Documentaries can be just as gripping as narrative feature films, and two non-fiction movies hitting Bay Area theaters on Friday demonstrate that. “Fire of Love” is a gloriously cinematic tale of love and lava. “Living Wine” takes us into the world of natural winemaking while doubling as a climate change thriller. Both movies feature people who love what they do. Expect to be inspired.
Katia and Maurice Krafft, the celebrated 20th-century French volcanologists featured in Berkeley-based Sara Dosa’s “Fire of Love,” first found love upon encountering Mount Etna, in Katia’s case, and Mount Stromboli, in that of Mauritius. Later, the two would meet and become partners in love, life, and the science of volcanoes. (The film playfully speculates on the details of their first date.)
From the 1970s until their deaths, caused by the eruption of a volcano in Japan in 1991, the two traveled the world to document, via samples, images, photographs and data, erupting volcanoes and lava flows. Their work has greatly benefited science, although their methods – which involved getting dangerously close to their fiery subjects – have distressed some colleagues. Dosa shows us some of their close encounters.
Combining 16mm footage (some of which was shot by the Kraffts themselves), TV interviews, volcano facts, book excerpts, animations, and biographical and poetic narration, Dosa and his team crafted this which the filmmaker calls “a volcano story, a science story, a love story, and a character-driven story.”
“It was a challenge to put it together, but a very joyful process,” says Dosa, who became aware of the Kraffts’ work while researching Iceland’s volcanoes for his documentary “The Seer and the Unseen.” The Kraffts fascinated Dosa, and she discovered that there was a gold mine of archival material reflecting their life and work.
Dosa decided to present the couple’s story as a love triangle: Katia, Maurice and the volcanoes. Because there are few images of Maurice and Katia interacting, the images of volcanoes, with their explosive quality and lava flow, seemed to fill the romantic void. Whether it’s a shot of Katia standing by a volcano in an outfit that suggests a space suit, or a sequence of Maurice with a goal in his stride as he steps towards a volcano, we feel the passion.
Dosa says the French New Wave was an influence for “Fire of Love”, as well as the Kraffts’ films and writings themselves. “La Nouvelle Vague was the cinema of their time,” Dosa says, pointing to its love triangles, existentialism, playful zooms, global thinking, and what she calls the “association lens.” Questions constantly arise. Why did Maurice include a photo of Katia in an inner tube among his images of volcanoes, to begin with?
The images were “beautiful but limited,” says Dosa, who credits his team for making the existing materials visually and sonically compelling. The entire film reflects the collaboration, she adds, praising the editors, musicians, cinematographers and others.
Dosa gives special mention to performer-writer-filmmaker Miranda July, whose narration describes Dosa as capturing the cheerful yet complicated spirit of the Kraffts. Dosa, editors Erin Casper and Jocelyne Chaput, and producer Shane Boris wrote July’s lyrics.
As for making the Bay Area her home base when so many filmmakers live and work in New York or Los Angeles, Dosa praises the local scene. “I love the Bay Area documentary community,” she says, describing it as filled with talented people who support each other.
With its adventurous scenes, volcanic landscapes and rolling lava (which might just be the most cinematic natural substance in the world), “Fire of Love” demands to be seen on the big screen, and audiences can enjoy this experience from the moment it opens. Friday at venues such as the AMC Kabuki 8 and Alamo Drafthouse theaters in San Francisco.
Gideon Beinstock, Megan Bell and Darek Trowbridge – the main subjects of Lori Miller’s “Living Wine” – haven’t chased volcanoes or enjoyed luminary status, but these Northern California vintners, who craft wine in a natural way, with methods beneficial to the environment, shine in their field.
Miller was inspired to create “Living Wine” after learning that conventionally made wines contain chemical additives and involve environmentally harmful farming practices. “The same people who still buy organic food will buy corporate wines, not realizing that those wines are full of chemicals,” she says.
His film introduces us to the natural alternative by following a handful of Northern California winemakers as they work and discuss their philosophies, creating wines through sustainable and regenerative agriculture, without chemical elements. As climate change shortens growing seasons, increases temperatures and sets the stage for wildfires, these winemakers are working to care for the environment.
Beinstock, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, is one of those stars in this field. He learned his farming techniques from artisan winemakers in France and now teaches his methods to trainees so the next generation can practice them.
Bell, from Santa Cruz, arrived in the corporate wine industry, but the sexism she encountered there prompted her to chart her own path. She now creates natural wines from unusual varietals and is a one-woman force who does everything from marketing her wines to driving a forklift.
Trowbridge, pastoral winemaker and owner, creates chemical-free wines that reflect the traditional methods and history of his winemaking family. It also produced a mulch that helps reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.
Experts Timothy LaSalle (Center for Regenerative Agriculture) and Elizabeth Candelario (Mad Agriculture), meanwhile, discuss modern agriculture and its impact. Chemicals used in bombs during World War II were used in synthetic fertilizers after the war, for example.
Miller skillfully combines these facts with images of winemakers in action, first in down-to-earth form, then in crisis mode. A terrible heat wave followed by devastating forest fires. Winemakers work day and night to save their wines and their livelihoods by harvesting the grapes early.
“There’s a lot of dirt and sweat in the movie,” Miller says.
Unexpected suspense may be a documentarian’s dream, says Miller, but in cases like these, there’s also the reality that lives are at stake. Fortunately, “there were happy endings,” adds she.
The film also took on a new dimension: “I found myself with a story about the human effects of climate change.
“Living Wine” is also satisfyingly cinematic, whether Miller shows gruesome fires, scenic landscapes, or cellar workers crushing grapes with their feet.
It will be screened in theaters specializing in independent films. These rooms reflect the independent quality of this film and its subjects, says Miller, who is a firm believer in independent cinema and concerned for its well-being. She cites John Sayles, the Coen brothers and Paolo Sorrentino as filmmakers she admires and names Agnes Varda’s “Faces Places” (“a big influence”) and the documentaries “Senna” and “Buck” as non-fiction favorites . “I like watching genuine people,” she says. “Living Wine” indeed deals with such subjects.
The film opens Friday at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood in Berkeley. It can also be viewed online.