locations I went, I met a phone. I was filming this city which was totally destroyed, and this guy came to me and said ISIS kidnapped his wife two years ago, and he has these messages she keeps sending to her mother. So I went to his house, he took out this phone with hours of messages, and I said let me film the phone. The guy didn’t want to be filmed for fear, reasons of privacy. I went back four times, and he always said no, leave me alone, I got married again, I’m in a fight with the family. After the first editing I went back to Sinjar, shot the story with the soldiers on night patrol, and I went back to him one last time, and I asked, where’s the mother, and he said, “Oh, the mother is liberated and she’s in Germany.” The head of the Yazidi community called her to vouch for me, so I went to Stuttgart, and for six hours I talked with the mother, crying, because her stories were horrible. I say, “Listen, I have all of your daughter’s messages in this phone, but I don’t want to ask you to film now, it was such a painful day.” She said she wanted to do it. So I look around and see a dark room, she sits down, I give her the phone, and she goes through the messages and I start filming, just like that. After three years, the final scene I shoot is in Stuttgart. Her daughter is still with ISIS; they had a message from her last November. You can never give up, you have to keep going.

Scope: Can you comment on the scenes that serve to link the characters’ stories? They are also essential to the structure.

Rosi: I see them as moments in between the notes: the notes are the stories, then in between are these moments of passage, or silence, that don’t belong to any character. But in a way, it’s very interesting: when we were editing, that scene always belonged to the space of the character, but it wasn’t rational or thought out, it was by accident. Every scene in the end, somehow, was embracing the story.

Scope: I have to ask about shooting in the ISIS prison.

Rosi: There was another crazy story there. In September it looked like the Turks were destroying all the north of Syria, and there was this exodus of the Kurds, and I wanted to film that, so I arrived, and saw nothing. War is never interesting, there is a lot of waiting, then an action that is always the same, and then waiting…unless there is a battle or something dramatic happening, there’s nothing.

Scope: Like filmmaking.

Rosi: Like filmmaking! That’s why I don’t do feature films, too much waiting. Waiting without the possibility of something happening. But there when I am waiting I can meet someone, I can see something, I can get an idea. On a set, nothing is going on. After three days we get a permit to go to the front line…but where’s the enemy? Nothing. Just a huge, empty field. At least on the border of Iraq you see soldiers, so I was extremely disappointed. At a certain point my assistant told me about a prison nearby with ISIS soldiers. After three weeks waiting we get the permit and we go to the prison. The guy in charge gives me a tour, but I don’t shoot anything, even though I have the camera with me. He asks, “Why aren’t you filming? We had journalists here and they filmed everything, even me tying my shoes.” I say that’s not the way I work. So he got curious. I told him I have to understand the rhythms of the place, so I want to film them outside in the yard, when they go back inside the prison, and when they’re in their cell. And he said, “This you can’t do.” So I said I won’t film. He said I could film through the slot in the cell door, and interview someone, and I said, “No, I need these shots.” Finally we get a permit…again, waiting for the light, the right moment, five, six days, and I needed coverage, so I when I shot them in the yard, I had to shoot from another angle the next day…then the hardest part was getting inside. They told me no way, two weeks ago they kidnapped one of the guards and kept him inside for four days saying they were going to strangle him if they didn’t get better living conditions. I said I’ll take the responsibility, I’m the only one going inside, nothing’s going to happen. And the last day he let me shoot in six different cells. Some cells were incredible, with loud praying, etc., but it was too much. So I chose just one moment with complete silence. The light went off as I was shooting, and there was this darkness, all these people, and this redness, so I used that. Again, I don’t tell anything, but the association with the kids is so immediate that I think you can understand these are ISIS prisoners.

Scope: It’s interesting you gravitated to that moment, as it’s indicative of your general approach: it’s the least amount of dialogue in any of your films.

Rosi: You’re right. First there was the language barrier—maybe people were saying something that was extremely funny and to me it was just noise…But silence is definitely a part of the film. And emptiness. And a sense of suspension. Look at that empty market in Tripoli with the horse, just staring at the camera. I really went to the extreme. We were editing during the lockdown in Rome, in an empty city, with just the sounds of ambulance sirens. And in the film, in the background there is in the sound of bullets, the invisible presence of war, a horrible anxiety…and yet in the foreground is a dialogue, with two lovers on a roof, an incredible moment. In the marshlands I was almost kidnapped twice, but we escaped, with the sound of bullets in the background. You never feel the war, but you hear it constantly. Somehow with COVID I felt that we are living a moment in our history that for the first time, for us, the future is suspended. And over there, the future is suspended permanently. So I started feeling this incredible association between this world that I filmed and this moment in which we are living—not this lack of future, but a future that’s suspended. Because when you see Ali alone in that close-up in the last shot, that’s what I feel. This kid is 12, 13 years old, and who will he become?