“There are so many ways to tell a story, so many ways to read the world.”1

Fire of Love (Sara Dosa, 2021) is drawn from the Krafft archive, a collection of moving and still images created by Katia and Maurice Krafft across a career in vulcanology that spanned more than 30 years. Whilst the content of this documentary foregrounds the insight and knowledge of the scientists, the narrative form has been constructed by the American independent documentary filmmaker Sara Dosa. Dosa has a background in anthropology and characterises her films as “character-driven stories about the human relationship to ecology and economy.”2 This documentary and its source material are deeply entwined. Émilie Bujès identifies a parallel between Dosa’s and the Krafft’s own approach, suggesting that Fire of Love “creates a collage, with a line of questioning that is ultimately related to that of a geologist: how does one fill in the gaps – where myths are so often born?”3 Both are invested in exploring the interrelationship between truth and myth, actual and evident. One way that the documentary does this is by featuring Miranda July’s narration, her extradiegetic words controlling the narrative flow. The voice-over narration is spoken by July in “spun-sugar tones of beguiling curiosity”.4 Its narrative is uncertain: it has a circular, retrospective focus, and an inquisitiveness. The documentary is built from the Krafft’s own film, photos, slides, samples, maps, interviews and, as July points out, “a million questions.” This is a film that invests in cross-disciplinary knowledge, multiple media forms, and narrative possibilities. It is an example of the potential of contemporary documentary to embrace paradox, one that, as Erika Balsom describes, can offer a “critical method that accords primacy to the multiple and mutable realities of our world.”5

The first shots of Fire of Love reveal images and sounds that are in stark contrast to the heat and passion promised by the film’s title.6 This documentary begins in an extremely cold landscape, with the freezing weather obscuring the horizon line. These spaces appear so still and desolate, they could be flat, abstract, black and white photographs. The inhospitable environment depicted traps a four-wheel drive vehicle, miring it deep in the snow. The narrator describes this space as a world “where the sun came and went between blizzards and gusts which erased all bearings.” The voice-over tells us that this “cold world” is so extreme that it freezes watches, halting time. This is the first of many instances of time standing still that feature in Fire of Love. It is in this unnamed space, devoid of place markers or horizon lines, that two scientists find a deep sense of purpose and a sublime connection with the landscape. Fire of Love stars the pioneering French vulcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft. As the opening credits reveal, “also starring” are Mauna Loa, Nyiragongo, Krafla, Mount St Helens, Piton de la Fournaise, Una-Una, and “many more” volcanoes. The film begins on June 2, 1991, but soon it stops, pauses and as the image falls into darkness, the narrator announces that tomorrow will be Katia and Maurice’s last day. The pause signals a moment prior to irreversible change. It is the “hyper-moment” on which the axis of the film turns, that prescient moment that signals a move towards a retrospective reflection which constitutes the majority of the narrative. 

Fire of Love

Fire of Love offers multiple possible stories about how Katia and Maurice met. These scenarios are presented using pauses, freeze frames, split screens and photographs, spotlighting detail within shots and using extra-cinematic, seemingly post-archival imagery, certainly a post-media aesthetic.7 Their first meeting may have been in 1966, but “there is no definitive account of this first encounter, and the visual register of their budding romance is sparse,” says July against images of film leader, a visual abstraction symbolising a lack of a singular truth. July describes one story where Katia and Maurice “meet by chance on a bench at the University of Strasbourg,” which is imagined using a shot of an empty bench in a tree-lined avenue. In another, they meet at the screening of a film by the famous vulcanologist Haroun Tazieff. As partial evidence of this possibility, images of Tazieff at the screening are included, followed by a shot from his film. July identifies “the most detailed account” as a meeting that results from a blind date in a café where they “bond over their first loves, Mt Etna and Mt Stromboli.” Their relationship is visualised using a split-screen image of coffee cups that are animated across shots, changing position until they become stacked together, entangled in a single frame. 

July and Dosa reveal Katia and Maurice’s disillusionment with humanity and their aversion to war in Vietnam as a catalyst for their focus on the natural world. July describes how “human pursuits of power begin to feel vain and absurd against the power of the earth.” Splicing July’s voiceover with archival footage as evidence, Maurice confirms in an interview that they “got into vulcanology because we were disappointed with humanity  . . . something beyond human understanding.” Whilst Fire of Love provides three possible scenarios for their initial meeting, what is incontrovertible is that the Kraffts became a singular force, united in their devotion to the scientific exploration of volcanoes. Katia became a geochemist; Maurice, a vulcanologist. The plate tectonic revolution and developing science of continental drift provided additional impetus for their work. Their careers are illustrated by two tiny, animated figures of Katia and Maurice that tumble down a sequence of shots that includes sketches, maps, and atlases, culminating with a black and white picture of a volcano featuring added detail of an eruption, allowing the scientists to land on their feet at the base of the mountain. This palimpsest of artefact, combined with multiple possible scenarios, situates Fire of Love as part of the self-reflexive mode of documentary described by Bill Nichols, “where epistemological and aesthetic assumptions become more visible.”8 Fire of Love provides multiple, entangled possible truths and storylines using archival and contemporary sequences.  

