Stories from Hell
Gianfranco Rosi spent three years travelling in the Middle East to make this striking film about the sufferings experienced by ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Extraordinary at least to those of us who live far from the turmoils afflicting Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria and Lebanon, the locations for Rosi’s contemplative study of human misery.
Notturno (Night, in English) begins with a written statement about how history has transformed its characters’ world into the chaos of the present day. How, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the end of World War One, the colonial powers sketched out new borders for their countries and created a framework for chaos, for “military coups, corrupt regimes, authoritarian leaders and foreign interference”, and for a vicious cycle of tyranny, invasions and terrorism.
However, although the sound of distant gunfire can occasionally be heard on the soundtrack alongside faraway explosions that light up the night sky, Rosi (who is, by the way, no relation to the great Francesco Rosi), doesn’t really show us any of these. His goal in making the film, he told The Hollywood Reporter, was not to report the news, but to encourage us to consider the human cost. “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.” (click here to read it.)
So, instead of diving into the places where history is unfolding, he focuses on its legacy for the people of the Middle East: the devastated landscapes, the villages in ruins, the seeming absence of any meaningful employment. And, most important of all, the psychological consequences for those who were tortured or forced to be witnesses to atrocities or who are just trying to get by from one day to the next.
The most telling of his encounters is with a group of primary-school-aged Yazidi children in an orphanage. In sessions with their supportive female therapist, they show off their drawings and recount tales of wretched crimes against humanity perpetrated by ISIS soldiers: hangings, beheadings, beatings, monstrous cruelties… Whereas the walls of our children’s classrooms might be covered in drawings of family, friends and characters from favourite TV shows, those in the film are filled with sketches of amputated limbs, bodies lying in pools of blood, and large figures with black beards wearing black robes and wielding weapons.
Their traumas are interwoven with a range of other portraits of people living in the shadows of an oppressive situation. The adolescent whose name we eventually learn is Ali who earns money to support his family by going out with bird hunters; the group of inmates in a Baghdad asylum who are working on a play about their country’s troubled past; the Basra duck hunter going about his nocturnal business in a canoe in the marshlands, working with the help of a torch and the light cast by the flames rising above distant oil refineries; the female soldiers guarding their neighbourhood, watching, waiting, warming their hands by the fire from a stove. In contrast to Hopper/Welles and The Monopoly of Violence which are both veritable talkfests, few words are spoken by anyone in Notturno (and all three films eschew the use of soundtrack music).
Drawn from 80 hours of footage, Rosi’s film is routinely classified as a documentary, and to a degree I suppose it fits the bill. All of those who pass in front of Rosi’s camera are clearly “real” people going about their daily lives, doing what he assures us they would be doing if the camera wasn’t there. In other words, they’re not professional actors. However, such is the style that Rosi brings to his film that they are, in fact, amateur actors. They might be playing themselves, but it’s clear from the way they’re presented to us that they have been guided by the man behind the camera: they walk into carefully composed set-ups, or hold still in the distance for artful wide shots. They also frequently remain stationary, gazing into the distance, never looking at the camera, undistracted by its often-prolonged gaze.
This becomes a key motif in the film, creating the sense that they’re all waiting for something to happen, for something to arrive from somewhere, fearful of what lies in the future for them. But scenes like these that have been strategically staged for the camera don’t fit the mould of the kind of film that one might generally describe as a documentary.
Rosi readily acknowledges this. Asked by Mark Peranson in his excellent interview in Cinema Scope if what he was doing was “documentary or something else”, he wasted no time with his response: “It’s something else.” (see this piece in cinema-scope) And he’s open about the kinds of documentary rules he breaks. As he told the desistfilm website, his artistic choices are far from those that reign in the realm of the observational documentary. Like waiting for the right light in which to shoot (and thus to sustain the idea of encroaching darkness that pervades the film).“I did not want to film with hard light or blue sky,” he says, “because otherwise everything was going to turn into something else, so I was always waiting for the clouds to come, the rain.” (click here to read it.)
That there is wider confusion in the film community about how best to categorise Notturno is indicated by the fact that not only was it deemed to be an eligible contender for a documentary Oscar at this year’s awards, but it was also Italy’s official submission in the Best International Feature Film category. It would be all too easy, and a grave mistake, to dismiss the film out of hand because of this disagreement over how best to categorise it.
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Bookings for the two scheduled cinema sessions of Notturno have reached the current theatre capacity. The film is streaming online from today 10 August. Click here to book