The process behind the first and only documentary to ever win Berlinale’s top prize is as captivating as the film itself.
Fire at Sea opens with a sequence that might come out of a great coming-of-age film like Stand by Me: Two boys play in island brush, fashioning slingshots to target little sandpiper birds. One of them, we later learn, is Samuele, a clever boy who belongs to generations of fisherman, but gets seasick even on a modestly choppy boat ride. However, the film is not about this Italian boy, or about his family, or even about island life—it’s about Europe’s refugee crisis.
Therein lies Rosi’s genius. He lures us into a cinematic, windswept, seaside vista, invites us to fall in love with the mischievous boy-next-door, and then slowly unveils a larger story that we simply cannot look away from. Samuele’s island is Lampedusa, which has become kind of quiet Ground Zero for the Mediterranean migrant stream because of its location between North Africa and Europe.
"Once you have something in your mind, suddenly you look, and that's happening in front of you. That's the magic of documentary."
We eventually meet the sensitive Dr. Bartolo, who becomes our eyes into the harsh reality of the refugees. He has the unfathomable task of treating the migrants who arrive at Lamepdusa’s shores in deplorable conditions. Many are near death; others are already there. With very little dialogue and no narration, Rosi delivers raw humanity, laid bare, in all its forms—from the innocence of childhood to the silent suffering of tortured souls who are hanging on to survival by a thread.
The masterful documentary—Italy's contender for best foreign language film at the 2017 Oscars—is constructed and shot like a narrative. Its breathtaking camera work, character relationships, and the way the plot unfolds all come from the conventions of fictional cinema, rather than documentary. No Film School sat down with Rosi after the film's New York Film Festival screening to learn more about his unusual documentary process, from framing his shots like a narrative DP, to why he never looks at the source material in post-production once he’s made his initial scene selections.
No Film School: In the NYFF Q&A, you said that using the language of cinema in your documentaries is important to you, and that really spoke to me. What specific pieces from cinematic history do you try to incorporate into your work?
Gianfranco Rosi: I want to use everything that’s possible in cinema, visually, in order to underline reality. I want people to get involved in the film the same way you do in a feature film with the characters or storytelling, but all my work comes from reality. I don't write anything, but I incorporate the language of cinema as a framework to tell the story.
I never understood, ever since I was a student at NYU, that in order to make it more "real," the camera has to move, to feel like a documentary. Feature films, when they're based on real stories, have the camera moving.
"When I start a story, everything is isolated around me, and I’m only viewing it through the eyepiece. It's like a scientist with a microscope."
NFS: That’s a kind of cinematic language in itself; when the camera moves, it's an indicator that this is the "real" part.
Rosi: I never understood that because for me, the only thing I see is a bad cameraman. I start seeing a point of view into the story which is not mine anymore [as an audience member], but of someone else that wants to impose his own view.
The frame is always important—and good light and good composition—and then within this frame things have to happen. When I start a story, everything is isolated around me, and I’m only viewing it through the eyepiece. It's like a scientist with a microscope. At first, you don't see anything, and then you put your eye in the microscope and you discover a new world there, with its own worth, and its own narration.
I start with a frame, a world that is narrated within this limit. Once I have that, I always have to find a beginning and end to a story within that same shot. It has to happen within one piece. I don't want to look for that in the editing. It has to happen in reality. Then, in the editing, I can create that association [between scenes].
My films are documentaries because everything that's happening is real. I never manipulate things.
NFS: The way you frame every shot is beautiful, but in capturing real life, how do you make every shot look so cinematic when you’re running around chasing someone or there's a story unfolding?
Rosi: I never have anxiety [about] filming everything. Most of my work is about losing things. It's not about grabbing things. I'd rather have one little, special and unique thing that is happening and lose 100,000 other things around me. But that thing has to be the mother of all things possible, you know?
I don't like to be a reporter when I make film. I like to be a filmmaker, so I always have to wait for the moment when the light is perfect and the mood is good between me and the person, something special is happening in his life and I have to be there.
My biggest investment is time. Most of the people that go somewhere to shoot a film stay three weeks, three months, and then they make a film on that. I need to stay two, three, four years in a place, and still just grab special moments. My work is about constantly losing moments, because if I lose something, something else good will come which is stronger.
