Given her particular area of interest, Sara Dosa was particularly receptive to what the world was telling her in the winter of 2020. After traveling to Iceland to make the bewitching “The Seer and the Unseen,” a nonfiction tale of an elder whose belief that her native soil is a safe haven for elves offers protections from environmental threats that are less questionably real, the filmmaker had been planning to take one step further in exploring the relationship between man and nature with a shoot in Siberia before the prospect of COVID coming into the picture brought the project to a premature end.
Still, carrying over much of the same creative team from one film to another including producer Shane Boris and editor Erin Casper, Dosa was reminded of a story associated with some archival footage they had sought together for “The Seer and the Unseen.” Although Dosa had needed just a few frames’ worth of volcanic eruptions for the opening of her previous film, there was much more to dig into when she stumbled upon the films of French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft and could feel as if she was following their lead as she burrowed into the unknown. While their story came to a tragic end as they filmed at Mount Unzen in 1991 where a group of scientists and journalists were wiped out by a truly unpredictable torrent of lava, the overwhelming sense of curiosity and adventure that led them there is what comes across most prominently in “Fire of Love,” which uses all the extraordinary footage they risked their lives to get to tell their story of theirs.
As it would turn out, Dosa only had to adjust her methodology slightly after being accustomed to capturing the excitement unfolding in front of her when in spite of having no central subjects to engage with or collaborators to work alongside in the same space, she found herself getting swept up in the Kraffts’ great romance with one another and the volcanoes they got to know just as intimately. Taking its tempo from the go-go 1960s when the volcanologists first fell in love, the film channels their infectious enthusiasm for learning more about natural phenomena that science can only explain so much of before magical alchemy takes over, with their research becoming a refuge from equally inexplicable yet sadly all too human conflicts happening around the world, whether it was internal social upheaval or the war in Vietnam. Arriving in similarly turbulent times, the grand cinematic experience of “Fire of Love” is able to inspire as much as it offers an escape when it may seem as though the future may be predetermined yet there remains unknown wonder to still explore, whether it’s in the far reaches of the earth or simply with a soulmate.
Following its premiere at Sundance earlier this year, the film is poised to explode into theaters and recently Dosa spoke about how her latest percolated into full flourish, turning her entire team into detectives as they assembled footage they may have only had some clue of what they were looking at at any given time and the beauty of letting some mysteries be.
Quite directly this emerged from the process of making “The Seer and the Unseen,” but in a more spiritual way, it seems to follow a thread you started some time ago with how people relate to nature. Is it actually subject of ongoing interest or coincidence?
I’m endlessly fascinated by how humans make meaning from the natural world, often through the lens of allegory or myth or cultural languages that can speak to the profound power and sentience of nature. Sometimes that takes a scientific language and sometimes it doesn’t. In “The Seer and the Unseen,” for instance, our main subject Ragga had more of a direct relationship with elves, which were her conduit for this deeper relationship with nature whereas in the case of “Fire of Love,” science was a major vocabulary, so to speak, of how Katia and Maurice could write their own love poems through volcanoes. I’m just fascinated with the languages people use to have a dialogue with nature, whether it’s science or culture or magic or spirituality.
At the beginning of “Fire of Love,” it seems like a wonderfully cheeky gag unto itself to introduce volcanoes in the opening credits as if they’re going to be characters in the movie, but then you realize they really do have these personalities and entire arcs. Did you actually think of them that way?
We did. One of my favorite lines in the film is actually how Maurice says that every volcano has its own personality and that they defy classification and the grand project of science is bound up in classification and taxonomies or trying to find connections and parallels between all kinds of life on earth, but the fact that volcanoes were almost this radical force defying all categorization was so interesting and powerful to us as a filmmaking team, we wanted to try to bring in that sense of uniqueness to each volcano that we worked with visually in the film. Each one had subtly different sounds and different characteristics, some based on how Katia and Maurice photographed them because they understood them as being different, so they shot them differently. But that was something too that we tried to be guided by to give them their uniqueness and it was really a joy for us to get to do that.
It’s interesting to think of how the material itself can tell a story because I’ve heard you say simply from how the footage unfurled, where there might be some volcano footage, but then a few snippets of quotidian activity like making a meal or driving a truck might make it in before seeing more of what Katia and Maurice actually wanted to film, actually informed how you jump around in the film in terms of editing. What was it like to draw on?
I worked with two really fabulous editors Erin Casper and Jocelyne Chaput and we had the support of these incredible producers – Jessica Harrop and Greg Boustead at Sandbox Films and my producers Shane Boris and Ina Fichman, so collectively, we really approached this material together and there were two main buckets of footage we were working with. There’s about 180-200 hours of 16mm footage that Katia and Maurice shot, none of [which] had sync sound on it and then these television recordings from variety shows, news segments, and travel magazines where we did get to see Katia and Maurice together recorded by other people. And the 16mm footage we received was largely organized by place and year, but the chronology was somewhat unpredictable to us.
Sometimes we had a reel where it was clear we could track a journey down over a mountain and into a crater into that acid lake in Indonesia in 1971, for example, but then we’d get another reel from Indonesia in 1971 where it’d start out with some of that similar imagery but then there would be surprises all over the places from Maurice and Katia’s comrades in their camp or an animal that they found interesting. It was clear they were also interested in the life around the volcano too — inexplicably, there’s a lot of footage of a komodo dragon eating a dead animal or millipedes crossing — and sometimes those were interwoven as if they’re literally cut-ins from the celluloid that they just reassembled and put into another reel. That was very challenging for my editors to work with, but at the same time, we embraced it as part of our own storytelling because we had so many questions about what these were and that idea of asking questions and having questions we could never answer became a big theme in the film. Ultimately, I’m so grateful for it, even when at first, we were a bit baffled by what we were looking at.
