All the world’s a stage for veteran documentary filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi. Notturno, his latest piece of deeply humanist cinematic theatre, concerns itself with the aftermath of the military coups, authoritarianism and foreign imperialism that have plagued the Middle East since World War One and the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
Those without a detailed knowledge of the region’s political history over the last century need not be put off by the enormity of the opening intertitles. For as in his astounding 2016 feature Fire At Sea, it is the individual stories of ordinary people that are Rosi’s focus. Filmed over three years in the borderlands of Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria and Lebanon, Notturno is a snapshot – in a patchwork of disparate vignettes – that captures the effects of trauma inflicted on and hardships lived by the civilian population.
Whilst the echoes of former conflicts and adversaries certainly still resonate, the Italian-American director presents the ongoing threat of ISIS as the latest in a very long line of regimes which must be confronted. There is no interviewing of talking heads, no direct interaction between filmmaker and subject in any way. Reportedly trimmed down from 90 hours of footage, Rosi’s wide-angle camera dispassionately captures people going about their daily lives, surviving. They are unrelated individuals who seem to have nothing to do with one another, but have a great deal in common.
We move from a former prison in ruins where a group of women sing laments to their dead sons, to the eldest boy of a family fishing by night and shooting birds by day to provide for his mother and siblings, to a couple enjoying an evening out. There are military personnel, too – they patrol desolate wastelands, clear already empty buildings and stand in silence at borders looking out to a misty horizon we cannot see. What lies beyond it? Metaphors and questions hang as heavy as the dark clouds that blanket the film, adding to its oppressive energy. Some may find the staccato jumps of place and point of view a little troublesome.
Cuts from one thread to the next and back again without pretext or explanation do not flow naturally or create a cohesive narrative. But should a documentary investigating such unimaginable savagery be an easy, convenient watch? Absolutely not. Given Notturno’s subject matter it is right that Rosi leaves some of that work up to us. The key to engaging in his vision comes at the halfway point of the film where we enter a school, or kind of rehabilitation centre, where by way of felt tip pens and pencil, displaced children draw their thoughts, their memories of the horrors they have witnessed.
“The night scares me so much,” says one young girl, struggling to sleep due to the nightmarish memories which haunt her. A boy, who must be no older than eight, stutters breathlessly as he recounts the actions of the ISIS men: beheadings, hangings, burning the soles of children’s feet, gunshot wounds. It is sickening that any child should have such images imprinted on their mind but again Rosi’s patient, objective distance is maintained. In these heartbreaking scenes lies the crux of Notturno’s purpose.
These children’s drawings allow them to explore and explain their trauma, to open up to their teacher about what they saw, how it makes them feel, what she must do to make them feel safe. Two photos of a tortured man held tenderly by his weeping mother and the images we see onscreen have the same purpose. They prompt questions, discussion. And at a psychiatric hospital we visit on several occasions, where a number of the patients are rehearsing a play on their Homeland’s past, present and destined future, word and image combine. They are part of the process of healing, of understanding and coming to terms with trauma, so as to be able to look forward.
The BFI London Film Festival 2020 takes place from 7-18 October. bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival
Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63