Interview: Documentarian Sara Dosa Explores the Fiery World of Volcanoes, Science and Love in Fire of Love

In her previous documentary, The Seer and the Unseen, director Sara Dosa adopted an almost magical-realism-like approach to telling the real-life story of an Icelandic woman who spoke on behalf of nature, believing in invisible forces and the existence of elves that were controlling very real elements of the world, including financial markets. It may sound kooky, but it’s a terrific film. While her newest work, the festival hit Fire of Love, is more grounded in reality thanks to stunning visuals of volcanoes in all their eruptive glory, there is also an other-worldly quality to the story being told—that of French couple Katia and Maurice Krafft, both volcanologists and both deeply in love with each other. Their story and the way in which they compliment each other in terms of their personalities are extraordinary, almost too perfect to be real. Drawing from hundreds of hours of archival material, the film uses nothing but footage the Kraffts shot (as well as news reports about them and talk shows on which they appeared) to tell their love story and an examine their scientific research, both of which are extremely fiery.

I had a chance recently to chat with Dosa about how her film was constructed, how to tell a love story using only footage shot by the researchers (spoiler alert: there is next to no footage that they shot of the two of them together), and how she selected Miranda July to be the film’s distinct narrator. Fire of Love is still in theaters. Please enjoy our talk…

I just saw the film again in an actual theater last week, and it remains my favorite documentary of the year.

Thank you so much. And I loved your review, so thank you so much for those kind and thoughtful words.

You’re very welcome. What shape was the archival footage in when you and your team first received it? It looks so clean, like it has been restored. And how was it organized? How much of a process was it to get it together and go through it?

It was definitely a huge process. I’ll call it an adventure. We had the great fortune of working with an incredible archival facility in France, which worked with us. I should say that Bertrand Krafft, who was Maurice’s older brother, was the steward of their archives after they passed away. There was so much of it, and it changed hands over the years. He did a great job trying to keep it consolidated, and he entrusted it to various facilities over the years. A few years ago it ended up at this particular place, and they loved it and adored the Krafft’s legacy, and they took wonderful care of it. They took care of their reels—about 180-200 hours of footage—these classic 16mm tin reels, all in a chilled facility, beautifully organized. We weren’t able to go there, though. I ended up going in October 2021, but we started the project in the summer of 2020, and we were still in lockdown and not able to travel. So they scanned the footage to send it to us over an FTP site. Every couple of weeks, we’d get a batch of about 20 hours or so.

The footage was pretty much how Katia and Maurice had organized it. They were very busy people who were on the road a lot, and that rush perhaps is reflected in the organization. Often times, the reels were organized by location and date, for example: “Indonesia, 1971.” There was little else detailed. Some of the reels were chronological, so we could understand the flow of a trip. Other reels seemed like they were cuttings from the cutting-room floor, pieced back together. That was baffling to us. For example, there was five seconds of an erupting volcano, two seconds of a gas bend, 10 seconds of Maurice climbing a mountain, and then two seconds of a Komodo dragon eating a dead animal. That was very challenging for my amazing editors to work with, but it ended up becoming part of the grammar of the film, part of the wondering about their process, asking question like “What does this mean? Who is this person? Why was this filmed?” That question asking helped us to develop a more inquisitive voice of the narration that we wrote and embrace in the unknown in the same way they embrace it in their scientific inquiry. Challenging at first, but a gift in the end.

I think it’s mentioned in the film that there isn’t a lot of footage of them being affectionate or as a couple. Yet, placing them in the proximity of molten lava somehow makes it sexy, for lack of a better word. They have been through something that a lot of couples haven’t. How did you go about visualizing their relationship with what you had, which was different than another couple’s home movies?

It was very challenging. You’re right, it wasn’t there. No shots of them kissing or holding hands. We began to understand that as part of the limitations of having this archive. Often times what is most intimate is most ephemeral. It’s in the realm of privacy and not often captured for the public or a visual footprint, especially at that time, given the technology. Also, since they saw the cameras as tools of science and art, they probably don’t see them as tools to capturing private moments. We realized that there was almost a romance to the fact that these pieces of their story had been lost to time, so to speak. There’s a beauty in that mystery, but we also delighted in finding the very few moments where you can see Katia putting her arm on Maurice’s knee—we tried to hold hose moments for like half a second. You can see her looking googly-eyed in love with him in one early interview, and we tried to put a frame around that shot just to show this is all we have. 

We really wanted to try and emphasize that. We ultimately came to realize that the thing Katia and Maurice loved most were volcanoes, so by using volcanoes as their love language, that was actually the most true thing. In a way, it was a higher truth than if they were kissing on screen. So we really tried to embrace that visual language to tell their love story. There’s a quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the author of The Little Prince, and I know I’m going to butcher it, but it goes something like “Love is not necessarily looking into your lover’s eyes but two people staring at the same thing off in the distance together.” And that’s how I thought of Katia and Maurice, standing side by side, gazing at the same thing, guiding their journey toward life. It makes sense that the stuff of their lives was volcanoes.

I admire Miranda July so much, and it turns out she’s a master narrator for this film. Her delivery is so specific and fateful and tragic. How much of that is her, or did you guide her and talk about her delivery?

I could go on and on about Miranda. She’s been such an inspiring artistic force in my life for so long—the same goes for everyone on our creative team. She didn’t come onboard until much later in the process. Once we found out she was going to work with us, we were thrilled. We were writing the narration and trying to keep it as economical and inquisitive as possible, all the while knowing that we needed a narrative device to tell the story, because the archive itself was so limited. We need that extra context, especially if we wanted this to be a character-driven film, which was super important to us. Miranda, she writes and acts and works with such profound curiosity, and she’s such a keen observer of the strangeness and beauty of what it means to be alive. So we wanted those sorts of themes to come into the film. And she brought so much of herself and her art and inquisitiveness, vulnerabilities, powers and strengths to her performances. We definitely gave some direction about stylistic influences we had, but we also wanted her to make it her own. 

One stylistic influence was from the French New Wave, seeing that that was important to Katia and Maurice as well. They came of age during the French New Wave, and the French New Wave aesthetics really show up in their work, from Maruice’s playful, snap-zoom cinematography to some of the way Katia writes—it reminded us of Truffaut’s narration, for example. There’s the narrator in Masculin Feminin, the Godard film, who has a very straight, almost deadpan delivery, and that was something we liked a lot, and not just because of the cultural aesthetic movement of the time, but it gives space for visuals and other material to really be felt, if that element is a little understated. That was one thing we told Miranda, was to go for deadpan curiosity, with that style in mind, and she nailed it. I could go on and on about how great she is.

Thank you, Sara. Best of luck with this.

Thank you so much, Steve. I really appreciate it.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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