The documentary form is designed to inspire discussion, but one thing that isn’t discussed in nonfiction filmmaking is its cinematography. Its directors are judged on their perspectives — how the topics are explored, not the forms used to express them.
Italian master Gianfranco Rosi has received his first Oscar nomination for Best Documentary, in part because “Fire At Sea” stems from the global news story of the European refugee crisis. However, he made it with the same impressionistic cinematic storytelling that has defined his career in films like “El Sicario, Room 164,” which follows a hitman for Mexican drug cartels, or “Sacro GRA,” which traces Italy’s Great Ring Road.
“Fire at Sea” is told largely from the point of view of Samuele, a 10-year-old boy who lives on Lampedusa, a sleepy island on the southernmost point of Europe. Just off the island, a near-daily life-and-death battle rages as rescue boats try to save hundreds of refugees trying to reach European shores. There is only one character who bridges these worlds, the doctor who treats the migrants (over 25,000 died making the trip to Lampedusa since Rosi began filming).
For Rosi, this juxtaposition between Samuele’s world and the humanitarian crisis — close in proximity and a world apart — is a metaphor for modern-day Europe. It evokes an emotion he tries to capture with his camera. He religiously avoids expositional tools like title cards, voiceover narration or talking-head interviews that might put the story in a larger context. Rather, Rosi thinks of his films in terms of color, light and composition.
IndieWire recently sat down with Rosi to explore how he created the look of “Fire at Sea.”
I went to Lamedusa three times before filming. Once was just for three weeks, another was for a month, then I went back in October through December before I started to shoot in January. I never picked up a camera during that time; I never do. For me, this time is about me getting a feeling, an emotion of a place. Once I have that, I pick up the camera with the purpose of finding a way to capture that, to recreate that emotion on screen for the audience.
Clouds and Light
I love clouds. I love the protection of the clouds. The clouds have their own narration. They create tragedy through their colors.
For me, filming and shooting is a very harsh moment. When I [turn] the camera on, things change. I change. Everything changes. You have expectations and this incredible anxiety when I start filming. And it’s always on the first day I shoot. At that moment, I forget that I’ve been doing it for 25 years. There’s always an element of anxiety to it all, which is painful.
This is why I waited for the clouds. Because there is no sun, I have an incredible freedom as to where I can put my camera. I don’t have to think about shadows, harshness of light, overexposure. In that moment, all my spirits open up and say, “This is a perfect day for shooting.”
I love the shades of the clouds and it gives me an incredible sense of intimacy. The fact that when I film, I don’t have to have the harshness of the light leading to overexposure. I like to have this homogenous world. I feel protected by the clouds.
I knew this film would have to be shot in winter to get that light and grayish blue. I never put on any filter and my color correction is very minimal. Lampedusa in the summer is wrong for this story. Beyond the tourists who flock to the island, the light is bright and a totally different color. This is why it was shot over two winters, with a break in between, which you probably don’t realize watching the film.
This was different when I shot the migrants. Because of access I was often with them in harsh light. I think in a way, this created a nice balance to the film, these two kind of stories. I also chose to shoot them at night when I could. There’s a sense of mystery and protection, I was never going to have enough time with them or make a connection like my other characters on the island. Shooting at night captured some of that distance.
Composition and Distance
I miss a great deal. I do not chase my subjects around and leave the camera constantly running. For my first film, “Boatman,” I was in India for five years, but I only shot 12 hours of footage. Having to learn to shoot first on film, before digital cameras, I make very specific choices about my compositions. The story is within my frames. This is why I am able to edit so quickly. I don’t shoot 500 hours of footage and find my story in the editing room.
I only have three lenses and mostly use a 28mm or the 35mm. I hate zoom [lenses]. It gives too many choices. These prime lenses gives me an element of space. These lens usually give me exactly what I see [with my eyes]. The distance in documentary is the truth. The distance that you can have with your character in your documentary is where the truth lies in the story. That’s fundamental.
I only switch lenses when I have to, like on the boat where I was forced to use a 85mm to capture the migrants.
I realized immediately that the first shot of the film when there are some olives in the tree and the boy is looking for the branch to build his slingshot. That was the first time I put the camera on my shoulders, it was the very first shot of the film and the first day of shooting. I was looking at him and I felt like I was moving a bit too much. At that moment, I realized that it was wrong for the story and that this has to be on a tripod and I had a vision the film had to be completely still.
At that moment I realized that I had to be there completely narratively speaking and think of the audience. I had to have them relate the story without having my own point of view because when you have someone moving you immediately have the point of view of someone and I did not want to have that in the film. After that, I always used the tripod to have it very, very still.
In the second part of the film, it’s much more immediate with the migrants on the boat. The element requires a different style of shooting. I chose the ARRI Amira for this reason. It’s a fantastic camera once it’s on your shoulder, the way the of weight of the camera is distributed is comfortable. It also has this very strong grip. Every movement you do, you can still feel very steady. It makes the camera really become part of your body and your mind.
The eyepiece on that camera is very important to me. I see my world through the frame, and with the Amira it is very comfortable and natural to have your eye right on it. You feel that everything is there, really close to you. It feels like you’re looking through a microscope and discovering this world that people cannot see without your eye there. Suddenly you discover a different reality, and when you move your head and you start watching everything, the story stops. When you put your eye back, it starts again. It’s a very powerful form of narration and I love that about this camera. You’re able to frame it and really feel the frame. You end up feeling so close to the frame. You almost discover this new perspective, this new reality. In that moment, your brain begins creating a story.
With Amira you can regulate sound very closely as well, which is key when working by yourself. I recorded the sound into the camera, which is fantastic; it’s the only camera that can do that. When I had my Arriflex, I had separate sound and that was a nightmare. Because I’m shooting by myself, this allows me to focus my energy on the frame.
Editor’s note: This feature is presented in partnership with Arri, a leading designer, manufacturer and distributor of motion picture camera, digital intermediate (DI) and lighting equipment. Click here for more information about Arri’s products.