January 30, 2021
by Carla Hay
Directed by Gianfranco Rosi
Arabic with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place on the borders between Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria and Lebanon, the documentary “Notturno” features an all-Arabic group of people who have been affected by war and ISIS in their areas.
Culture Clash: The documentary, which was filmed over three years, includes survivor stories about the traumatic effects of war.
Culture Audience: “Notturno” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in very atmospheric, cinéma vérité-styled documentaries about war-torn Middle Eastern culture.
For a documentary that’s set in war-torn areas of the Middle East, “Notturno” (directed by Gianfranco Rosi) is a film that’s a lot quieter than people might think it is. That’s because the movie does not feature any “battle scenes,” and there are many scenes in the movie where groups of people are gathered but they don’t talk very much. “Notturno” means “night” in Italian, and much of the movie takes place at night.
Filmed over three years on the borders between Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria and Lebanon, this documentary succeeds in its aim to have a “fly on the wall” perspective, with no “expert” commentary, no voiceovers, no re-enactments and no amination. “Notturno” is essentially a “slice of life” film that shows what life is like in these war-torn regions for a variety of people, most of whom are not identified by name until the end credits.
The movie begins on a tragic note, with a procession of grieving, middle-aged and elderly women going through an abandoned building that is later revealed to be a place where their military sons and husbands were tortured and killed. They are crying and praying as they mourn for their loved ones. The woman who is the most distressed wails, “I can feel your presence in this room … My son, why didn’t they take my life instead of yours?”
Later, she looks at a photo of her son’s murdered body. The rope that he was strangled with is still around his neck. She says that she’s in the room where he died. And then, as if she comes a grim acceptance, she says out loud, as if speaking to the spirit of her dead son: “I can’t feel your presence anymore.”
The movie also follows a poacher named Murtadah Jabbar Bedar in various scenes. He is shown in quiet solitude as he makes a journey to marshy areas with a gun to look for game that he can hunt. A teenager named Ali Ali is also prominently featured in the documentary, as he tries to get odd jobs and look for bread to help feed his family. One of the temporary jobs he’s able to get is helping a man as an armed guard for the man’s field of crops.
Women who are Peshmerga guerrillas are shown gathered, mostly in silence, as they get ready for surveillance and when they got back to their station to sleep for the night. These women have an obvious camaraderie, but their quietness is in stark contrast to the steady chatter that would be happening if they were Western soldiers. The flip side to the precarious duties of these female soldiers is shown in another scene, where a distressed mother checks a message on her cell phone and finds out that her daughter has been captured in Syria and has secretly made this phone call while in captivity. The mother begins to cry, and her helplessness is heartbreaking to watch.
Even though there are signs of domestic tranquility, the threats of war soldiers and ISIS terrorists are always looming. In one of the movie’s early scenes, a couple of young married parents are out on a date in an outdoor rooftop area while the sound of military gunfire can be heard in background. The couple tries to make pleasant small talk with each other while she smokes a hookah.
The man says that it looks like it’s going to rain. His wife answers, “Is there anything more beautiful than rain?” After their meal, they go inside and tuck their children into bed. And then he changes off into a white outfit, goes out side with a drum, and walks through the streets while he sings religious hymns.
“Notturno” also takes viewers inside a psychiatric facility, where a small group of patients (five men and one woman) are participating in a play and are given the script by the play director. The actors/patients in this play are named Walid Hamdon, Farid Philip, Kifah Nuri, Ahmed Mohammed, Abbas Mustafa and Mayade Mhammod. The director tells them that the play is about their homeland and “the tyranny, the wars, the invasion, the occupation and the extremists.” The actors/patients are seen rehearsing their lines in their rooms, and it soon becomes clear to them that they are going to be in a play that advocates for freedom from these social ills.
“Notturno” makes its biggest impact by showing how the traumas of war and terrorism have affected children. In multiple scenes in the movie, children have made drawings of some of the horrors that they witnessed. The show the illustrations to a woman who looks like a schoolteacher who also does therapy counseling. Two sisters—Lamya Saydo (who looks about 9 or 10 years old) and Mina Syado (who looks about 6 or 7 years old)—describe their drawings and talk about themselves and other people being beaten and tortured by ISIS soldiers.
A boy named Fawaz Murad, who looks like he’s about 11 or 12 years old, discusses his illustrations and goes into harrowing details about the torture he endured and the murders he witnessed. He describes seeing people being beheaded. And he also says that ISIS soldiers ordered their captives to become cannibals. He stutters as he tells these stories and his eyes look forever haunted.
“Notturno” is not the type of movie that has mass appeal because of the often-disturbing subject matter and because it’s not a typical war documentary. The long stretches of silence in the movie are meant to show that fear and oppression have gripped these regions so much, that many of the people refrain from talking freely and out loud. “Notturno” director Rosi, who is also the movie’s director of photography, has a lot of visually stunning cinematography (especially outdoors) in the documentary, which shows great appreciation for the natural landscapes of the regions. However, the greater appreciation that “Notturno” conveys is for the resilience of the people in these war-torn areas.
Super LTD released “Notturno” in select U.S. cinemas on January 22, 2021. The movie was released on VOD and Hulu on January 29, 2021.