The Seeker of Truth
Essay by Patrick Holzapfel
Cinema as a locus of truth, filmmaking as direct experience. The documentarist Gianfranco Rosi is a traveller, who journeys to the most remote, dangerous and intimate corners of our world and our existence. Armed with nothing but his camera, the lone wolf Rosi patiently surrenders to reality until the invisible becomes visible. Bildrausch is paying tribute to the award-winning Italian provocateur with a comprehensive retrospective and in this year's Thinking/Space.
“Careful you don’t fall in the water!” Gianfranco Rosi is warned by the protagonist of his first work, Boatman. It is a warning that in many ways describes what makes the Eritrean-born filmmaker – who has both Italian and American citizenship – one of the most exciting and provocative voices of political documentary filmmaking. Taken literally, it hints at the fact that Rosi often films by or on water. From his debut Boatman in the currents of the Ganges to the Mediterranean off Lampedusa in Fuocoammare, water and its natural, unpredictable, political and metaphorical states plays a decisive role for the filmmaker. In water, things are set in motion, and life and death meet. Water embodies and reinforces the immediacy that Rosi seeks. His films are rooted in Direct Cinema, i.e. a school of documentary filmmaking that aims to minimise the use of artifice and explanation in order to create a direct relationship between the camera and the world. Rosi says again and again that he wants to remain invisible. In his films, there are no voice-over commentaries, and hardly any references to the filmmaker himself. The at times highly charged political topics of his films, such as the drug cartels of Mexico or the “refugee crisis”, are neither explained nor does Rosi formulate a real attitude to them. Instead, he simply shows what his eyes see.
The structure of his films, he says, is discovered as he is shooting, in his encounters with people and places. Instead of intellectual distance, he relies on experience: he often spends a long time in a place in order to find his stories – one year on Lampe- dusa, and most recently several months in the borderlands of the Middle East for his latest film Notturno. This immersion is also linked to an immense physicality, which is ignited by the often half-naked male bodies and numerous animals in his films. Often Rosi, who shoots all his films himself, gets into situations he can no longer control. He surrenders to them. And nonetheless, he keeps a surprising distance. His camera does not falter, his images feel determined. There is no hectic rush, as he has committed himself to what becomes visible in the frame. The credo of Rosi’s filmmaking is that you see more on the cinema screen than during the film shoot. His short film Afterwords, which he directed together with Jean Sébastien Lallemand and Carlos Martinez Casas, is a pointed expression of this disarming physicality. It shows a naked man in abstract, destroyed rooms. The film attempts to get inside the inner life of the man through his body and surroundings. Rosi tries to force open with his camera what seems far too well-sealed.
The Italian documentarist is interested in the excesses and deformities that are concealed by the aspirations of the western world to smooth things out: both specifically when it comes to bodies, as well as in connection with social trends, i.e. everything that is marginalised: the outcasts and the oppressed. He operates a confrontational cinema, which manifests itself in a highly diffident and poetic way, but also with an emphatic force. And in the same way that he confronts the protagonists with his camera, he confronts the spectators with his images. But in so doing he at times moves along a fine line of cinematic ethics. Especially in films like Below Sea Level, where he approaches the inhabitants of Slab City, a mobile home colony in California that is beyond state surveillance, there is a highly charged interdependence between tender proximity and utilising the protagonists. It is a deliberate ride on the razor-thin boundary between humanism and exhibition. For example, we are very close to the transgender woman Cindy as she takes off her wig at night, hidden from the rest of the world, or a cursing man who is enjoying a sexual act. Rosi shows people at their most vulnerable. Ultimately, he shows us the kinds of insecurities towards strangers and the unknown that are far too easily suppressed or remain undetected behind a smoke screen of political correctness. He is looking for his own opinion on things, he does not just want to assert them. His camera doesn’t show the truth 24 times a second, it asks questions 24 times a second. Questions of itself, of us and of the world. A frequent, unnamed protagonist, or rather antagonist, is capitalism. The touristic freakishness at the Ganges, the new shoes that motivated the drug killer to become a serial killer, the precarious conditions at Slab City, the migrants that have been stopped at sea, or the remnants of the Roman aristocracy living alongside the ring road in Sacro GRA are ultimately just downsides of capitalism. The cosmopolitan Rosi shows them as tumours that have spread around the world. Often, his films create a microcosm – small, self-contained worlds, where utopias and dystopias are equally visible and scrutinised by Rosi.
He time and again conducts investigative work. Fittingly, Rosi is also an advocate of digital cameras, which allow him to shoot unnoticed and spontaneously at locations that are difficult to access. In his El Sicario, Room 164, he lets a man who used to be a killer for Mexican drug lords talk about his deeds in front of the camera disguised with a mask. This is not a distinctively cinematic approach, but one that is completely committed to searching for the truth. In all his films, there is an unfulfilled curiosity about the deeper truth behind the facade. Secrets come to light.
But for Rosi, truth also exists beyond the journalistic aspirations of information and revelation. It is a cinematic truth, which is particularly evident in Sacro GRA, the first so-called documentary to ever win the Golden Lion in Venice: a sensual perception of the world, which leaves enough space and time for everything that happens between the individual stories. An evening sky, the wind blowing through branches, or the sudden silence of a peaceful moment. Here, the filming reveals itself as the search for something primordial. It is the contradictory, hopeless, inspiring and necessary search for the human within all the inhumanity.
10:00 - 13:00