Whilst Katia and Maurice build their careers on scientific observation and measurement, the documentary highlights chance, fate and risk as elements that are central to their story. The lovers take calculated risks. They design silver suits and helmets to protect themselves from the extraordinary heat of the volcanoes. Whilst their helmets offer protection, their design is reminiscent of the science fiction film, specifically Robby the Robot’s costume in Forbidden Planet (1956). Its resilience is tested when Maurice throws a rock at Katia’s helmet, and it survives without damage. This protective clothing helps them approach the edge of volcanoes, shielding them from the immense heat rising from the lava flow. That proximity is key to the samples and measurements that they take, but also to understanding the force of the volcano. July narrates, “Katia and Maurice are after the strange alchemy of elements, the combination of mineral, heat, gas and time that incites an eruption.” Katia says that “once you see an eruption, you can’t live without it because it’s so grandiose, it’s so strong. That feeling of being nothing at all.” This is Katia’s version of the sublime, the threshold, passion, fear, astonishment, and potential “transformation of the soul in response to the power of the natural world.”9 Fire of Love captures the sense of overwhelming awe and reverence that inspires the Krafft’s lifework. 

The documentary begins and ends in southern Japan as Katia and Maurice study the ‘grey’ pyroclastic flows of Mt Unzen. Each visit to a volcano provides a uniquely unpredictable scenario. Richard A. Kerr describes pyroclastic volcanic flows as “a hurricane of heat and ash” and also “a not-to-be-missed opportunity” to capture the flow of the various types of volcanos.10 Calderazzo writes that, “Japanese myth says earthquakes and volcanoes are caused by a giant catfish. The gods are supposed to keep the fish pinned down with a large rock. But now and then the gods take vacations, and the fish wriggles free.”11 Mythology, art and science are intertwined in this documentary. Calderazzo writes that volcanologists “don’t know how pyroclastic eruptions behave or when they will blow. Who knows when the gods that we can’t see will take their vacations?”12 The images photographed on the side of mountains, in proximity to the hot lava, reveal the connection between science and art that is at the core of Fire of Love. Owen Gliberman writes, “The close-ups of spewing lava are like Jackson Pollock paintings in motion.”13 Many sequences are filmed by Maurice himself, whilst the still images are shot by Katia. Individual personalities are distinguished with reference to photographic technology. Katia captures one moment in time using still cameras, whilst Maurice chases motion, recording a stream of 24 frames per second. July notes that whilst the cameras loved this young couple, they also “loved their own cameras back. Photography is a means of remembering, revisiting, stretching their time with volcanoes.” As Katia says, “It all happens too fast when it’s in front of you,” so these images allowed them time for objective, concentrated study. Captured in still or moving imagery, the sequences of exploding lava stand out as extraordinary and as unique moments in time. 

Fire of Love 

Fire of Love incorporates multiple timelines: the lives of the Kraffts; the deep, geological time that was the object of their study; and the extended temporality of the pandemic years. It is almost autobiographical with content provided by the Kraffts, a story told retrospectively from the grave, but shaped by Dosa. It negotiates some of the complexities that arise from the association of artefacts with truth and memory, personal and collective. However, it is not exclusively an “archival” film, as it also includes contemporary sequences described as recreated archives. These are sequences shot using celluloid film by Pablo Alvarez Mesa, the director of photography. This inclusion of contemporary footage has been critiqued by Abby Sun, who points to the inclusion of contemporary footage of coffee cups symbolising the meeting between Katia and Maurice, and maps “captured in 16mm as opposed to a more contemporary digital veneer.”14 For Sun, this results in archival material that becomes “a replicable aesthetic.”15 This intervention introduces a more contemporary timeline, but the choice of photographic material replicates the analogue technology at the film’s foundation. More broadly, the association between the contemporary and the historical hints at the challenge that newer technologies pose to the security of a fixed history. The impact of inscription technologies and electronic media on historical collections has been conceptualised by Jacques Derrida in his consideration of ‘archive fever’ and the transformation of the archive, where he notes that archivisation “produces as much as it records the event.”16 In film theory, Craig Hight understands the ontological reconfiguration of the documentary as “’splinters’ of documentary modes familiar from ‘analogue’ media emerge within new digital contexts.”17 Whilst it is the opposite here in terms of materiality, the combination of new and older media positions Fire of Love within the expanded documentary mode where we see “the application of the extra-cinematic to what has traditionally been non-fiction cinematic,” meaning data, social, or locative media, animation, graphics, experience design, or Mesa’s B-roll images, bespoke sequences that were created for Fire of Love, expanding its form.18 Contemporary image compilations and multiple possibilities highlight the slippage between the non-fiction and the fiction and builds this into the expanding definition of documentary cinema. 19 Many decisions that the Kraffts made in selecting what to photograph and what to archive are mirrored by Dosa’s production team with both invested in creative, but powerful modes of storytelling. This conjunction can be understood as offering a version of documentary cinema characterised by “polyphonic structures” that “can generate heterotopias through assemblages of difference, diversity, and interdisciplinarity.”20 

