Sundance ’22: ‘Fire of Love’ director Sara Dosa on unearthing the archive for new doc

A monumental challenge of sifting through hundreds of hours of stunning but disjointed and gap-filled archival footage faced filmmaker Sara Dosa and her editing team when work began on her ...
January 20, 2022

A monumental challenge of sifting through hundreds of hours of stunning but disjointed and gap-filled archival footage faced filmmaker Sara Dosa and her editing team when work began on her new film Fire of Love, which premieres tonight at the Sundance Film Festival.

The film covers the work of and love between French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft, who dedicated their lives to researching, recording and understanding volcanoes, capturing spectacular imagery in the process and enabling pioneering research in their field. Their passion also led to their deaths in 1991, when they were caught in a flow of hot gas and volcanic matter while filming eruptions at Mount Unzen, an event that killed 43 people.

Fire of Love is mainly composed of rare archival footage and photographs shot by the Kraffts. But in diving into this footage, Dosa found gaps in the archive and unknown elements in the Kraffts’ stories that couldn’t be answered by the two scientists, who had long since passed away. But those unknowns, and even the discrepancies in the stories she heard about the Kraffts (including several differing accounts of how they first met), pointed her toward a larger idea about mythmaking.

“In the spaces of the unknown, myths take root as a form of storytelling, and trying to make sense and to grapple with the unknown,” Dosa told Realscreen in an interview ahead of the film’s premiere.

“There were these challenges in the film, but we really tried to reconcile them by kind of playfully pointing to the language of myth, and thinking of Maurice and Katia as these mythic characters. They flew too close to the sun, so to speak, but I’m hopeful that that kind of language can at once acknowledge and accept and kind of celebrate the process of storytelling amid the unknown.”

Dosa conducted personal interviews with those who knew the Kraffts in order to tell their story with more authenticity. She wanted to learn more about their personal relationship, which was rarely caught on film since one or the other was usually behind the camera. But she also sought confirmation about their fearless passion for their work: in a statement from Maurice that Dosa found in the course of her research, he declares that “I want to be intimate in the belly of the volcano, even if it kills me one day, that doesn’t bother me.”

Fire of Love premieres at the Sundance Film Festival on Thursday (Jan. 20), with a second screening scheduled for Jan. 22. Realscreen sat down with Dosa ahead of the film’s premiere.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

fire of love

How did you first become interested in telling Katia and Maurice’s story?

The last film that I directed, we shot in Iceland. It’s called The Seer and the Unseen, and Iceland is a volcanic island. I absolutely fell in love with volcanic landscapes there, and the beginning of that film actually has some archive of volcanoes. When we were researching footage for that, we came across the story of Katia and Maurice Krafft. First, I was absolutely stunned by the gorgeous imagery. But then once I learned about them as people, I knew that I wanted to learn more, and just dwell inside their world.

What attracted you to Maurice and Katia as characters for this documentary?

They had to reckon with death every step of the way, because the thing that they loved most in the world could kill them. So that caused them to really reconcile what it meant to live a meaningful life, when any moment could be your last. I was particularly moved by that kind of philosophy, and their life’s pursuit in trying to understand the secrets of the planet.

But also, just as characters, they exhibited wonderful humor. They took their work seriously, but not themselves, and I loved their relationship with each other. [In] the footage that exists of them together, there’s such playful banter. You can really sense the love that they have for each other. But I think the thing that actually really ignited for me about their story was thinking about this film as a love triangle film, not just a story about a married pair. It’s really a film about Maurice and Katia and volcanoes, and the three of them forming a love that only exists as this triad.

What was the process like to acquire and assemble archival footage for this film?

I feel profoundly lucky that we got access to the archive. What you see in the film has rarely been seen before. A minute and a half of [this] footage was in Werner Herzog’s 2016 documentary Into the Inferno, and there had been films about Maurice and Katia in the ’90s and ’80s, but most of their archive hasn’t ever been seen before, let alone digitized.

Once we got access to their archive, the archival house Image’Est, based in Nancy, France, they were extraordinary to work with. They would scan about 20 hours at a time and send it to us for me and my two editors, Erin Casper and Jocelyne Chaput, to watch. That was a spectacular and baffling process. We would get all this footage, none of it had sound, it was all 16mm footage, and so we had to try to make sense of it the best we could.

There were some clues from the archive house themselves. They had an inventory that said, ‘This is where it was shot, this was the year,’ but then we really had to piece it together using the books that Katia and Maurice authored, biographies about them, and we did a number of background research interviews as well with some of their loved ones and collaborators to try to fill in the gaps.

The footage did come to us in a fascinating order. For example, we would get a reel that they shot in Indonesia in 1971, their first expedition, and there would be a bunch of images of incredible volcano shots, and then all of a sudden, there would be a Komodo dragon eating a dead animal. And then there would be Katia with a bandage on her leg, limping in a kitchen. And then there would be a shot of Maurice laughing with a group of kids. So of course, there’s the volcanoes that they’re studying, and you really get a sense of the passion and the focused, determined way that they’re framing the shots. But then there’s these moments of life.

You also use animation throughout Fire of Love to complement the archival footage. What can you tell us about the decision behind utilizing animation, and the process behind it for this film?

When people pass away, they’re necessarily leaving behind questions. There’s a mystery that we’ll never be able to know, because they’re not around anymore to confirm it. And so we wanted our animation to give us enough of a hint of some things. For example, there’s no footage of Maurice and Katia kissing or holding hands or these conventional images that convey a sense of love. But we thought that animation could provide a dreamy feeling of what it is to fall in love that felt appropriate to Katia and Maurice’s worldview.

They collected thousands of illustrations of volcanoes, aside from their own [images] that they took, and we thought it could be really fun and playful to be inspired by the illustrations to use that as the visual language to tell their love story.

What kind of legacy and importance do Maurice and Katia have within their field of study?

Maurice and Katia were absolutely seen as pioneers in the field of volcanology. They were some of the first people to go so daringly close to the edge of the craters. They were known quite controversially, actually, in the field: some people thought of them as reckless, because they would go past the safety boundaries or the borders, and some people thought that by doing so they were encouraging others to engage in very dangerous practices. Whereas others said, “This is what’s necessary in terms of the practice of science.” What they were able to capture with their imagery was unlike anything that ever had been recorded, and very much forwarded the understanding of volcanoes themselves.

[But] it wasn’t just footage: they were also able to bring back rock samples, gas readings, all kinds of data that no one else had been able to do before, because no one dared to get that close. They occupied this fascinating sliver of time in the field, too. They’re the first ones to do this kind of work, but also the last ones in many ways, because it was deemed so dangerous. And all kinds of new technologies started to become developed, drones for example, that are able to go close without a human having to risk their own life.

They were both celebrated within the field, and also just very beloved. People loved their personalities and their life philosophy. You talk to their friends, there’s absolutely a zealous celebration of them.

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.