Three Years on the Borders Between Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria and Lebanon

A director’s thoughts by Gianfranco Rosi


I almost had to cancel out the geography. These stories take place over immense distances, there’s no precise area. They go from Syria to Iraq, from Kurdistan to Lebanon. It was an impossible task to join these enormous spaces, with their different roots, in one story. The idea to cancel the geography of places was an initial idea, then, of course, when we put it together and the film was distributed in cinemas, I asked myself, with great respect I have to say, if the public should be helped with some references. I don’t think it makes much of a difference. It might even be a bit confusing, but perhaps, instinctively, we all feel a bit more protected when we know where we are. 

The film starts from a very strong geographical map because I did eight months’ research before I started filming. First, I had to meet the places, places that I called the “absolutes”. Isis was crumbling, there was a minimum of hope for a future. This was the moment that I started the film. I knew very little about those regions and those conflicts. And the more time I spent in those places, the less I understood. So, I decided to get rid of all political references, I decided to simply follow the stories of the people whom I met, as I’ve always done in my films. 

The first eight months were filled by extremely long trips, without the camera, in search of encounters, always very casual – at times a fragment, a look, a situation – which would then become the story of the film. Because my stories and the timing of the film are born from encounters: the timing of the encounters, their development and the relationships created with the characters.


Some have asked me how I managed to get the people I met to trust me. Today I’ve found the answer for the first time. At the start I never had the camera, I didn’t want to burn the stories, I felt that I always had to escape. I said to myself now something incredible is happening and I haven’t got my camera, I can’t film anything

So, they were quick dates, falling in love hard and fast. With Alì, with the marsh hunter. They’ve always been very powerful and profound meetings. I gave them a date and said I’ll be back in three months, two months. When I really did go back, it was as if they said so, you haven’t betrayed me, I’ll put my trust in you. And at that point they willingly opened up.

A teacher of mine always repeated that when you film, you have to know when to start and when to leave. It’s just like that, it’s very difficult to flick the switch. At times they tell me you’re invisible, but I’m not invisible at all, anything but, there’s a very bulky camera to fit in and there are very big choices to make. Every so often it’s seen as fiction, but there’s never any pretence, because the characters are 100% themselves. I’ve never written a line and I’ve never told them what to do, I just spent a lot of time with them, until I felt it was the right time to take out the camera.


The first meeting I had was with a gaping hole, so it was a meeting with a space. The light was incredible, almost apocalyptic. This cascade of water and this road that had crumbled owing to the torrential rains of the previous days. It hadn’t been a bomb, but the consequence of bad maintenance. It’d started off as a metre-wide hole and after an hour, two hours, it’d almost become a lake. 

Then I met a cell phone, desperation in the voice of a girl. I was going around some very generic places, and at a certain point a young man came up to me whose wife had been kidnapped by Isis. He invited me into his home and let me listen to her devastating messages from a cell phone. I didn’t understand the language, but I could hear the desperation. She’d been one of the 10,000 Yazidi women captured by ISIS, whose tragic fate was to end up as sex slaves or killed. The man didn’t want to be filmed for safety reasons, but he gave me the phone. I kept it with me for three years. Every so often I went back there, which meant doing eight, ten hours in the car and passing through unsafe areas, accompanied by different escorts. And every time I couldn’t develop the story.

I made my last attempt three years later and the boy said to me look, I’ve got married, for me it’s all over, I lost all hope of seeing my wife again, now I’ve got a new life; but I know that her mother was freed a year ago and now she’s in Germany. I managed to get her phone number and on 28 October, before the lockdown, through some influential people in the Yazidi community, I managed to contact her. She told me you can come to visit me in Stuttgart. Thinking of filming a scene in Stuttgart was utter madness, but I had to meet the person whom the girl was talking to.

And so, after three years, I meet this mother in a flat in Stuttgart. She told me the whole story for hours and hours and I listened. It was one of the most devastating meetings of my life, it completely tore me apart. 

