Fire of Love is poised to be the biggest documentary sensation of the summer. It uses stunning archival footage and beguiling narration to tell the story of Katia and Maurice Krafft, whose shared obsession with volcanoes fueled a lifelong love affair. The film’s director, Sara Dosa, has focused in her work on offbeat characters who have an especially vivid relationship with the natural world. (Her first feature-length documentary, 2014’s The Last Season, captured the friendship between a Vietnam veteran and a Cambodian refugee as they hunt for wild mushrooms in the Oregon woods.) I had a chance to chat briefly with Dosa, who came to her filmmaking career in a roundabout way.
OREGON ARTS WATCH: You have a masters in anthropology and international development economics from the London School of Economics. How in the world did you end up a documentary filmmaker?
SARA DOSA: It was quite a circuitous path. I thought for a while I was going to be a professor of cultural anthropology. However, before I went to graduate school I was working at a documentary production company and was fascinated by documentary filmmaking. When I was pursuing my Ph.D., I was very much focused on the anthropology of economics, specifically looking at meaning and power through economic systems with a critical approach. But I kept being drawn back towards filmmaking. I was feeling a little frustrated with some of what felt at that time like the limitations of the academy, and I kept wondering if filmmaking could be a way to explore these ideas and questions I had, using a different methodology and communicating in a different way. When I was in graduate school, I met a wonderful anthropologist named Anna Tsing. Her work at that time was focused on mushroom-hunting communities in Oregon. I ended up deferring the Ph.D. portion of my graduate work, became her research assistant, and ended up making my first documentary as a director, The Last Season.
OAW: How did the story of the Kraffts come to your attention?
SD: I was researching for the last film I directed, which is titled The Seer and the Unseen. It’s an observational film that we shot in Iceland. We wanted to find some archival footage of erupting volcanoes, to illustrate the story of when humans first came to the volcanic rock that is Iceland. We thought that archival footage that looked like it came from a different time could help tell that piece of the story. Once we started researching that, we learned about this delightful French couple that had shot gorgeous footage of erupting volcanoes in Iceland in the 1970s. Once we learned about them as people, not just this married couple, but the fact that they had these intriguing personalities and philosophies, that they were so playful and that they had left such a legacy.
We started working on a different project, but that project collapsed during the pandemic, so we thought if we had an archival project during the shutdown we could keep making work. And then once we got our hands on their footage, it was just a dream come true.
OAW: Where did the idea of using Miranda July as the narrator come from? Her voice really enhances the whole story.
SD: At first we thought we wanted a French narrator. But then in a brainstorm session, one of my executive producers, Greg Boustead, suggested Miranda, and we were all just like “Yes! Miranda’s perfect!” Her art has inspired me for many years, from her films to her writing to her performance art. She’s been an artistic guide to me in so many ways. We had a pretty final draft of the narration, but when she agreed to come on the project, that helped us shape the writing even more. How would Miranda say this? Where would her cadence be in this sentence? Things like that. She’s so curious, and it was essential that our narrator had a sense of curiosity.
OAW: The movie reveals early on that the Kraffts eventually did lose their lives doing what they loved. Was that the plan from the get-go, or did you consider saving that fact for later in the film?
SD: That was something we did choose to do early on, for a couple of reasons. One was that if we didn’t reveal that information early on, we were concerned that the audience would be wondering all the time, “How are they going to die? Is this when they’re going to die?,” and it could cloud the narrative space with distracting questions. Instead, we wanted to emphasize how they lived. It was really essential to us that this film capture their lived philosophy. Another thing is that it was important for the audience to realize that they were watching what the Kraffts left behind. What you’re seeing are their remnants, their legacy. And a third reason is that the theme of time is such an important one in the film. The fleeting nature of a human life set against the enormity of geologic time. By setting the clock, so to speak, with their own human lives, we could draw attention to the fact that time is running out; we could crystalize those existential questions that Katia and Maurice were always asking and that we, as the filmmaking team, were very curious about exploring.
OAW: Who are some of the documentary filmmakers that have inspired you in your work?
SD: This might sound cheesy, but I’d like to say my team! I want to shout out my collaborators, because it was such a team effort. So my editors, Erin Casper and Jocelyne Chaput, my producers Shane Boris and Ina Fichman, my e.p.’s Jessica Harrop and Greg Boustead. It was such a wonderful collective effort, and they are a huge influence on me. As far as other filmmakers whose work I really love, there’s a filmmaker called Nadia Shihab, who made a film a few years ago called Jaddoland, which I just think is absolutely exquisite. It’s a very personal story that resonates universally about her relationship with her artist mother, exploring home and identity and loss and love. Any fan of Miranda July will appreciate Nadia’s very specific and beautiful voice. She deserves a lot of acclaim and attention. I would also say that Agnes Varda has always been a huge influence on me, both her nonfiction work and her fiction work. I love her playful style and her musings, the observations that she makes.
- Fire of Love is currently playing at the Hollywood Theatre, the Living Room Theaters and other area theaters.