Taking to the stage of the eerily quiet Tuschinski cinema in Amsterdam—just after the sad news of the death of Italian documentary filmmaker Valentina Pedicini, at the age of 42, had been made public—Gianfranco Rosi, Guest of Honor at documentary festival IDFA, put on a brave face as he settled down for his masterclass with the festival’s artistic director Orwa Nyrabia.
Rosi’s latest film “Notturno,” a mosaic of war stories from the Middle East, was lucky to premiere to a live and present audience at the Venice Film Festival in September, before Italy returned to lock down. But, for the most part, he is becoming as acquainted with the mechanics of Zoom meetings as the rest of us are, and IDFA was no different: the audience for this thoughtful and enlightening one-on-one—some 250 people or more—were watching from the comfort, or perhaps confines, of their own homes.
What quickly became apparent is that, over his 27-year career, Rosi, 56, has made a name for himself as a director of quality rather than quantity: the accompanying retrospective consists of just six films, starting with 1993’s “Boatman,” Rosi’s account of a boat trip along the Ganges. “Sometimes I hate that my life is basically [that],” he laughed. “[People say] ‘So what have you been doing all these years?’ Basically, six films. That’s it! And my life is [determined] by this, because it takes so much time to do it.”
Nyrabia’s first question was blunt and to the point: why do you do this? Rosi didn’t waste much time coming up with an answer. “For me,” he mused, “cinema is maybe a pretext—a pretext to meet, to encounter. Without an encounter, my movies wouldn’t exist, because my films, they are never born on a table, they are never born with a pen. They are born [from] a very small idea, and that idea becomes a big need, and that need then becomes a necessity, and that necessity becomes a journey—a huge journey.”
He recalled that, in his early days after leaving NYU, those decisions could not be taken lightly. “When I [first] started filming, I was filming in 16mm, so everything was so precious and so heavy. To capture 10 minutes was a huge amount of work. It was also very expensive.” Surprisingly, however, that doesn’t mean that Rosi plans his shoots. “When I start any project,” he admitted, “I never know where it’s going. When I started “Boatman,” when I started “Below Sea Level” (2008), when I started “El Sicario…” (2010), when I started “Sacro GRA” (2013), when I started “Fire at Sea” (2016), when I started “Notturno,” it was a very small, tiny idea. [It] started with very few pages. And then those few pages became the film, at the end of a long, long journey, which lasted three years in case of “Notturno,” and in the case of “Boatman” five years. “El Sicario…” was only three days of shooting, but, when I put the camera down, I never know what’s going to happen in front of me. And this is what I think I love about documentary.”
Warming to his theme, Rosi went further, adding that his affection for the genre was enhanced by its flexibility. “It has an enormous range of experimentation,” he noted. “For me, every film is a matter of finding the right language in order to be able to tell that story—the story that I will encounter, which I don’t [yet] know. When you put the camera down, things happening in front of you. Things start to have their own shape, their own narration. And that takes time. I say always that time is my big ally.”
Rosi spoke a lot about time, and specifically about having the patience to wait for the right moment, a luxury that has caused him plenty of headaches as a self-producing director. “Frankly, I don’t like filming,” he deadpanned. “I have enormous anxiety [about it], and then, once you start filming, the fear goes away and you start discovering something that is so magic and so fantastic and unique.”
But perhaps the most memorable takeaway from the exchange came from Rosi’s deliberations on the concept of objective truth. You’d think that someone who goes in for the long game might be staking it out, but that’s not what this director is looking for, apparently. “Cameras change things, constantly,” he said. “When you put the camera down, it changes the dynamic. It changes the relationship. I don’t believe in observational cinema, in truth. Once the camera is there, you change the dynamic and you change the relationship, and everything that happens after that is something else, no matter what. So it doesn’t exist, objectivity. It doesn’t exist, the reality of the things. What exists is the truthfulness of what you’re filming and why you’re filming what [you’re filming]. That’s why, for me, it’s not important, the difference between fiction and documentary—what’s important is the difference between true and false.
“It’s not about beauty,” he decided, with an almost triumphant finality. “It’s about what [Roberto] Rossellini used to call the splendor of reality.”