Jasmine Valentine chats with Fire of Love director Sara Dosa and producer Shane Boris…
How do you tell an unheard story that’s already fully formed? That was the challenge director Sara Dosa and producer Shane Boris faced while constructing their latest documentary, Fire of Love. Telling the story of world-renowned volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft, the pair’s work left behind hundreds of hours of shot footage highlighting the beauty and very real dangers of volcanic activity. After its debut at Sundance 2022 opened to rave reviews, the film has crossed the pond ready to open to UK audiences on Prime Video from July 29th.
Why this story and how did you come across it?
Sara: I have so many reasons why this story I think. For me personally and as a director, I’m drawn to stories about the human relationship with non-human nature, especially stories that can communicate kind of the force and the sentience of the natural world. And there’s nothing that does that more powerfully in my mind than volcanoes. Shane and I have collaborated on many films in the past, and we were actually working on a different film before the pandemic — about these methane explosions in Siberia that were a sign of the climate crisis. But when the pandemic hit, we had to pivot to tell a different story, the project in Siberia collapsed (it was going to be an observational film). We’d been reminded of Katia and Maurice Krafft when we were making our last film, The Seer And The Unseen, which tells the story of an Icelandic woman. Iceland is a volcanic island, and we wanted to tell in kind of an allegorical way of how Iceland came to be. We thought it was archival imagery of volcanoes that do that well, and that’s kind of how we were reminded of Katia and Maurice Krafft, as the pandemic hit. They had shot hundreds of hours of archival footage film about volcanoes and that profound moment of fear and uncertainty in the world could be a wonderful way to pivot. So that’s kind of how it’s evolved.
Would you say that your work has always been rooted in nature in the natural world, or is that a natural byproduct of what you do?
Sara: I’ve directed three independent film projects now that were all centrally engaged with the idea of how humans make meaning with the natural world that’s usually through some sort of central metaphor or allegory. My first film was about mushroom hunters who formed this unexpected relationship and the Oregon woods. My second film Shane and I collaborated on together, surrounding this Icelandic woman who was communicating with spirits of nature. And so Fire of Love was kind of very different from the other two, but it very much plays in the same kind of thematic universe.
Shane: There’s this understanding of sentience in nature, and that we care for the natural world better when we really think about it. When we think the world is alive.
Sara: Shane is being very humble because he’s very much drawn to these things as a collaborator with this process. It’s his way of understanding the story.
As you mentioned, you’re working with hundreds of hours of footage that are already there. How are you able to insert your own voice and something that’s essentially already made?
Sara: That’s a great question. Well, we had two fabulous editors that we were working with, Erin Casper and Jocelyn Chaput. The material that came to us was just spectacular and beautiful, but it’s very challenging to work with. None of it, for example — or at least, the material like Katia and Maurice themselves shot on 16mm footage — has any synced sound. So our editors had to rebuild these soundscapes as we were going through the edit.
We were very much guided by Katia and Maurice the entire way through first and foremost. Mostly because they left behind this wealth of material from the 16mm footage that they shot, and there were recorded interviews from French and Western television frames, from the 60s to the 80s. They kind of serve as our roadmap so to speak, in terms of setting the tone and then the philosophy and the style. There were many gaps in the archive and so many questions, just things that we could never know even though we would try and do tons of research. We couldn’t actually ask “what does this mean?” if they’re no longer there. So that’s where we had to do our best interpretation. And, again, we kind of use their way first as part of our kind of interpretive bid, so to speak, but we were doing a tonne of research of our own — reading poets or children’s books like The Little Prince. We were reading Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monks, in search of understanding the mysteries of love and human relationships, as well as that scientific inquiry into the unknown. That helped us orient ourselves towards the screen history.
Shane: We worked with a lot of the ways Katia and Maurice are so desperate to get closer to the volcanoes with each other. We were able to deconstruct that and ask ourselves if we could get closer or show fragments like the montages where there will always be unknown. Also having a narrator that recognises that, and helps us choose which is a higher truth.
How do you decide what takes precedence? There’s the romance between each other and their joint romance with the volcanoes. How do you know how they sit side by side?
Sara: We definitely saw this as a love triangle between the three. We embraced that as our guiding prism for this — I should say they had written nearly 20 books, and a lot of them are authored in the first person, so that really helped us to be familiar with their voice, kind of how they saw the world. But there was one line in a book that Maurice wrote where he says “for me… Katia and volcanoes, it is a love story”. And with that, we thought, okay, here’s this love triangle, that’s going to be our focus. And so with, you know, hundreds of hours of footage, we could narrow a lot down because of how their story was able to be woven through that that prism, but again, kind of a subject that so much of the film was about the pursuit of the unknown and the search for understanding amid the unknown, and so there is a lot as well that we wanted to incorporate that wasn’t specifically about volcanoes. For example, we have some sequences in the film that are shot like montages of things like, a lone person walking on a beach to a shot of Maurice’s hand trying to press bubbles underwater. And so there’s these images that don’t quite cohere with this idea of scientific inquiry, but they’re all moments of beauty. It gravitated towards that also, through the juxtaposition that for us raised questions about what they saw, what they left behind, and all that which we can never quite know. It might not directly dovetail with this idea of love, but it does thematically, in terms of the mysteries and touchstones itself.
Shane: I think in terms of balancing each other, it’s like they have many interests. There’s only a few that you’re seeing. Most people are only obsessed with a few things, so it’s lucky they know in some ways. Of course, that life is much more complex, like a totality of those two things, rather than into a relationship where they’re like the divine. You’re like looking out over the counter to what exists in this world. But this was their final chapter. It was just sort of like watching them reflecting on their relationships.
Sara: I mean, so much of their career was in relation to volcanoes. They were so inspired by the power of Mount St. Helens’ eruption in 1980, it caused them to kind of refocus their work from effusive volcanoes (or red volcanoes as we call them the film) to more of these explosive, “killer volcanoes” where they really upped the risk, and they had to be in sync with each other in order to pursue such a dangerous force. But then when they witnessed the absolute devastation that happened to Columbia in 1985, with the amount of debris the erosion, they really wanted to further reorient their work towards humanitarian efforts to use the knowledge they’ve gained through the years to really help people to understand when volcanoes are going “fulfil the dream”. Maurice says in the film: “my dream is that volcanoes will no longer kill”, and I love that about him and Katia. They have these really lofty, beautiful philosophies. Of course, volcanoes are a force of destruction as well as creation, but the fact that they wanted to mobilise everything that they had learned to try to help people have a relationship with volcanoes, it’s a sign of how their work really does shift gears.
Fire of Love has this really stark science vs. Government outlook — how much does what happened speak to right now?
Sara: Certainly in the United States, for many years, there’s been quite a quest to have scientists be listened to more regarding the climate crisis. Our film takes place from 1966 through to 1991, and the climate crisis was well on its way, but it wasn’t necessarily in the popular discourse as it is now. So there’s very much an echo between this idea of what it means to listen to scientists, as well as what it means to listen to people more broadly who have a relationship with the land but are not necessarily scientists. There’s a question of how important that is — having more political-economic rationales wash away the very real dangers that come with not understanding the earth. Volcanoes are a different thing, but what’s happening has resonance.
Shane: Even though we’re talking about so much of the unknown, there are things we can get close to knowing that don’t listen to those things anymore. We don’t understand the probability of events happening that scientists can teach us, and if we don’t really organise our systems or structures based on that, who knows.
Jasmine Valentine – Follow me on Twitter.