Gianfranco Rosi on the experimental beauty of documentary film

    • Industry
    • November 22, 2020
    • By Vladan Petkovic

    IDFA's Guest of Honor for 2020, the Italian filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi, enjoyed the Dutch premiere of his newest film, Notturno, at Tuschinski on Friday afternoon. After the film, he looked back on his career in a talk with IDFA's Artistic Director Orwa Nyrabia.

    "I was here in this theater with Boatman," he recalled, referencing the world premiere of his first film in 1993. "I remember how precious it was to be able to screen your work, after years of pain, struggling, stubbornness, and you see your film in a theater like this... This is where film is meant to be and where it has to survive."

    That was cue for Nyrabia to ask him, what does cinema mean to him?

    "For me, cinema is a pretext to meet people, to have an encounter. Without an encounter, my film doesn't exist," Rosi explained.

    He said that his films never come from sitting at a table and writing a script.

    "My films are born from a very small idea and a big need. That need becomes a necessity and a huge journey to discover what is at the other end. When I start a project, I never know where it will go."

    On his early journeys, Rosi was limited by the lack of technology, but the camera format largely informed what would eventually become his method.

    "When I started, I was filming on 16mm and everything was so precious and so heavy—capturing those 10 minutes in a reel, " he said. "It was a lot of work, and it was very expensive. You needed a lot of knowledge to use the camera.

    "When I put the camera down, I never know what is going to happen in front of me. And this is why I love documentaries. Documentary has an incredible beauty, which is in its experimentality. You can stay experimental by making documentaries."

    "For me, every film is the matter of finding the right language in order to be able to tell that story, the story which I will encounter and I do not know yet," he explained.

    "When you put the camera down, things start happening in front of you. Things start to have their own shape and narration, and slowly you start discovering the narrative. At the beginning I don't possess the film, I only have the idea which is very precise and then I work around it, and that takes time. I always say that time is my big ally."

    He likened a documentary filmmaker with his camera to a scientist with his microscope.

    "Things that you don't see when you look around—once you look in the viewfinder, you start discovering narration, discovering the world which doesn't belong to the open view."

    But even when this world starts appearing, Rosi is not always sure there is a film in it.

    "I only know it will become a film when I start editing," he said. "Sometimes I spend years without watching the material. For Boatman, it was probably five years before I first watched the footage. At some point you decide to start watching, and then you start thinking there's maybe a movie there. But you don't know until the end, where this process is beginning and ending."

    Waiting for the right moment

    "When I made Boatman, I was a young kid coming out from NYU, discovering the camera, the world, the way of making films. I didn't know how to make a film, I didn't know how to position the camera, and I learned storytelling day by day when I was making Boatman," Rosi recalled.

    Nyrabia then played a clip from this film, in which we see the protagonist Gopal talk to the director sitting in the boat with him, protesting his questions about Hindu customs and culture. "Europeans always ask why, why, why. Don't ask, it is an old system, it is not something new."

    Rosi didn't know what film he was going to make when he got to Benares, the City of the Dead in India. He'd go around the city with his camera, and he didn't film a single frame for the first two months. Then he met Gopal.

    "I decided to put the camera away and just be a tourist. I went to the Ganges to get a boat like all tourists do. And I encountered Gopal. First, we bargained for a one-hour trip, but then it became two hours, then three, then it was the whole day with him.

    "He was fantastic, and when I got back to the hotel I realized, this is what my film has to be: one day on the Ganges as a tourist. The next day I went back to him with my camera and the half an hour of film that I had, and I shot everything that day. And of course it was a total disaster, only two scenes exist—the beginning and the end of the boat. I had to build everything else based on it."

    So Rosi went back to India and Gopal again and again, trying to reconstruct the feeling that he experienced on that day.

    "I don't even know how long it took me, five or six or seven years, but I remember I finished the film when I was 28. It took years to build these 50 minutes of the film. I shot maybe 12 hours of film, and every minute of the film was so precious, and extremely thought-through."

    On Boatman, Rosi learned to wait for the right moment.

    "I set up the frame and waited for the right moment in order to have a narration within that frame, a narration that comes with that choice of frame. So my idea of cinema started forming there.

    "I learned to be patient, to give weight to the frame and to the storytelling within every frame. That's where my approach developed, and I don't think it changed much from then till my last film."

    Rosi says that his work on Boatman taught him everything: how to go from one character to another, and how to create a passage from one story to another.

    "And how to film a moment that has a before and an after: it is a synthesis that you have to constantly create," he explained. "Not every character has time to develop. But there is always a spot, a moment, something that a character says or does that is so profound and intimate—a synthesis of something extremely big and essential. And this is what you have to find."

    On Boatman, Rosi realized that Gopal was right. He never asked questions again.

    "You ask one question, you get one answer. You ask 100 questions, you get 100 answers. It's not interesting. You have to be able to grab something which is so intimate and so universal that no question and no answer can ever be enough."

    Stories that create an emotional state

    Next up, Nyrabia played a clip from Sacro GRA, a film that garnered Rosi the Venice Golden Lion. He described it as an example of short stories that populate the director's films, and which don't carry the narrative on their own but are used as elements to build the film.

    These stories, however, don't come from a screenplay. Rosi believes it would make the process boring.

    "I was never able to write a script," he said. "I like to discover the story while I am doing what I'm doing. Uncertainty allows for a sense of wonder and discovery."

