A cultural anthropologist and documentary filmmaker, Sara Dosa was always going to be the best person to tell the story of French volcanologists Maurice and Katia Krafft. Reflecting on their love and legacy, Dosa sits down with Ella Kemp to celebrate these pioneers.
In order to best understand this love story between two human beings, it’s important to emphasise how much it was defined and fuelled by the natural world. It’s hard to say which one Maurice and Katia Krafft loved more – volcanoes, or each other? It almost doesn’t matter, as their wondrous story is one where human intimacy and the wonder of the Earth are intimate bedfellows. It’s a story we could all learn a lot from.
Sara Dosa and her team bring this to life with great curiosity. For all the discoveries we know the Kraffts made, there are so many things they didn’t have time to enjoy before they died doing what they loved, together. Fire of Love resurrects so much of the miraculous 16mm footage they captured themselves, and fills the gaps with a heartfelt voiceover weaving its own story into theirs, courtesy of one of our most imaginative artists working today, Miranda July.
Speaking with Dosa threw up so many questions of my own that the film first teased, now impossible to ignore. Can you nurture your own personal relationships without taking care of the planet we live on? How can you create a legacy that will outlive you while doing your best to enjoy the present moment? The filmmaker is wise and impossibly intelligent about her subjects. But the most important thing? She loves them so, so deeply. What a joy to hear more about it.
How would you define your relationship with Maurice and Katia Krafft? There is so much love in the film – it doesn’t feel like you are a filmmaker distancing yourself from your subjects.
That was our highest hope – for Fire of Love to feel like a co-creation with Katia and Maurice. The film itself is a deep collaboration between my two brilliant editors Erin Casper and Joceylne Chaput, my producer Shane Boris
and our executive producers at Sandbox films.
We really embraced a spirit of collaboration and wanted to be guided by Maurice and Katia first and foremost even though they have passed away. Luckily they left behind detailed instructions for us to do that through their footage as well as their writings – they authored nearly 20 books. My editors and I watched about 200 hours of their 16-millimeter footage and 50 hours of recorded interviews on television. We interviewed about 15 of their colleagues and close friends and tried to get to know them as deeply as possible.
At the same time, there’s always an unrequitedness to our search, because we could never speak to them directly. That hunger to know them resonates in the film. Katia and Maurice were searching for answers all the time about volcanoes all the while knowing they could never fully understand the great mystery that is this volcanic force, and I really feel like our process mirrored that. The more we learned about them the more we realised we would never quite know.
They had this unrequited love for this force that could never love them back, and we too kind of had that. That longing to ask them all of these things. I just find them such endlessly inspiring, philosophical, charming, hilarious examples of what it means to live a meaningful life. I truly adore them.
How do you feel your background in cultural anthropology informs your work as a filmmaker?
When I was studying cultural anthropology I was fascinated by not just how humans are meaning through relationships with each other, but also relationships with the Earth. What does it mean to gaze upon landscape? I was fascinated in the cultural knowledge that constructed a way of relating to the Earth as well as systems of economies that structured relationships towards the Earth.
I was fascinated by understanding systems of power that course through capitalist structures and how that can really redefine relationships with the Earth. That orientation towards meaning and power shows up in my work as a filmmaker but it did also orient my perspective with Katia and Maurice.
The way they saw the Earth, the way they illustrated the planet through their own photography and cinematography truly portrays the planet as sentient, as alive. Through the language of science as well as the artistry they use in the camera, it really does draw these maps of interconnectivity.
It might not seem directly anthropological but it could have a cultural and perhaps political effect of expressing the power of the Earth at a time when there’s so many discourses about the Earth as a resource to be capitalised upon, or as inert or empty space to be developed. Anything that can showcase the aliveness, the power, the sentience, is of the utmost importance.
It was fascinating to consider all of that while watching Maurice and Katia who love each other so much romantically, and thinking about conversations I’ve had with friends about being worried about having children because of the state of the planet. It’s quite scary and beautiful when you see it all tesselate in Maurice and Katia’s story.
I think you’re so right, I have many friends asking themselves that same question. Is it ethical to bring people into the world given what the future looks like, given our climate crisis? Katia and Maurice are such interesting examples of how they reconcile that question for themselves, because they knew they were going to commit themselves to the pursuit of something so dangerous, they felt they couldn’t ethically bring a child into the world.
Some of the research we did turned up varying testimonies from their close family and friends, most of them saying they were absolutely at peace with that decision but one or two interviews said there was a private sadness too. But that was the sacrifice they made because they were able to chase their volcanoes. One of their friends said they saw volcanoes as their children!
In the opening credits you say the film stars Maurice and Katia, but you then introduce every volcano in the same way too. How do you go about anthropomorphising the volcanoes without veering into fantasy?
We don’t see our film as a conventional documentary, but part of a movement in the United States called creative nonfiction which plays with genres of many fiction films. For us, we were really trying to play with tropes of myth. So much of that was because we believe Katia and Maurice are mythic characters in their own right but they too were so fascinated by myths. They have this one beautiful book that chronicles hundreds of myths of volcanoes all around the world, and we saw a deep relationship between scientific languages and cultural languages that embrace myth.
