Biweekly Binge: A panoramic view of the Middle East crisis
A fortnightly column on what’s good in the vast ocean of content in the streaming platforms around you, and this week it's Notturno streaming on MUBI
Gianfranco Rosi films images of social and geopolitical discontent in four different locations - Iraq, Syria, Kurdistan and Lebanon - in Notturno, now streaming on MUBI. This part of the world sank into endless dispute at the fall of the Ottoman empire in the First World War, only to be further ruined by colonial powers, forced occupations and interventions. The stench of colonialism pervades Notturno, like a black magic performed centuries ago, the effects of which are still felt and only grow stronger as social and economic inequality expands like wildfire all over the world. Only it isn't black magic but real violence affecting real people who are generations removed from those that started the conflict.
Rosi shows the carousel of strife right as Notturno begins - the camera stays still and we see cadres of men doing early morning rounds on the ground. As one block passes the frame, another one enters and so on, going in circles. Much like life in the region. The narrative keeps progressing, never giving us time to take in what we witness. Soon after the military drill, we see a mother grieving and talking to herself and to her dead son, wandering through a ruined structure and settling inside what used to be his prison cell. "I can feel your presence, you were tortured here, you died here," she laments to no one and the claustrophobic space detains us in her consciousness. "The Turkish state is to blame," she says at one point.
There is a lot of waiting in the film - a horse waits looking directly at the camera, conspicuous in a city square teeming with two and four-wheelers, markers of time at a standstill and a world that has moved on. Women in uniform wait around with guns in hand, either on foot or inside jeeps. But Notturno doesn't wait for us, it moves from one place to another, one set of people to another. Most of the time, we cannot make out who is who, which part of the area they belong to and what they are fighting for or which colonial power is still present inside their homes (usually takes maximum two guesses). We see a young boy wait around on the road that passes through his village looking for work, women watch videos of shootings and training on their laptops, their faces reflected on the screen as if the guns are aimed directly at them. But that is also the point. There is only one common string that connects them: they are all at the bottom of the chain, the sufferers caught in the crossfire between those - local and foreign - occupying their homes. What we get are the broad strokes of their issues in the form of a play staged by the patients of a psychiatric ward. Rosi doesn't show the play in full, we see snatches of the actors practising their lines. And an important moment is caught, when the director of the play instructs an old woman which word and which syllable must be stressed and which direction her hand must point at, just for a second.
A most affecting stretch is when little kids are interviewed at a trauma care centre. They express their innermost feelings through drawings and sketches, of the most brutal violence they have seen with their own eyes and suffered through, in the hands of ISIS. More than the words and pictures the children produce, our eyes dart towards the expert talking to and quizzing them. She possesses a professional detachment that is not enviable. How is she not only able to maintain a straight, inquisitive face in front of them but also keep her inner emotions from getting in the way of the help and care she's there to provide. Notturno, as a film, cannot afford that and doesn't want to. It might not inspire confidence, but the documentation is important to make us, thousands of miles away, care.