With colonisation comes a struggle for independence and identity; oftentimes war ensues, and people are either left with less than they had before, or nothing at all. Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary, Notturno (2020), paints a perplexing picture of what life after war looks like. The Oscar-nominated documentarian lets his camera do the talking as he traverses the war ravaged Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan, and Lebanon over the course of three years. The result is a film that captures the aftermath of war ravaged lands, and the people left to endure the mess made by others.
Rosi is no stranger to focusing on people facing hardship as a result of injustice and corrupt systems. His Golden Bear winning film, Fire at Sea (2016), explores the European migrant crisis and some of the people at the centre of the migrant landings at Sicilian island, Lampedusa. While Notturno isn’t as specific in its focus as Fire at Sea, it serves to remind audiences of the realities that people on the other side are living.
In Notturno, Rosi captures the sprawling and almost barren wasteland’s of some of the aforementioned Middle-Eastern countries, and his cinematography is comprised of an array of wide shots that give the land itself an added layer of complexity. There is almost no life in Rosi’s shots, with the environment seeming akin to that of Frank Herbert’s fictional Arrakis (or Dune) — there is a desert-like openness, structures are left behind from ISIS raids, and minimal life exists save for birds that are hunted. The purpose here is to reinforce what many of the people in the film already voice — these people’s homeland has been taken from them and losing their identity is at risk as well. Subsequently, the camera serves as this invisible observer in motion.
Unfortunately, Rosi isn’t as interested in providing more context on the people in the film, with many of them going about their lives without us ever gaining a sense of who they are. There is an instance where some children draw and describe horrific pictures from experiences they’ve had with ISIS, but that’s about as close as we come to an emotional investment beyond the shots themselves.
The film seems more concerned with allowing the setting to nurture our understanding of the people who occupy it rather than through the people themselves. These people enter the frame and the nothingness around them in order to reinforce just how little this land is actually theirs — it isn’t welcoming or even supportive of its occupants. In this sense, the land and Rosi’s shots of it is being used to demonstrate the governments (or lack thereof) failure to provide for its people.
One of the subjects in the film is a boy, Ali, who supports his mother and his many siblings by hunting for birds with various unknowns. When observed outside of the long and mid shots of his home where there is a sense of control and identity, he is often framed as a spec in the wider vastness of Rosi’s wide-shots. It’s a clever approach on Rosi’s part, but it provides the bare minimum in terms of understanding Ali’s situation and how he and his family make sense of the world around them.
The most profound aspect of the film, however, is Rosi’s ability to let the land speak for itself. There is little to no dialogue which creates an eerie sensation given that the countries in question are known for the violence and chaos that eschews the normalcy that otherwise exists. The only real sounds that continually penetrate the film are those natural ambient noises (birds chirping, water rushing, wind breezing etc.). When something other than natures sounds begins to present itself, it tends to be in the form of guns clocking and war trucks rolling. For what it’s worth, Rosi juxtaposes that aspect really well and leaves an uneasiness in one’s stomach.
Perhaps now more than ever, Notturno reminds audiences that colonisation and external interference in a once functioning nation, only does more harm than good — with the current situation in Afghanistan exacerbating that claim. Sure Rosi could have done with a greater engagement with his subjects, but it’s easy to see that his camera and the setting it captures are there to do the talking. While not as moving as Fire at Sea is during its best moments, Notturno is an essential viewing if not for its contemplative look on the countries at the centre of it, then for its relevance at this very point in time.
Notturno is currently streaming on MIFF Play until the 22nd of August.