Gianfranco Rosi sends us to the borders of Middle Eastern countries where conflict, trauma and rehabilitation are now the norm, in his poignant and important documentary Notturno.
A young couple smoke together whilst overlooking the city at night; fragile plastic tents in muddy refugee camps bellow in the wind. Female fighters warm their hands at daybreak, and a young boy hunts for small birds to feed his mother and siblings. These are glimpses into the Middle East trying to recover from conflict.
Rosi has filled Notturno with several gorgeous shots, none more so gorgeous as we watch a squad of soldiers training in near darkness. He settles the camera down just allows us to watch which is an important aspect of his filmmaking style here. The camera rarely leaves its static position and if anything it is the people moving in and out of shot of the camera that causes any sense of motion. This technique allows us to focus more on what we are seeing and to understand a bit more. A sense of rehabilitation for a world where death and chaos have reigned for far too long on their border countries.
For as good as this technique is, there is a sense that we are still being kept at a distance from those we are watching. As if we are not learning enough about these people to fully immerse ourselves with them. There are no interviews, merely monologues or we watch how they are coping and interacting with others in their town. Thus we feel like an outsider, a person who knows they are just passing them by. Perhaps that was his point and in some cases, this works very well. Yet the feeling of wanting to know more about these people never leaves. Rosi presents us with a very passive look that could do with more engagement.
The use of the static camera in some scenes gives a staged essence to Notturno, which may not be what Rosi intended. As our female soldiers check an empty building his camera is everywhere as if a surveillance of them. This removes the sense of tension from the scene. There are just too many shots for this not to look rehearsed unless Rosi was running all around that building to capture their patrol. This doesn’t detract from the documentary, yet it is noticeable. The inclusion of the soldiers spread throughout is a stark reminder that as the region tries to rebuild, that the threat remains and is still very much there and should and will not be taken lightly.
The closest we come to this in Notturno is in the psychiatric wards where a doctor is recreating a play with the patients to assist them to let their emotions out about what they have experienced. Shrouded in low light we watch these patients rehearse and rehearse. The second glimpse into this world that is trying to rebuild itself after such destruction is in a school
We have a woman go to the place where her son was kept prisoner, her reactions to the room are real, and she touches the walls and looks at haunting photographs of her son. Then Rosi has her positioned against the wall, eyes closed talking to him from the grave. It is an apologetically sad moment, but we watch and mourn with her.
The young boy hunting and killing small birds to feed his mother and siblings is heartbreaking. Just a teenager he has seemingly had to give up his education and future to make sure that his family is fed. It is implied that his father is dead from the conflict and he is now the breadwinner. Too young to work legally he waits on the side of the road for jobs for a few dollars and hunts instead. His mother solemnly cooks their food alone as the rest of his siblings do their schoolwork. We see the strain and sense of responsibility hang heavy on his shoulders. No one so young should have to look after his family.
Without a doubt the best and worst look at the conflict and their effects are in the school. A teacher discusses her class about what they have experienced. Bombings, torture beheadings, we get a gruesome and horrifying look at what mere children have experienced as they draw their experiences. Acuminating in a wall covered in death. Rosi wants to show how deep the conflict has gone. These are not adults fighting it out against each other, it is children being hit with electric cables, and witnessing an uncountable about of murder. One boy explains the drawings of the actions of what he and his friends saw from these ISIS men.
We immediately visit a jail of a large number of men in jumpsuits being led in and out from the courtyard. Rosi does not need to explain who they are, we already know. He does want to show us that this is a region trying to recover and rebuild to what it was. We are witnessing the aftermath of conflict and we can only hope that some semblance of normality can return before their current plight becomes normal.
Rosi is of course only intending for us to get a glimpse of what the conflict has down in these surrounding areas. Yet a need to examine them deeper is very much warranted as our glimpses are just too fleeting. Notturno is a poignant look at the Middle East and is still a much-needed viewing.
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