Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary depicts a Middle East emerging from trauma, but it is self-conscious at times
documentary film-maker Gianfranco Rosi has created a very characteristic cine-poem of sadness, about the Middle East as it emerges from Isis terror, but remaining scarred by the intervention of western powers who had promised so much. It’s an intensely considered curation of scenes: glimpses, perhaps, into a collective mind or soul. Rosi has assembled this from years of filming in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq. It’s similar in its observational procedures to films such as Sacro GRA, his 2013 study of those who live on the periphery of Rome, near the “GRA” ring road, and also his masterly Fire at Sea from 2016, about the lives of desperate migrants who arrive in Lampedusa, Sicily, and the locals who are coming to terms with them.
The title means “night” or “of the night”, and many scenes seem to be happening at nightfall (or possibly at daybreak), particularly the opening, extended sequence of soldiers drilling, jogging around in a circle. There are many striking moments and beautifully realised images and vignettes here, a rhetorical structure that is perhaps inspired by the play that, in one scene, psychiatric patients are shown rehearsing about the lives of people in Iraq. But I worried a little that Rosi’s techniques are becoming a self-conscious mannerism, and furthermore that the film is a little too diffuse, taking in four different places and effectively homogenising them.
Of course, in important ways, the film is about what they have in common: the loneliness, the alienation, the survivor-trauma. The film’s most powerful scenes are those that show a therapist working with children who have witnessed or experienced torture at the hands of Isis: they show this in their drawings. The “child’s drawing” has been a cliche in most fiction and non-fiction films, but the ones shown here are all but overwhelming. Later, old black-shawled women troop grimly through a prison where their sons (presumably Kurds) were put to death, and moan desolately that they can feel their dead sons’ spirits in the walls. Again, the image appears to have a visual echo: soldiers on patrol, moving through an apparently deserted house with torches and guns. If not staged exactly, these sequences are ones in which the camera, from its fixed position, must have been prominent in the minds of those being filmed.
The people shown are mostly mute: particularly a rather haunting boy, shown hunting on his own and later with his father. The soldiers, too, are mostly silent, enduring the boredom and watchfulness. But perhaps their silence is a filmic artefact, and these people might have a lot to say for themselves in another type of film.
It isn’t that Rosi has removed the context, it is more that he has supplied a new context, a more universalised, humanistic context of the spirit – with some artistic licence. But I felt that his earlier films give us a more intimate access to people’s lives than Notturno does, for all its intelligence, empathy and stoicism.