Berlin Golden Bear Winner Gianfranco Rosi
Photo by Camilla Morandi/REX/Shutterstock

Gianfranco Rosi, who just won the Berlin fest’s Golden Bear with refugee-crisis themed docu “Fire at Sea,” has long been chronicling reality with a distinctive documentary style marked by a potent intimacy with his characters, who are often on the margins, be they in the California desert (“Below Sea Level”), the ring around Rome (“Sacro GRA” — which won the 2013 Venice Golden Lion)  or in “Fire,” set on the tiny Sicilian island of Lampedusa, which thousands of mostly African refugees have been risking their lives to reach. Rosi spoke to Variety about how he works, the challenges he faced this time, and his hopes that “Fire” can now make a difference in contending with a tragedy that’s taking place under everyone’s eyes. Excerpts.

What stands out for me in all of your works is the rapport you establish with your characters. It’s like the camera isn’t there. How do you do it?

First I need to immerse myself in a place. Then with the people who are there, some of whom become characters in the film. This relationship has to become one of total trust. It’s an act of love. My job is to establish intimacy with the characters and their situations, and the place I’m representing as a whole. I tell my story through the inner world and the feelings and mood of these people, who have to reflect the world I’m representing. Be it Lampedusa, the desert southeast of Los Angeles, or the ring outside Rome.

Do you ever write anything before you start shooting?

I have notes, but I don’t write a word of screenplay. Also I work alone, I’m a one-man crew. I can wait for weeks before I shoot a scene. When I do, I place my camera in such a way that the character has to totally forget that it’s there. That’s because I’ve built a rapport that comes from spending day after day together. I make myself invisible when I shoot.

Yes but the narrative is very well defined.

True, I’m very concerned with narrative structure. I’m very concerned with the storytelling aspect of my works. I use a filmmaking narrative to describe reality. So the story has to have a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s never random. But it all starts from reality and my characters. And reality becomes cinematic narrative. In the film there is this clear separation between ordinary life on the island, the refugee camp and the rescue operations. They are three parallel tales.

Speaking of endings, “Fire” ends with a very strong scene showing dead people in the stowage area of a navy ship. It must have been tough to witness this so up close.

That was the last scene I shot. I had spent 40 days on boats of the Italian navy filming all kinds of things. Then one day, death appeared in front of me and I could not avoid looking at it. It was a direct confrontation. That day, I had to decide: “Shall I look or not? Shall I turn the other way?” The captain said to me: Gianfranco, “You have to go in the stowage and capture the tragedy.” I said: “I’ve always tried to avoid shooting scenes like that.” He said: “It’s like saying the gas chambers are too harsh. It’s your duty. You have to show these images to the world.” So I went below and there were these asphyxiated dead bodies hugging each other. And I became totally enraged. Narratively the challenge was to build up to that scene and have the audience internalize them without it being considered something somewhat voyeuristic, or purely shock value, or splatter, or even pornographic. That was a huge challenge, and I think I won it.

Do you think that the attention “Fire” is getting can make a difference for the refugees?

Unlike news reports, the film is about human beings. It’s not about numbers. Each refugee is a human being, a person. Nobody wants to leave their homes. They are forced to. So I hope the film will raise more awareness in public opinion and especially make politicians more aware. But it’s not a political movie. It’s an opportunity to testify an ongoing tragedy that will grow exponentially. An attempt to anticipate something which is inevitable. These people will [continue to] arrive and there are no borders, barriers, barbed wire that can stop this desperation. Whoever is escaping from a tragedy, from fire, is going to throw themselves in the sea.

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