    Rome's Sacro GRA is the biggest ring highway around a city in the world.

    "The ring divides the city into two parts, it's like a wall that doesn't allow the city to expand or breathe. And when you are leaving the city or coming back to it, you have to pass through this ring. So the film is about this centrifugal force that expands from the center of Rome into this axis that is around it."

    After he separated from his wife, which he says was a very painful moment in his life, Rosi stayed in Rome. He had postponed making the film, but then he went back repeatedly to the ring with his students, not shooting, just collecting stories and meeting people.

    "So for me it was very important that I have transformed this place into something else. In my work it is always about transformation, about subtraction, not about giving information. Now we have all the information on Google, so I think now the duty of documentary is no longer to inform, but to tell stories that create an emotional state about a place, that become more universal."

    The space of the film

    In all his films except for El Sicario, Room 164 Rosi focuses on one limited space, and does not go beyond it. In his Berlinale Golden Bear-winning film Fire at Sea, this space is the island of Lampedusa.

    "When I went there, I wanted to tell a story about the migrants. But when I arrived, there were no migrants anymore because political things changed. So for six months I stayed there without migrants arriving and started to focus on the island. Then things changed again and migrants started coming. So the film took its own space: there was the island and there were people arriving to this island. They stay very shortly and they leave, so I just had these brief encounters with their agony."

    Lampedusa is a very small island close to Tunisia—so small that it's not even on the map of Italy.

    "This island suddenly became the core of my film," Rosi said. "The people I met there and then this wave of people passing by in thousands, but without the possibility of making a real encounter with them. That's why after this film I had to make Notturno because I wanted to have an encounter with this wave of desperation that was coming, and try to understand why and where these people are coming from."

    Missing, not gaining things

    Nyrabia asked Rosi if he had any regrets about persons or stories that had to be left out of his films.

    "Constantly," he replied. "I realized that filmmaking for me is about missing things. It's not about gaining things. And then there's one moment that you grab and that moment is worth everything."

    He related an anecdote with Bernardo Bertolucci after he saw Fire at Sea.

    "He said that the strength of this film is that you can see things I didn't film or didn't show, that it contains so much that was left outside. But all this was always there: if I have 80 hours of footage and the film is two hours long, what did not end up in the final edit is still part of the film. What I didn't film is also part of the film. The people I met and who are not in the film because there was no space, they are part of the film.

    "That is why it's important for me to have a frame and narrate the story inside that frame. Just a single frame, and not moving around constantly, because then you are not able to focus on anything. So for me, it's about finding that frame, and you have to wait for things to happen in front of it. When you have that frame, suddenly there is a story there, and everything that you miss is part of that frame."

    The importance of intimacy

    Rosi always does his own camera and sound, although he has assistants to help him.

    "But I never have more than one person with me, because it's very important to create this intimacy, this relationship, this waiting. Because you can't afford to have a crew waiting, sometimes I spend two weeks just waiting for the right light.

    "I wanted to film Notturno fully at night, because I felt protected by the night. A stick can be a snake and a snake can be a stick at night. So there is that moment of not being able to grab exactly what you're filming.

    "The clouds become like an element of narration. I felt protected because you can move 360 degrees and not worry about the sun hitting your lens, and then you're able to find the perfect frame. You're able to find the right distance and you don't have to worry about shade."

    The camera changes everything

    "When I hold the camera, I have an enormous anxiety," Rosi admitted. "Once I start shooting, the fear goes away and I start discovering something magical and fantastic and unique. But the camera changes everything. When you put on the camera, you change the dynamics and the relationship."

    This aspect extends to his understanding of the documentary form.

    "I don't believe in observational cinema. Once a camera is there, everything that happens after is something else. Objectivity doesn't exist. What exists is the truthfulness of what you're filming, and why you're filming it. That's why the difference between fiction and documentary isn't important. The difference between true and false is important, and the awareness that what we are filming is real and belongs to that moment."

    "My duty as a documentary filmmaker is to find the essence and reality of a person, a landscape, a place that has been destroyed by war. That's what I have to be able to portray, and how I do it doesn't matter. All the elements of cinema—distance, language, sound—that's what creates that moment of truthfulness. How you got there is not important."

    Screenplay: the death of documentary

    Rosi explained how the documentary genre had an incredible journey from Flaherty until today, when there are so many good documentaries running for the Oscars—more than ever before.

    "Documentary has to keep moving. We always have to find challenges and not repeat ourselves. That's why I have such an enormous hate of commissioning editors who force you to write a script. Then you give this script to them, and they give you money and then the film has to be that script, and that's wrong. You start with a lie. When you film exactly what is in the script, that is the death of documentary."

    This certainly goes for Notturno: Rosi didn't know anything about the Middle East when he started making the film.

    "And now, after three years, we have a film that would be impossible to write down in the form of a screenplay. You can write an idea, and it has to be rich, and fit in only ten lines."

    Rosi says he is lucky to be able to work this way. "I have to be thankful to many people who really trust me and support me even when I give them just a few pages."

    But what advice can he give to filmmakers who are not established, and who have to meet these funding demands?

    "I'd say you have to make your first and second film on your own. I did a lot of other work like cinematography and dubbing to be able to make my own films. I never asked for money at the beginning, because I didn't think I deserved that money if the financier didn't know which film I was going to do. The freedom to do your own film and to find that film—to find your identity, who you are, and what you want to do—is fantastic. That's what filmmakers have to do. And now technology allows for that."

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