From an untouchable boatman floating along the Ganges (Boatman, 93), to a downtrodden trailer encampment in the California desert (Below Sea Level, 08), to a fugitive drug-cartel contract killer holed up in a motel (El Sicario, Room 164, 10), Gianfranco Rosi is attracted to those who live on the fringes of society. The director, who shoots all of his own features, does not simply document his subjects but rather immerses himself in their environments, his productions typically becoming multi-year endeavors.
The first documentary to win the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, Rosi’s new feature, Sacro GRA, weaves a tapestry of characters who colorfully embody the eccentricities of their setting. The GRA (Grande Raccordo Anulare), an impressive ring-shaped highway encircling Rome, was designed to better connect the lives of the city’s denizens but has instead produced obtrusive dividing lines. Rosi investigates this divide to discover a bustling world on the outskirts of Rome.
FILM COMMENT spoke with Rosi by phone from the eternal city, ahead of the U.S. premiere of Sacro GRA in Open Roads: New Italian Cinema at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
The people in your films range from untouchables to fugitives to the down and out. What attracts you to these socially marginalized figures?
Well, now I have to tell you something that will disappoint you. The only one that thinks they’re marginalized is the one that feels liable. You ask the audience. Because I don’t see them as marginalized people. They live on the margin, but somehow the ones in Sacro GRA are beyond that. You saw the film, right?
Yes, excellent film.
So, it is a story of the outskirts of the city—the city that you don’t see. It’s a view of people that truly live on the margins. How do the people there move beyond social belonging? All put together, it has a very strong poetic element—the way they talk, the way they express themselves, the way they move.
For me, it’s about showing a certain kind of people. And somehow these people are able to express larger society in a different way, and that’s what fascinates me. Like in Boatman, he was beyond—the boatman was the point. The way he worked, they way he expressed himself. He was about everything.
I completely agree.
He didn’t come off as an outsider. He belonged to [his job, as a ferryman of corpses], but the way he expressed himself was about everything. He was like the god of the Boatman, you know?
I remember he also tells a folk story that mythicizes his social rank.
In my film, nobody complains. In many documentaries there’s always this complaining and explaining, or explaining and complaining. First you have people complaining about something, and then we see an explanation of why they complain about something. So in my film nobody complains about their situation. I don’t want you to know it, and I wouldn’t try to solve it. It’s quite intentional.
And in El Sicario, it is about a type of man. It’s an archetype. And at the end I am friends with them forever. I’m in touch with all of them, we write each other, we see each other, when I go home I see them. And it’s always more an archetypal figure than a social figure for me.
You’ve filmed on three continents, documenting such unique locales. How has your international background shaped you as a filmmaker?
That was my life. I was born in Africa, I lived in Turkey, I moved to New York and stayed there for many years. I have a double nationality. And even when I shot in Rome, it was like being somewhere else. I like the idea of being somewhere else. And I like using this as a pretext in order to meet people, to tell a certain story, and hopefully have this reflect on the characters themselves.
So you start with the location, and then comes the story?
I start with an encounter with a place. Then in this place, I like it to become a mythical area. A mythical city, a mythical place. And then I like to somehow create an abstraction within this place. Like Rome—the Rome I feel is a Rome people don’t recognize anymore. The place has been transformed—you don’t recognize the location anymore, this area and that area, and it is not the same anymore.
When I showed the film in Japan, people completely embraced the movie. There were like 800 people at the screening, and they were laughing at the right moment, they were smiling, suffering—everything. And the film became almost legendary. It was the transformation of the place, the transformation of the architecture—and it became a universal thing. And they all relate to that. It creates a state of interpretation that is bigger than the one I could expect.
With Sacro GRA, you’ve made essentially a plotless film.
Completely plotless! Completely!
And the landscapes dominate over the lives of the characters. Do you see the landscapes as the only true character in the film?
It’s true, but it’s also the way the landscapes are shot. The river for instance—I had never seen the river like that. When I shot that pier from the window, I was thinking of a spaceship landing in that area. And at a certain point I had to open that circle and make it a point of infinite time, and make it seem like a mental map. So for the film I was imagining this place—a route with an ambulance, a hospital, a church, a little village, some prostitutes, a river, and a few characters that they met. I had to forget that Rome is a place with three million people. And that is when a documentary becomes an interesting way of filmmaking.
And it is still a documentary because everything I filmed is absolutely true. I never manipulate anything to do this or that, or to make a character do something. I don’t do any of that. But I do feel I have to be able to grab and grasp the truth that belongs so intimately to each of them, and a little fragment of life—their life. That is what is the truth in documentary. I am not talking about the difference between fiction and non-fiction documentary. The truth is what it is. And it’s their truth, it is their moment—a portrait of them.
The character that stuck out for me was the man who records the insects in the trees.
Ah yes! I met him for two years. I would meet him and talk to him every day. His place was a place that I used to go to forget about everything. And I had been trying to figure out a way to film him, but I never knew how to place the camera. And one day he called me and said that this tree that he had planted was invaded by a squirrel. So I spent the whole day with him. And suddenly I see the light leaving—it was almost night—and I said to myself: I have to do it now. And I also put my microphone in the tree, and the next morning I listened to it and was shocked. I said, wow, what is this? I called him, and said, Francesco, you have to listen to this, on the microphone, it is so powerful. And he put the headphones on—and you remember the shot?
And he was completely astonished. So I asked him to describe the sounds that he was hearing, and he starts talking. This was a monologue no actor could ever act, so I am fascinated by this—someone who is in front of a real moment in his life, and it becomes a representation.
It’s a beautiful scene. How do you address the unique challenges each location brings? Like trying to film in a hotel room, or in a desert, or on a boat in the Ganges.
I see each place as its own unique locality, and for every place I go, I always have to discover a new language—how to shoot, how to tell that story. When I was in India, I was supposed to do it in a certain way. In the room in El Sicario, I had to decide in five minutes what the structure was going to be of my movie. And it’s always a matter of subtraction—take it out, take it out, take it out. The challenge is not to make a story with a beginning, middle, or end, but to make the viewer face the character in a little moment of their life. That is the challenge of the language.
So the form of the film doesn’t really take shape until you start shooting?
No! Because every time is a different story, every time is a new interaction; I have to forget my previous film. The documentary for me is a beautiful line of presentation that does not happen anymore unfortunately. Nowadays, in order to make money, people have to write down the script of what they are shooting and the film becomes factually bound. They are all the same. I call them the “commission editor film.” Ninety percent of what you see, you know? It’s a commercial for the director.
I look forward to seeing your next film. It’s called Mare Nostra, is that correct?
[Laughs] It’s a completely working title. And it’s a film about Europe and what is going on now here. It is about immigrants from Africa who died on the sea. Many of the people here fear that they are being conquered by someone else—people get scared by the things they don’t know. And they are always afraid of someone that they don’t know. That is what I want to show—I want people to look at things that they don’t see every day.