It was four o’clock in the afternoon, snowing and I didn’t know what to do. At a certain point the woman said you’re here to film the scene with my daughter’s voice, you told me over the phone. I’ve lost these messages, I want to listen to them

She sat on the sofa in the bedroom, I already had the camera ready. She listened, nothing else happened. Then a tear fell. The scene summed everything up completely. There were no questions, nothing. There was a voice that I’d found three years before. The circle was closed. I managed to put together this scene during the lockdown. I’d had these messages in my head for three years, but I hadn’t managed to use them, I’d tried to insert them off camera, but it didn’t work. I think it’s one of the strongest, most dramatic, most random and most fated scenes in the film.


Every time you turn on the camera, everything changes, reality transforms, the people in front of it transform. Only in that moment can I understand the film, because I can’t understand it when it’s abstract. Only when I look in the viewfinder can I manage to understand if what I’m filming is right, if it belongs to what I filmed earlier and, above all, if there’s the truth. The truth is always dictated by the distance that you place between the camera and the subject you’re filming. This is perhaps one of the fundamental things in the documentary. At times, it just takes a few centimetres of difference and you tell another story. The great challenge is to be able to find the right distance. 

When I’m there, I can understand and also decide when to stop. In Stuttgart I filmed for five minutes, eight minutes, practically a sequence shot and then I said, that’s it. There was everything, absolutely everything, because I’d already assembled it in my head. The voice that appears like a ghost and lastly the mother who listens to it. 

Every so often the woman phones me. Just a week ago she told me that her daughter might still be in Syria. ISIS is on the rise again, it’s got stronger in this period because the international coalition has got much weaker.

I think that this is the last film that bears witness to the Middle East or the Middle East as it was in that transition between ISIS and something else. It’s a moment of suspension. I managed to film the documentary just after ISIS and just before Covid. The pandemic will profoundly change the political and geopolitical reality of those places.  

A revolution is underway among the young people. You can also see it at the end of the film, in the mental asylum theatre, in the announcement they’re killing our young people again, with alcohol, with gas. Now there’s enormous strength among the youth both in Lebanon and in Syria. It’s not an Arab Spring, it’s something else. There’s this real sense of rebellion against corruption. And immense poverty, people who were middle class who don’t have the money to eat. Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, they’re all on their knees. 


Once I’ve found the places, I have to find the characters that reflect the intensity of that place in their everyday lives. It’s the story of these people’s everyday lives, the victims of history, victims of a history that began in 1916, when the colonial powers sat down to draw inexistent borders, the borders that started to create the political and social rifts that continue to this day. This might be another reason that I felt the need to cancel out the borders. Because then there were inner borders, inside the people that I met, the division between life and hell. So, borders are the edges of history, the layers of the characters’ stories. A Kurdish mother’s and a Syrian mother’s pain are the same.


I was on the front line when the Turks invaded Syria. I thought it was something I should record. A week later no one was talking about it anymore, even though the situation had only got worse. I realized that war is strategy. Something enormous happens one day, then nothing else happens for a month. Then an attack, then an agreement, then it gets further away, then it gets closer. It’s all in the meanderings of whoever’s managing it: the Russians, the Americans, the Syrians. That’s what war is now, there are no battles, and, if there are, they’re the speed of light. 

But it’s like a shockwave that arrives from a long way off and reaches people’s everyday lives. That’s what I wanted to say. I wasn’t interested in recounting the conflict in itself, in the same way as I wasn’t interested in recounting the violence. It’s a war film in which you can feel the war in the distance, because it’s everyday life that predominates. In the devastated cities, the destroyed areas might cover five square kilometres; the rest of the city lives and survives from day to day, because there’s an incredible strength, also of acceptance. It’s a film about memory, about what war leaves in people. 

There are three prisons in Iraq, built by Saddam for the extermination of the Kurds. One in Erbil and two in the south. I saw the prison in Erbil one day as I was passing on the motorway. My assistant accompanied me to visit it and I found an incredible emptiness. Then I went past many times, back and forth, back and forth, but I didn’t know how I could film. I said to myself I can’t film an empty prison. I thought I could use some voices, I went to the archives to see if there was any material on the massacre. Nothing. It’s all been destroyed.  

