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‘Fire of Love’ Filmmaker on Passion for Volcanoes

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Sundance sensation “Fire of Love” continues to wow audiences on the festival circuit as it hits the Copenhagen Intl. Documentary Film Festival, where it is vying for the top DOX:AWARD. Variety speaks to its director, Sara Dosa.

Based on archive material, photographs and animation work, “Fire of Love” tells the story of French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft, who devoted their lives to volcanoes and became pioneers in their field in the 1970s and ’80s. The couple died in 1991, doing what they loved as they documented the eruption of Mount Unzen in Japan.

They had recorded hundreds of hours of footage and left behind thousands of photographs of their expeditions, which Dosa and her team have edited into a lyrical ode to their love story, both as a couple and with the volcanoes, in what the director describes as the “love triangle” that forms the basis of her film.

“Maurice often talks about how he’s in the presence of an erupting volcano and just drops all his scientific equipment and falls to his knees – and that always struck us: he is there as a scientist with a specific and guided purpose of trying to understand this great mystery, which came in service to save human lives… but he was just so in love, so absolutely enchanted by this power that he would forget his scientific mission,” Dosa says.

Dosa’s first encounter with the Kraffts occurred when she was researching her previous film, 2019 Golden Gate winner “The Seer and Unseen,” which was set on the volcanic island of Iceland.

“We started researching volcano archives and came across Katia and Maurice, and we fell in love with them,” she says.

When the pandemic hit and another film project fell through, Dosa knew she wanted to devote her next film to them.

“It was a very serendipitous project: we were planning something else, the world turned and we had to turn with it. We thought: wouldn’t this be a fun project to do, especially in times of isolation, to travel the world through archive footage.”

And so Dosa and her team set off on a quest to find all the material they could, striking deals with archival institutions like France’s National Audiovisual Institute (INA) and Image Est.

But while the images they uncovered were beguiling, putting together a narrative proved challenging as the many hours of 16mm footage often came without explanation and was out of order. Dosa and her co-writers adapted by introducing a narration and creating animation work to tell their story. The dreamy, collage-like animation was inspired by the couple’s treasure trove of volcano images that they had collected over the years.

“The illustrations were often whimsical, almost psychedelic, but also scientific. Some dated back to the 15th century. There was this meeting between science and myth and we thought it could be fun to play with that: there were lots of gaps in the archive itself and we wanted to convey the feeling of dreaminess, of falling in love. We thought that animation inspired by the aesthetic of those illustrations could be a playful way of doing that.”

Dosa co-wrote the film with long-time collaborator, creative producer Shane Boris, and editors Erin Casper and Jocelyne Chaput. The narration, voiced by filmmaker and author Miranda July, offers a unique interpretation of the Kraffts’ story, fueled by in-depth research into the couple’s many publications.

“We really wanted a narrator who’s inquisitive, who can prompt questions – we wanted to acknowledge that we, as filmmakers, don’t know everything. But that dove-tails with scientific inquiry, the unknown of volcanoes, the unknown of the human heart, those great mysteries: we wanted to have all that resonate,” says Dosa. “We were led by their spirit and read a lot of their books – we put a lot of our own interpretation and our own curiosity into the writing process.”

The team also drew on some 45 hours of footage from variety shows and interviews: the Kraffts, notably the charismatic Maurice, became familiar faces to an entire generation in TV appearances infused with humor that popularized their science.

“They were so savvy at understanding their public image, but not in a way that was inauthentic. It felt very true to their spirit,” says Dosa. “We always wondered if they were inscribing themselves to myths that they were writing – almost like they knew they could die at any moment – and by putting their images to their own and other people’s cameras they were able to author their legacy.”

The Kraffts chose not to have children and dedicated their lives to their passion, described by Boris as a form of addiction.

“I think they did have mystical experiences around volcanoes, and after that sort of experience, when you’re not in the presence of it anymore, there’s a loneliness, a sadness, a true melancholy, and part of the process for them was trying to get back to that mystical experience as much as possible,” Boris says.

In one clip, Maurice Krafft can be heard saying “I have seen so many beautiful things that I am a hundred years old.” The key message they wanted to convey in the film, Boris says, was not so much the question of whether they would die for their passion, but how they would live their lives.

“One of the guiding principles of the entire writing process for the film was that quote [included in the film’s narration] “Love is understanding’s other name” by Thich Nhat Hanh, a zen monk who’s been a presence in the conversation Sara and I have had in our collaboration for over 10 years,” Boris says. “Moving closer to what you love gives you greater understanding: that’s how you live a meaningful life and die a meaningful death, and it was so immediately reflected in the experience of Katia and Maurice.”

“Fire of Love” won Sundance’s Jonathan Oppenheim Editing Award upon its debut at the festival in January. The film is a Sandbox Films, Intuitive Pictures and Cottage M production, and features an original score by Nicolas Godin, of French band Air. National Geographic Documentary Films has worldwide rights.

After Copenhagen, the doc will continue on its festival tour to Nyon, Switzerland, where it will open Swiss doc fest Visions du Réel (April 7-17).