Science is a language that speaks to the unknown. Scientific enquiry is after the undiscovered conjecture hypothesis, where it’s like, these are descriptions of that which is not known. Myth, too, is often a language to explore these supernatural forces that again seem beyond human understanding. But through the language of myth you can articulate a story that approaches that kind of seemingly unknowable power.
So it all seems so appropriate for Katia and Maurice and found its way into our storytelling. We wanted to playfully anthropomorphise the volcanoes, because it’s an idea that again originated with Katia and Maurice because Maurice very memorably says that volcanoes defy classification, and that he prefers to think of volcanoes in terms of their own personalities and moods. We wanted to embrace early on how Maurice and Katia are not just in love with each other but they’re essentially forming a love triangle with them!
Your storytelling comes to life in the voiceover that connects the dots in Maurice and Katia’s story, as all their footage was silent. They have eloquent, intelligent, romantic things to say in interviews but you’ve crafted this beautiful, curiously panoramic narrative that brings it all in. How did you steer things without steering away from the Kraffts?
The process was deeply collaborative – it was written by myself, one of my producers Shane Boris, and my two editors Erin Casper and Jocelyne Chaput. We understood very early on how extraordinary Katia and Maurice’s footage was, just how majestic and spectacular, but it was also so limited. It didn’t have sound. And the interviews, we were often at the whims of the editing choices made on TV programs in the ‘70s and ‘80s – there’s often baked in music we couldn’t cut around or freeze frames. There were a lot of limitations we couldn’t cut around.
We knew we wanted to tell a character-driven story about their love, and since that wasn’t part of the visual record – even though it was very much was their truth of their lives – we needed a different vehicle. To share insights on their love as well as the plot of where they went and how they went there.
We were also inspired by French New Wave films. The movement forms the cultural backdrop of when Maurice and Katia were coming of age, and some of the stylistic flourishes of the French New Wave show up in their work. There’s really fun snap zooms in their cinematography…
There’s a lot of Agnès Varda’s influence, right?
Oh, totally. There’s so much of her playfulness. The narrator of Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculine/Feminine is spoken in this almost deadpan tone. We tried to embrace that tonality too. But it was always a dance in the edit room, for the narration to not get in the way of Maurice and Katia’s own words or imagery. We hoped it would prompt an orientation towards understanding the footage rather than be declarative. We wanted it to create space for the imagery to blossom, rather than crowd.
Miranda July, your narrator, goes to such surprising places with her voices. It’s very tender but playful, and has this ASMR quality to it.
She's been an artist whose work has guided me for such a long time. We thought she would be particularly fitting due to just how curious she is in her own work. She's such a keen observer of what it means to be alive. So much of her work explores kind of that strange beauty of being human – what it means to be in a relationship with each other, whether it's just la chance meeting or a lifetime commitment. She explores those moments with beauty and a playful curiosity, as well as a grounded philosophy.
I think she brought such richness and vulnerability and strength and wisdom. And I sense love in her voice. We wanted Miranda to be Miranda first and foremost, but we did create a backstory…
Our narrator was approaching the age Katia and Maurice were when they passed away. She recently went through a heartbreak and was also contemplating the role of love in her life. She moved from the United States to France, and was a huge cinephile and loved French New Wave films, The Little Prince as well. She couldn’t find a job so ended up getting work as an archival assistant in a science library on the outskirts of Paris. Her task is to organise these dental records from this old dental university, and seeing all these images of old teeth makes her think about her mortality constantly. She also has a pet tortoise who will outlive her.
I am sadly running out of time, but have one more question about Katia and Maurice, who feel like rockstars for so much of the film. You get that from start to finish, but most of all when you use Brian Eno’s song ‘The Big Ship’. What does that song mean to you?
As soon as I heard that song years ago, to me it’s always been one of those moments of true swelling transcendence. That’s a film we wanted early in the film to communicate the feeling of falling in love. Since there’s no footage of them kissing or holding hands or on dates, we had to really think about how we are going to communicate the power of falling in love and what that means.
For them, of course, it’s first and foremost in their volcanic imagery, but music, too, just possesses magic. It’s one of the most utterly romantic songs, so it felt fitting to put it in that moment where Katia and Maurice are not just falling in love with each other but with the Earth. The swells in that song fit well with erupting volcanoes and sparks flying in early love.
You’ve spent so much time with Maurice and Katia, but there’s obviously so many unanswered questions. What would you say to them now if you could?
Just the most heartfelt thank you. I have wordless gratitude for them. All they’ve taught me, all they’ve given me. I have endless questions, but I would just say the most deeply felt thank you.
Fire of Love is in cinemas now. Shop our Miranda July t-shirt here.
Ella Kemp is the Commissioning Editor for READ ME. She writes about film and music for NME, Empire, Letterboxd and more, and her favourite word is “verklempt” because it’s what she often is.