One morning, as I went back there for the umpteenth time, I met some women practising for the arrival of the Prime Minister. It was the thirtieth anniversary celebrations. Six, seven women, sitting down, with some extraordinary faces. I approached them and my assistant told me their story. I explained to them that it was important to tell the Kurds’ story, because it’s already being forgotten. I managed to convince them, so we went back again. I had absolutely no idea how I could film. 

I asked how do you feel about going in? They said no, we’ve not been in there for 30 years. Then they talked among themselves and said OK, we’ll go in. They started to walk and I started to film. One of them had been in that prison with her husband and children. They’d all died, only she survived. She was very old, she said I’ll come back tomorrow, it’s too upsetting, I saw my son’s cell. She showed it to me and said I want to stay there tomorrow

The day after, I’d put the camera in the cell. She came in and at a certain point she started this mournful lament. I couldn’t understand what she was saying. I couldn’t understand anything at all. I filmed the sequence, then I stopped. She stayed by herself. I went away and when I came back she was up against the wall, I moved the camera. Then she stayed in there and when I went back she was still sitting on the ground with the photographs in her hand. She stayed like that for the whole day. So, with great discretion, I managed to film these three moments, again without knowing what was happening.  

I understood most of this film when I put it together. While I was filming, I had no translation. I wasn’t even interested in knowing the words in detail. Only afterwards did I understand the sense of that scene. So again, there was a delay, but I was convinced that I had something extremely strong, universal. 


There were various stages in the editing, because you’ll have noticed that there’s not even one sunny day in the film. The weather was also part of the narrative structure. De Seta waited for weeks and weeks to film, I wait weeks and weeks to have the right light. Because cinema is light and the choice of light. I go out all the time, sometimes I even pretend to film.

At the start I’d decided that the whole movie should be filmed in the dark, at night, and then in the semi-darkness, then from semi-darkness I went to cloudy and dull days. At times it took me two weeks to film just one scene, above all for the landscapes. When I had time and was alone, I waited. 

I hate filming, so it might just be a way to put it off (he laughs). You put it off and off and off. And then that light is right and so that marvellous thing happens, a type of trance. You start working and there’s total improvisation, because you move with whoever’s in front of the camera. It often happens with clouds or rain, because then in the film the clouds become a sort of Greek tragedy chorus, something in the background that helps the storytelling. That day absolutely everything must work. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. But when it does, it’s something you’ve never imagined. 


There’s a light, the light of the echo and the light of the marsh. I met this character by chance, I was going from Baghdad to Basra, in the south, where three million people died in the Iran-Iraq war. A place like the others, another “absolute”. I was looking for characters, situations. A difficult journey with various checkpoints with everyone asking why are you here? One day, after eight hours travelling along awful roads, I saw a little motorbike go past, an incredible face and these bird-like hands. 

My assistant told me he’s a hunter! So we went back, asked him what he was doing, where he was going. He told us he was a hunter and that he hunted in the marshes, at night. Why at night? I asked him. Because there are birds, this is hunting season. I go at night because there are the fires and the birds arrive. The light’s perfect, it’s all red. Once again, I was going somewhere else and I said I’ll be back in three months. I went back, I stayed in his home. Another date that wasn’t missed. He was totally willing to help. I started to follow him in his day-to-day life which, for him, meant the night.

In that area, on the border with Iran, there’s a curfew situation and it was extremely difficult to get the permits. When I finally got them, I found out that they were only valid for the daytime. So, I had to wait another week. In the meantime, I was with him all the time, I followed him, observed him, saw how he moved. But I wasn’t filming, I wasn’t even taking the camera with me, I knew it was a night-time scene. At last we got the permits and went with him. In the meantime, the hunting season had finished. I filmed the wait. It was a marvellous wait, his gaze, the marsh, it was an upside-down place, a world that was burning. The light was incredible, so red it was like being on Mars, the shooting constant. I spent every night like that, in this place that was another planet and whatever I filmed there, it took on another dimension. This was the place where we risked the most. Once we were nearly kidnapped, we had to swim to escape, we abandoned the boat. We managed to get it back the day after, luckily along with all the material. We stopped for a week, then we continued to film with him for two more weeks, with the police following us at a distance. For me that place was a perfect metaphor, the metaphor for the whole film: the world burning, the war you can hear in the distance and this sense of serenity, of peace, in the characters. The hunter didn’t say a word. Like Alì.