When you’ve got this 16mm footage without sound, what was it like to make meaning of?
Yeah, at first we were wondering about that. [laughs] We thought it would be so much work to build these soundscapes that we thought we’d get bogged down in that process and we wouldn’t be able to edit fluidly, so we tried a few scenes where we’d have text onscreen that would say things like, “Car honk here, wind gust now. Or music…” We’d try to spell out sound direction, but we very quickly realized the extraordinary narrative power of sounds, especially in a film about unpredictability and uncertainty. A boom in the distance can trigger so much that happens visually on screen. So Erin and Jocelyne very painstakingly went through the labor of building soundscapes on from our first assembly to our final cut and they’re such meticulous, thoughtful editors, they loved it. They did tremendous research and got to work with some libraries that had volcanic sounds, but the fact that there wasn’t sync sound also opened a space to play with the subjectivity of these worlds.
One story I like to share is in the scene where Katia and Maurice go to explore Anak Krakatau in Indonesia in 1979, that was a volcano that was particularly menacing and they were so fascinated with it, but they described it as this tempestuous, monstrous being. Erin found dinosaur sounds in the library and started to work with that, not in a way where you actually heard a T-Rex, but there was a subtle quality that added a feeling of sentience to the volcanoes that felt in line with Katia and Maurice’s own perception, which was really fun for us to play with. We also worked with Patrice LeBlanc, a fabulous sound designer, and Gavin Fernandes, a rerecording mixer who took the work that Erin and Jocelyne did and really elevated and made it multidimensional and multidirectional.
Coming to this from a verite filmmaking background, was the prospect of an all-archival project exciting? Daunting? It can be all those things.
It was both exciting and daunting. Probably the most important thing to me, along with the relationships with my collaborators, is my relationships with the people in my films and I always see the films I make as co-creations, something that we do together. That was definitely true on “The Last Season” and it was true on “The Seer and the Unseen” where I was working with the subjects to really tell their own stories. With “Fire of Love,” Katia and Maurice passed 30 years before we had the idea to make the film, so it was very difficult to think about how can I have that same relationship that I’m used to with people in my verite films.
We actually tried to embrace some of the methodologies of verite filmmaking for an archival project, first and foremost deep listening and we just did so much research. [Katia and Maurice] wrote nearly 20 books and we read as many as we could find. We spoke with people who worked with them — had a really wonderful day in France with Bertrand Krafft, Maurice’s brother, once I was finally able to travel. We listened to all their interviews, everything we could get our hands on to bring not just the facts of their life to bear on screen, but the truth of their lives — their higher spirit, their philosophies and their humor as well as the many questions that they sought and they could never answer. So it was very challenging since I could never say, “Katia, what did you think about this?” But Katia and Maurice had an unrequited love – they desperately pursued volcanoes, all the while they could never fully understand them and there’s such a romance to the idea of unrequitedness, and I ended up really loving the archival process myself.
We really see “Fire of Love” as a collage film and we really got to excavate all these different pieces in a way where it felt almost akin to geologic methodology where we’re taking these clues that Katia and Maurice left behind to make sense of it, telling a cohesive story while also acknowledging the mysteries, the gaps that have been lost to time. Geologists do that too when they’re trying to tell the story of the earth, saying, “Here’s what we found, here’s what we know and here’s what we don’t know and thus, here’s what we conjecture,” so I found that incredibly interesting. Every creative challenge we came up against because of the limitations of some of the archive ended up opening up space for new creative play and I just was so lucky to work with the team that I was working with.
Were there any directions this took that really came as a surprise?
We talked to a lot of people who worked with them and loved them and it was incredible to get greater depth and nuance into their backgrounds and their beliefs. For example, that’s where we got to ask questions about their religious beliefs, their philosophical orientations and more about their personal relationship. We found some discrepancies [where] some people disagreed with each other or just shared different experiences of the same moment, which for us was super-interesting. At first, we’re like, “Oh no, what do we do? We can’t ask Katia and Maurice to verify,” but we realized those discrepancies were actually part of this larger cultural process of mythmaking. Katia and Maurice are these larger than life characters and the way people go on to tell their story, it’s like an epic game of telephone. [laughs] You start from one place and by the end, it takes on a new life of its own.
For example, there’s a seminal L.A. Times article that came out shortly after their death that gets so many things about their life wrong. It says both of them were in the raft in the acid lake together when instead it was actually just Maurice and one of his geologist friends, [which] is to say that some of the conversations we were having with people who knew them and loved them weren’t that inaccurate, but we were really interested in what it means to tell stories from memories and how that played into these wider themes of mystery and love and what it means to leave a material legacy behind.
It’s always thrilling I’m sure when the pieces all come together, but even more so on a film like this than most when the colors are so vibrant in that archival footage and you’ve got Miranda July’s narration on there. What was it like to see it complete for the first time?
It was a very delicate balance of all of these elements, and we had worked so hard as a team, so to get to see Katia and Maurice’s footage color-treated — and we tried to stay as true to their own color treatment as possible, but of course due to the aging process, having our fabulous colorist Steven Mercier’s beautiful work on the film brought their world to further vibrance — and it was incredible to hear the final film with Miranda July’s voice, an artist that I’ve respected for so many years. It just felt like such a gift. It felt like all of these little threads that we were weaving, we could see the beauty in the connectivity more clearly at that final stage and after just a tremendous amount of hard work and such a team effort, that was a very meaningful place to arrive at.