How then, do such expanded, multimedia documentaries like Fire of Love remain faithful to their “truth” to their scientific base? Lisa French explains the complex relationship between documentary film, truth and indexical reality, writing, 

Documentaries are films that are indexical in that they have a direct connection or relationship to the real referent that was in front of the camera (the profilmic event). They represent the filmmaker’s view or mediation on something that actually occurred . . . Therefore, it has a relationship to reality rather than status as “truth” (truth is a slippery, subjective thing and one filmmaker’s truth will be different to another’s).21

Dosa reimagines this historiography, shaping the “slippery truth” from the Krafft’s archive. What results is a renewed version of the compilation film, reconstructions of “histories in dialogue with the urgency of the present.”22 These documentaries transcend a cinéma vérité ethos, and embody a post-vérité turn that emerges from the increased focus on the existing image provided by the archive, contextualised within the present.23 This suggests that archival imagery exists as more than an indexical signification of the past, complicating a clear-cut signification of the past as the underlying organising principle of archive.24 Fire of Love is post- vérité in its use of graphic art, hand-drawn animations, foley, splintered form, multiple archives, sources, stories, collaborators, voices and the range of possibilities it offers by its storytelling.

Fire of Love is part of the recent documentary turn in the way that it negotiates the domains of the actual and the fiction. This film emerges from the new documentary tradition that is characterised by a loss of faith in the objectivity of the image and where, instead, a “mirror with a memory” gives way to multiple mirrors, to many versions of reality, as Linda Williams argues.25 For Williams, postmodern documentaries are marked by a dual desire for images that provide insight, a new appreciation of an unknown truth alongside the deluge of images that deny “a priori truth of the referent to which the image refers.”26 Williams points to an inherent paradox where “truth is ‘not guaranteed’ and cannot be transparently reflected, yet some kinds of partial and contingent truths are nevertheless the always receding goal of the documentary tradition.”27

However, towards the end of the film, Fire of Love shifts tone and returns to focus on the documentary image and the historical document. In 1985 the Kraffts added their voices to a call from geoscientists to recognise the 100 per cent probability of destructive mudflows for communities surrounding the Nevado del Ruiz volcano and to consider evacuation plans. As the narrator tells us, the “decisionmakers deem these plans too costly” and “mudflows swallowed the villages late at night while residents slept.” The documentary pauses to register the sounds of the eruption, the images mostly black. When the image returns it reveals sepia coloured close-up shots of children covered in mud, their distress evident in their shaking bodies. After witnessing the destruction and devastation in Armero where more than 23,000 people were killed and alongside “disaster-stricken people”, Katia confesses that, “we are embarrassed to call ourselves vulcanologists.” She also recognises the disparity between her experience and Maurice’s, as he is on a lecture tour talking about the creative potential of volcanoes at that time. In a television interview Katia talks about the power of filmmaking to communicate the potential for damage and teach about evacuation. Moments later, Fire of Love amplifies Katia’s words using a series of aerial shots that detail the destruction caused by Mount St Helens. The montage begins with detail of green trees with foliage tinged by ash. The next image shows tree trunks with missing foliage. This is followed by trees that have been felled, their trunks like matchsticks that have been forced to the ground. This powerful montage ends with a landscape that has been reduced to ash. Apart from the low hum of a helicopter, this sequence remains silent until the engine sounds fade up towards the end. Richard A. Kerr expresses the Kraffts hope “that by educating public officials to the threat of pyroclastic flows, their daring cinematography would help forestall disasters” and states that just prior to their death, they had just completed a video for policymakers that illustrated the whole range of volcanic hazards.”28 With this sequence, Fire of Love fulfills Katia’s wishes. These impressions of destruction and desolation are stark, and they restate Fire of Love’s connections to cinéma vérité.

