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Gianfranco Rosi’s “Notturno” was shot over three years along the rattled borders of Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria, and Lebanon in the director’s signature observational – but also empathetic – style. The impressionistic doc captures people who have long been contending with the ravages of war and terror, most recently inflicted by ISIS. Whose members, incidentally, at one point tried to kidnap Rosi. He managed to obtain access to some very sensitive material while also filming fragments of everyday life.

Rosi’s latest work, which segues from migration-themed “Fire at Sea” that won the 2016 Berlin Golden Bear and “Sacro GRA,” winner of the 2013 Venice Golden Lion, has been selected by the Telluride, Venice, Toronto and New York film festivals. A feat matched only by “Nomadland” this year.

He spoke to Variety about the challenges of this project in which the “whole area becomes an imaginary space” and the only borders are those “between life and hell.” Excerpts from the conversation.

As is often the case with your films, you obtained amazing access, including to the military and to a mother hearing voice messages from ISIS demanding her daughter’s ransom. How do you do it?

It took me three years to shoot that scene. First I just filmed the phone, and you hear this girl asking for the family to pay a ransom followed by the voice of a member of ISIS.

Then I tried to get the father involved, but he didn’t want to do it for security reasons. This was in the Yazidi community (in Iraq). I returned there several times. And the last time I went, he said that the mother now lived in Stuttgart. He gave me her phone number and I contacted her through the head of the Yazidi community. We called her and she said: ‘Okay, come. I don’t know if I will allow you to film me, but come.’ So I went there and I spent the whole day with her in this very Western-looking room, and she told me all these painful stories. She was crying, the interpreter was crying. I thought: ‘How will I film here?’ I said to myself: ‘Forget it, this is a story that I will not use.’ So I told her: ‘Okay, I’m leaving.’ And she said: ‘No, you have to film! You told me you were going to film!’

So I said: ‘I have this cellphone with your daughter’s voice, your husband gave it to me. She said: ‘I want to listen to my daughter’s voice.’ I put the camera there, I gave her the phone. And there is this moment when the tear comes, it evokes everything in the film!

What about your security?

That was the most difficult thing. Permits, security, arriving in places. Trying to stay there. Two or three days is safe. Four days is not safe anymore, you become a target. I would spend two or three months in a place, so I was always, like, a perfect target. Once I was very, very close to getting kidnapped. In the marshlands, when I was shooting with the (duck) hunter at night.

In your films, there are scenes with real people that – and I’m not saying it in a derogatory way – look almost staged. Like the scene of the veiled mother who bemoans the death of her son while she is in the jail cell where he had been beaten and tortured.

That is the Saddam Hussein jail where thousands of Kurds died. There was a genocide there. That scene happened in a very mysterious way. I went to shoot in this jail several times, and nothing happened. Then I asked the local producer: ‘Can we go back there again?’ And that day there was a commemoration of 100 years of the first Kurdish massacre by the Turks.

I met this woman there with an incredible face, with pain and suffering. And she told me she was there to commemorate the death of her family members. I asked her if I could shoot her and, after some reluctance, she accepted. Then, while she was there she recognized the jail cell where her son had been imprisoned.

For me the most crucial thing is to find the right distance for the story when I set up: Where do I put the camera?

I found a spot, put the camera there, and I let it run. And she started touching the wall, and then this room became the place for this painful ritual. And then she showed me the pictures (of her son). She was just touching this wall and I didn’t know what she was saying. And then when I got the translation I thought: This is incredible!

Things happen like that. Would she have done that without the camera? I don’t know. The camera is there, so there is interaction. There is always a performance. I don’t believe in absolute reality.

I want to use the language of film in order to transform that into something else. What I film is real; it’s there, it’s not written. They are not actors, but they are performing. Once you put yourself in front of the camera, no matter what, you change.

Let’s talk about the camera. You do your own camera work and also the sound. 

I do everything on my own. I don’t want to have an assistant nearby while I film. Once everything is set up I have to be alone. And the camera becomes like a microscope for me. I discover a world.

What kind of camera do you use?

An Arri (Alexa) Mini. A fantastic camera, which is not so mini once you start putting things on it. It’s a big camera, and I like that. I would love to film with a Panavision camera, like John Ford’s camera. You frame the shot and then you wait for days for something to happen! Instead of saying ‘action’ I wait for something to happen. But I know that sooner or later it will.

Most of the time is waiting, and most of the time is also missing things. But when I’m able to capture something good it becomes dense and fundamental.