Once the film finishes, you find all the answers you want. And, if you want, in the end, all the answers are in Alì’s eyes. As he waits for a hunter to arrive, to spend a day as a retriever dog in exchange for three or five dollars, a condition that no child in the world should have to experience. There’s everything in that instant, the shiver, the total uncertainty of a future. It’s an uncertainty similar to what we’re experiencing too at the moment, for the first time. For Alì, this not knowing exactly what will happen tomorrow is a permanent condition of life. 


During the period of ISIS, people even went to seek shelter in the mental asylum, because ISIS got to within just a few kilometres of Baghdad. People deeply traumatized during the American invasion, and the Baghdad mental asylum had become a kind of hell on earth. There too, it was complicated to find how to tell this story. It was incredibly difficult to film the inmates, like filming children or filming death. They are three things that should never be filmed, they say. Unfortunately, I’ve filmed all three, but so far they’ve always been points of arrival. The mental asylum, on the other hand, was a point of departure.

The permits arrived when I discovered the theatre. I’d been to the asylum many times, then one day I heard some voices, people laughing. I went in, sat in the room and watched the recording of the rehearsals. The doctor explained that it was a therapy for patients and that he enjoyed writing plays and works for the theatre. They told the history of the Middle East. Our homeland, he said. 

I read the translation of the text, it was incredibly beautiful, the exact same story that I couldn’t tell because it’d need interviews or could risk seeming didactic. It was the narrative arc that was missing from the film. I followed the rehearsals for a month. I also asked if I could film the patients as they memorized their parts. They answered that I could do, if I was careful not to show the others and I kept the lighting low. When I went to film them in their rooms and in the corridors, the electricity went off for three days, so that wasn’t a problem.

The theatre was a revelation. Later on, I understood that it was the political and historical part of the film. It was incredible archive material, from colonization to the youth revolution today, obviously very much in condensed form. In America they grasped how similar it was to what’s happening on their streets. 


It was very difficult to find the moment to leave one story and enter another, because you only had to tell it for two more seconds and then you couldn’t leave that character anymore. Already when you were filming, there was this sense of constant subtraction, this finding something profoundly small, where there was no before and no after, but you could perceive them all the same. My research was to find what to film every time, like with the telephone, like with Alì. The boy Alì is a summary: he wakes up in the morning, does various jobs, comes home and starts over. Like the hunter who goes to the marsh at night, that waiting. Even more when I was editing, I had to find this sense of a passage between one character and another, one place and another, so distant from each other, between such different cultures, between different languages. You hear Iraqi, Lebanese, Yazidi. When you put them together in a storyline that goes from one story to another, that story also belongs to the next one and vice versa, like two notes that dialogue with each other. 

And then there are always more scenes that I don’t film than the ones I do. I miss a lot of things, just like you miss them in real life. And like you miss them during editing. Because you’ve got 80 hours of material and the film is 100 minutes. In any case, everything you leave out is part of the film, like in a still. You also have to be able to understand what’s outside the edges of that still and what’s behind it and that’s where the sum lies. That’s what I mean when I speak of the sum. And you only find it if you stay there for a long time. My greatest investment for these films is time.


For me it’s important to get to the truth. That’s why I need to spend a long time with the characters. It’s like a photographer’s portrait: the more they know their subject, the more they’re able to understand that that still is linked to that expression. There’s the before and the after. The essence of every story is there: in Alì, the hunter, the Kurdish women, the kidnapped girl and the mother who listens to her voice. They’re all characters who can transmit a sort of universality, through the smallest details. Alì never speaks, but his eyes are worth one hundred interviews, one thousand words. And it’s only by spending a long time with them that I can understand where to put the camera and what to film. Even if the most sensational thing were to happen next to me, I wouldn’t be able to film it. I only manage to film when I’m aware of the place and the people’s lives. People who I’ve lived with, eaten with, slept with. That’s the only way to understand which fragment of life has universal value. That’s the most difficult part: finding the truth.

(The text is adapted from “Lezione di cinema con Gianfranco Rosi per Notturno”, hosted by Anteo Palazzo del Cinema, Milan, 16 September 2020)

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