An act of love

Gianfranco Rosi on editing Notturno

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Ali is Gianfranco Rosi’s silent anchor in Notturno (Nocturne)
Ali is Gianfranco Rosi’s silent anchor in Notturno (Nocturne)

Gianfranco Rosi’s Notturno (Nocturne), screening in the Main Slate of the New York Film Festival and the Journey section in London, comes nestled at the abyss. The chaotic, unstable border regions of Lebanon, Iraq, Kurdistan, and Syria are where this arresting important documentary was shot by Rosi during the past three years. He has had a longtime collaboration with editor Jacopo Quadri that began with his first documentary, Boatman (1993) and continued successfully on to Below Sea Level (2008), the frightening El Sicario, Room 164 (2010), his vigilant Sacro Gra (2013), and the masterful Fire At Sea (2016). Fabrizio Federico is the third member of the brilliant editing team for Notturno. Federico is also the editor for Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden (opening virtually at Film at Lincoln Center on October 16). Quadri has edited Laura Bispuri’s Sworn Virgin and Paolo Virzì’s The Leisure Seeker.

A man pulls a boat out of the reeds, gets into it, and paddles from a narrow creek covered in phragmites towards a larger river.
A man pulls a boat out of the reeds, gets into it, and paddles from a narrow creek covered in phragmites towards a larger river.

Notturno starts with a small unit of soldiers running in formation through the blue light of morning around a courtyard of what could be a military base in the desert. Next comes the sky and a fort. Women enter from the darkness, all dressed in black, only the first three have headscarves that are white. A man in camouflage with a rifle rides on a motorcycle alone in the countryside. Oil refineries flicker like little candles in the distance.

City lights, a town bar at night, military trucks on the road, boys playing in an alley, horses. A man and a woman talk on a roof at night about the beauty of rain. Later she will help him dress, as though he were still a little boy, in a long white garment and a white cap. Two people swiftly ride by on horses, as if we were in a Western town, a motorcyclist does his tricks and here they are again, the gunfire sounds, in case you forgot that this is still a war zone.

Bombed out villages, camouflaged trucks, more soldiers. Women soldiers, a Peshmerga unit is watching out for border security. Rosi shows no battles but the readiness for them with rifles, patrols, trenches, bunkers, tanks. Always in-between conflict past and with conflict looming. A mint-green building houses the psychiatric ward where a play is to be staged “about our Homeland.”

Ali, a boy in yellow rain gear sits at the bow of a fishing boat at night. His stern face looks as if he had been painted by Caravaggio or Modigliani, depending on the light. He seems to be the oldest of many siblings who sleep on mattresses on the floor around the sofa where he rests. Ali is Rosi’s silent anchor in Notturno, the way the charismatic and talkative Samuele was in Fire At Sea as our guide to the landscape. A most important sequence in Notturno takes place in a classroom with small kids making drawings and speaking to their teacher about the trauma they experienced.

A flooded road looks as if it is in the middle of collapsing, with chunks breaking away, turning the path into a waterfall.
A flooded road looks as if it is in the middle of collapsing, with chunks breaking away, turning the path into a waterfall.

At the Deep Focus dialogue with Gianfranco Rosi, presented by HBO, and moderated by Director of Programming Dennis Lim, I sent in the following question.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Can you talk about your longtime working relationship with editor Jacopo Quadri?

Gianfranco Rosi: Yes, since my first film, Jacopo. We are so close we never need to discuss anything. With Jacopo, we talk very very little in the editing. He is almost like Ali, Jacopo. He doesn’t talk, you know. And when something is wrong [Gianfranco hems, as if clearing his throat], this is the sound he made. It’s again a long trust relationship. In this film, there is a third person, Fabrizio Federico, who collaborated with me since Sacro Gra. And he’s really an important part of the work.

So somehow in this film we were able to be three people together. It was Fabrizio, it was Jacopo, and it was me on the editing. And Fabrizio also has a credit as a co-editor to the film. It was a very complex editing. My previous film was very fast to edit. Because we’re shooting a certain way, it became all very clear. There was a very small place. Everything was in a small element. Boatman was there in the boat, one character. Below Sea Level were like a few characters but was a very small area, that for me represents an entire world. Almost like Nomadland [directed by Chloé Zhao], is a bit like that. El Sicario [Room 164] was in one room. Sacro Gra is in this route around Rome. Fire at Sea was on that small small island.

Notturno's Easy Rider
Notturno's Easy Rider

And here I find myself interacting with a huge world [in Notturno], with a world that belongs to hundreds of years of conflict and it was very difficult to go from one story to another story to deny the belonging of every story. To build that element of continuation between one character - because they become characters when you edit. When you leave a story and go to a next story, where is the moment? When you do something more, you don’t want to leave anymore that story. And then you’re lost. So you have to find the right moment when to leave the story.

Some stories, they never come back. Some story they consume itself in just one section. Some characters they come back after 45 minutes. You find them again. Some stories carry you throughout the movie. Ali, he’s the main character of the film, I would say character now, sorry, he is the main protagonist of this film and he comes into the film after 25 minutes, Ali. So there’s 25 minutes of something then suddenly you are in this face. And you think, okay, where is this taking us. I’m sure this is a film that requires a lot of interaction with the audience. It’s not an easy film to accept. I’m ready always to get all the criticism of that of the film.

Notturno (Nocturne) poster
Notturno (Nocturne) poster

But it was a very extremely complicated editing and an act of love. You know, towards all the people who are carrying on. And no stories that were left out of the film. Sometimes Jacopo has a certain doubt about some stories. I said, no Jacopo, we have to put this in. I never betrayed. When I start the story I want all the elements to be there. Because it’s been three years of life altogether and I don’t want to leave anyone out of the film. So to have eight stories in a 100 minute film, such complicated stories to find that moment that synthesis - that element that is the synthesis of every single story was extremely difficult.

And it was six months of editing. At the end when we finally found the right structure, which is again a musical thing, like to go from one note to another note to another note. Every note has to belong to the next note. But there was no script, every time was like finding, re-finding and starting from scratch. When you find a problem, we realised that the problem is never where the problem is, but it’s much much earlier. So when you go much much earlier you have to start from scratch again. So we started so many times from scratch in this film.

It’s interesting to see all the editing structure of the film. To go through - like we had 40 versions to see how things changed. Sometime very little but you don’t know that you are there. And then you change completely. And then at the end you discover you’re there. Then you think why didn’t we do that four months ago? It was so easy, it was so simple. That was the only possible way to structure the film. A lot of time, a lot of trust, a lot of love. From all three of us. A lot of dedication everyday.

Notturno runs virtually at the New York Film Festival through Sunday, October 11 at 8:00pm. The film received the UNICEF Award at this year’s Venice Film Festival.

The 2020 New York Film Festival runs through October 11.

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