"When I set up the camera, I have horrible anxiety. Sometimes nothing happens, and sometimes some magical thing happens."
NFS: Life doesn't always work the way that you want it to, though. Do you find that in looking for those beginnings and ends of every scene, they actually happen, or sometimes you just don't get the resolution you need?
Rosi: Then you don't get it, and you have to keep working on that and to keep waiting. I always think that when you have something in your mind very strongly, it's all a matter of waiting. It's going to come to you, but if you don't have it right in your mind, you're going to lose it. Once you have something in your mind, suddenly you look, and that's happening in front of you, and that's the magic of documentary.
Every time, it's still such an incredible surprise for me when that thing happens because I never know what's going to happen. When I set up the camera, I have horrible anxiety. Sometimes nothing happens, and sometimes some magical thing happens.
NFS: Or sometimes what you think is “nothing” is actually something later when you review it.
Rosi: No, I never look at all of the footage when I edit. There’s a system I have that divides the story between the different subjects. Then, I close my eyes and start working on [one of the subjects], and I remember incredible scenes, and then I take out these scenes and I start working on only the scenes that I selected.
If I asked you to close your eyes and think about the last year of your life, you don't even remember 60 days. You remember the 20 days that are important, and these are the elements that I work on. For me, the story of my film is the story of the memory that I recall of the moments that I think are important.
"We are so used to what I call 'explaining and complaining' films. I want to get rid of that language."
NFS: Once you make your scene selections, you never go back to the original material?
NFS: Why not?
Rosi: For me, it's as though it’s not there anymore. I canceled it completely from everything, and when I'm looking for something because I don't know how to go on with the story, it's not because I need to go back and look for a specific shot. It's just because my sequence of scenes is wrong. It becomes a very emotional thing. It's not rational.
In that moment, I work like a feature film. I don't want to get more information. It's like when you carve a statue: How thin can the material be before it breaks? How much less information can I give? How anti-documentary can my approach be?
I think we live in the world where we don't need any more information. There's so much information. You Google all sorts of things. You have 5,000 pages of information on that. I have to find something else, a language, which is more emotional and less informational. We are so used to what I call “explaining and complaining” films, where it's someone complaining about something and then explaining why he's complaining about something.
I want to get rid of that language because we don't need that anymore. I would write an essay if I wanted to do that. On the structure, I would choose more the structure of a poem than of an essay. In the poem, every word has a wider meaning than the word itself and creates this open space of interpretation.
NFS: Fire at Sea definitely raises more questions than it answers.
Rosi: That's what I like to do in my work. We don't need the answers. Answers are just good for today. Then tomorrow it's a different answer. When you get an answer, it becomes ideological, so I want to leave this space open. I have sometimes near me a poetry book, and every time I open it, it's different. I read the same poetry in so many different moments and it talks to me in a different way constantly. I like that language in documentary.
NFS: What did you actually shoot this film with?
Rosi: I was so lucky because I always had horrible cameras with me. I come from the school of 16mm and I love the simplicity that 16mm gave me. It costs so much money. It's like $400 for one roll.
NFS: It works with your philosophy in a way.
Rosi: Yes. It's so precious. It has to be unique. Also there I was losing, losing, losing, but always waiting for the right moment. Then when I couldn't afford that anymore, I shot my films with other cameras, and I was always very unhappy.
Then, when I did my film Sacro GRA, which won the Golden Lion at Venice, I was contacted by ARRI, and they asked me if I used their Amira to shoot because it looked so good. I said, "No, I used the Panasonic 100P."
They were really disappointed. Then they offered me to use one of the first Amira cameras that came out. It was almost a prototype, and they gave me the camera for one year. It was great because at the beginning, when I go to the island, the camera had not arrived yet. I didn't have a camera for the first few months.
NFS: So you had to get to know everyone without a camera.
Rosi: That gave me incredible freedom. I couldn’t feel guilty because I had to wait for the camera. My producer was calling me saying, "You keep losing things." It's okay. I loved being there with no camera. It allowed me to really get close to the people without having this fear. The work that I do before I start shooting is very important for me. I'm not taking out the camera. Most of my work is not having the camera.
NFS: But you ended up using the Amira?
