In our second behind-the-scenes look at the film, Gianfranco Rosi talks editing Fire at Sea: how he narrows down his documentary footage and shapes it into a narrative in the editing room. This is an excerpt from the ebook In Their Own Words: Documentary Masters Vol. 1 which is available for purchase here.
Italian director Gianfranco Rosi spent a year and half living in Lampedusa to film Fire at Sea, his new film about the small Italian island that became an immigration hub for refugees from Africa and Libya. He was fascinated by the separation between the Lampedusa locals and the migrants: they share such a small space but never interact. Because Rosi says, “Most of the time is, for me, about losing moments,” he only shot 80 or 90 hours of footage — less than half of what Frederick Wiseman shot for National Gallery, which was shot over a few weeks. But shaping that footage into an emotional, coherent narrative was s complex process. I sat down with Rosi to discuss how he chooses footage, how he shapes the narrative, and how he knows when a movie is done.I never watch my footage while I’m filming. But I film everything myself so my memory is very strong, what works or what doesn’t work. Click To Tweet
Seventh Row (7R): What was the process of narrowing down all that footage and figuring out what kinds of sounds you wanted to accompany everything?
Gianfranco Rosi (GR): The most important thing in the film was the 30 second scene of death. This was the most difficult part. From the beginning, I knew that I wanted to put that image there. But I didn’t know where. The whole film somehow was built to arrive at this moment, to create this structure. And then not only arriving there, which is a 30 second scene, but also to be able to leave there and creating this mourning, to give respect to this moment here through silence. The last part of the film is 25, 28 minutes of complete silence.
It was very important that with all the people that accompany me in this film, the kids, the doctor, the migrants, every scene was a trajectory, a journey, in order to arrive at this scene. Also, the silence was very important, the space between notes. I wanted to use all the language of the narrative of fiction in the film, although everything is real that happened.
7R: How did you figure out where you wanted to begin the film?
Gianfranco Rosi: It was somehow very chronological, the film. I knew that I wanted to begin with the kid. I couldn’t begin with him with the lazy eye, when he puts the glasses on, because that was something that was later. I could not use the footage I’d shot before anymore because his life changes, so somehow that was logical. So there were things that were very obvious that had to go later in the film. The opening was my first day of shooting with him, looking for this branch to build the slingshot.If I give the same footage to a hundred editors, I would have a hundred different films.Click To Tweet
7R: So the challenge was more figuring out what order to put the characters in?
Gianfranco Rosi: How to interact between the migrants and the characters because you have to create this mood. It can’t just be arbitrary from scene to scene. There has to be a link, which is an emotional link for me, an association of elements. If I give the same footage to a hundred editors, I would have a hundred different films.