Rosi: Yeah, it's fantastic. It's a heavy camera. I wanted to have a lighter camera, but it is what it is. What’s fantastic about that camera is that you shoot at night in the pitch dark, and what you see is what you film. Again, light is about subtraction. Before, in order to have this type of [night time] scene, I would have to have lights everywhere.
Also, this is a strong camera. You know how many times it fell down and nothing happened? When I was filming on the boat, I got so much salt water on that camera. There was salt everywhere inside the camera when they opened it up. It was white. Some parts were rusted. But the camera held up completely.
NFS: What about lenses?
Rosi: If you use that camera with one prime lens, it's fine, it’s not so heavy. I usually only use one lens. Most of it I shot with the 28 or the 35, depending on the light that I had, and then a very, very few times I used the 85, just for closeups.
NFS: In Fire at Sea, none of your subjects were the obvious choices. If you were a reporter covering this story, maybe you'd focus on the rescue workers who try to save the refugees at sea. But you chose a radio DJ, a small boy, and a grandma.
Rosi: In life, the most important thing isn’t always in the foreground. Sometimes it needs to be in the background to make it stronger. You want to know more about something if I don’t give you everything. If you consume everything, then you don't want that anymore.
NFS: But how did you decide who should tell this story?
Rosi: Of course [Dr. Bartolo] was the main character, but I had only three scenes with him, so those scenes had to be incredible; they have to be worth everything. He's very significant, but emotionally there are two characters in the film: Samuele, and his subconscious guide.
For us, Samuele’s coming-of-age represents the difficulties of facing the world we don’t know—the world of the migrants. And then there's awareness, which is represented by the doctor. He’s the conscience.
So these two elements—these two narrative arcs—are very important for us to arrive at showing death at the end of the film. The whole film was built for that moment, and then to leave from this moment, and mourning this through silence. For the final 25 minutes, there's not a single word in the film, and all [we see] are these transformations of the characters.
NFS: I know that you don't want to be pedantic and you want audiences to have their own interpretations, like any great art, but at the same time, this film and some of your others actually deal with really difficult political issues. How do you put those two things together in your mind?
Rosi: It's an experience I had after showing the film in so many places and in so many different parts of the world. Some people come out from the film and say, "I want to bang myself against the wall." This is what I want: for people to come out of the film and ask, "What can I do?" If I can reach that, then it was worth making this film. But I cannot give them the answer.
NFS: Like you said, I think that the answers change over time.
Rosi: It's so complicated, this issue about immigration. Sometimes I wish I were [Werner] Herzog, that he puts his voice in the films, and then I will not need to do a Q&A because everyone can just hear the explanations. I can say, "This is an island where people go and some of them die, and then there's this little kid..." and the audience expects things like that. But I don't do it.
NFS: How funny. I like thinking of you as the anti-Herzog if there are two ends of the documentary spectrum.
Rosi: It is like that, but sometimes I wish I could give the answer like [Herzog does]. On the other hand, I did this one film, El Sicario, where I didn’t say anything. It's just one man writing in a book, and that's my favorite film I made. It's so cinematic—it's one man in a room writing a book, nothing else, but that's so much.
"Even if 100,000 people shot in the same location, your point of view is different than all of them. You cannot give that up for a second."
NFS: What general advice do you have about approaching someone who's about to do a documentary?
Rosi: When I work with students, what I try to teach them is to be independent completely. I made my films alone. Now, you just need a camera, an idea, and commitment. Once you have these three elements, you know what you want to do, and you do it. You don't need money. You don't need anything. You just need money to eat. That's it.
Don't go to a commissioning editor. That will kill the movie. Commissioning editors want you to start with a lie, because they want you to write the script, and then the film has to be exactly the script you write, and that is wrong. There's no surprise in that because you didn't let reality talk to you. You already go there with an idea, with an agenda, and with a thesis, and you have to demonstrate that they're right or wrong. I think that kills the thing completely.
Nobody can say to you, "I'm not interested in the film. We already have something like that. Somebody already shot there." What you do is unique. It's your point of view, and it's unique. Even if 100,000 people shot in the same location, your point of view is different than all of them and you know that it's different. You cannot give that up for a second.
Make your film. Believe in it. Be a one man or one woman crew. I know you can do it. Focus on a good camera, good sound, good craft, and good story. Make your first two or three films on your own without asking anyone. Once the film is done, it will speak for itself.