Throughout, Fire of Love carefully negotiates the limitations between what can and cannot be shown. Calderazzo details the horror of the eruption on Mt Unzen as a Japanese news reporter is shown hearing the roar of the lava, turning quickly, “swinging around, his mouth opening” moments before “everything goes to black.” As Calderazzo states, this alarming image was “about half a second” of live footage that was never shown again.29 There are various ways of imagining the fate of the Kraffts at Mt Unzen. Calderazzo imagines it with a sense of romantic fatalism: “There was nothing to do. Maurice and Katia would have known that. Perhaps, though, they had time to look at each other. Perhaps they managed to hold hands. Perhaps they saw a titanium boat coming for them from the secret heart of the world.”30 Fire of Love includes the last image of Katia and Maurice alive, a respectful long shot of the scientists distinguished by their red and yellow coats, filming Mt Unzen from what they had calculated was a safe distance. The documentary then relies on news footage showing a journalist escaping the blast, leaving his camera standing recording the pyroclastic flow live. It loses transmission, reverts to a test pattern, and then snow. July’s narration returns to the start as she mentions a watch that was recovered from the destruction, the time frozen at 4.18pm on June 3, 1991. July reinstates the romantic fatalism that she foregrounded at the start as she says, “Near the site of the surge, the marks on the earth indicated that Katia and Maurice were next to each other.” Alexander Juhasz notes that even in this post-analogue or “beyond the document, era,” documentary “still seeks to address itself to issues relevant to life on this planet.”31 Fire of Love does this uniquely by including new media, by experimenting with the absence of visual imagery to depict images that are beyond representation, and by incorporating images that provide a stark, silent image of disaster. Its narrative begins, pauses, returns to the start, and ultimately ends in heartbreak. It is unable to offer a resolution, only to return to reveal the tragedy that is promised by July at the beginning.


  1. John Calderazzo, “Fire in the Earth, Fire in the Soul: The Final Moments of Maurice and Katia Krafft,” Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 4, no. 2 (Fall 1997): p. 71.
  2. Sara Dosa, Mirabel Pictures, 2018
  3. Émilie Bujès, “Fire of Love,” Visions Du Réel, International Film Festival Nyon, 2022
  4. Owen Gleiberman, “’Fire of Love’ Review: The Most Spectacular Volcano Footage Ever Shot Anchors an Amazing Doc About Two Volcanologists,” Variety, 20 January, 2022
  5. Erika Balsom and Hila Peleg, Documentary Across the Disciplines (Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2016), p. 18
  6. Sara Dosa, Fire of Love, Director: Sara Dosa, Production: Sandbox Films, Intuitive Pictures, Cottage M, National Geographic Documentary Films, 2021
  7. Lev Manovich, “Post-Media Aesthetics,” (2001)
  8. Bill Nichols, ”The Voice of the Documentary,” Film Quarterly 36, no. 3 (Spring, 1983): p. 18
  9. Simon Morley, The Sublime (Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2010)
  10. Richard A. Kerr, “Dancing with Death at Unzen Volcano,” Science 253, no. 5017 (July 19, 1991): p. 271
  11. Calderazzo, “Fire in the Earth, Fire in the Soul,” p. 73
  12. Ibid., p. 76
  13. Owen Gleiberman, “’Fire of Love Review: The Most Spectacular Volcano Footage Ever Shot Anchors an Amazing Doc About Two Volcanologists,” Variety, 20 January, 2022
  14. Abby Sun, “Sundance 2022 Critic’s Notebook: Fire of Love, Every Day in Kaimauki and Shorts,” Filmmaker Magazine (January 24, 2022)
  15. Ibid
  16. Jacques Derrida and Eric Prenowitz, “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression,” Diacritics 25, no. 2 (Summer, 1995): p. 17
  17.  Craig Hight, “The Field of Digital Documentary: A Challenge to Documentary Theorists,” Studies in Documentary Film 2, no. 1 (2008): p. 4
  18. Jihoon Kim, Documentary’s Expanded Fields: New Media and the Twenty-First Century Documentary (New York: Oxford University Press, 2022), pp. 2–3
  19. Ibid
  20. Patricia Zimmerman, “Polyphony and the Emerging Collaborative Ecologies of Documentary Media Exhibition,” Afterimage 47, no. 1 (2020): p. 63
  21.  Lisa French, The Female Gaze in Documentary Film: An International Perspective (Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021), p. 4
  22. Jihoon Kim, “The Uses of Found Footage and the ‘Archival Turn’ of Recent Korean Documentary,” Third Text 34, Issue 2 (2020): p. 238
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid., pp. 238–239
  25. Linda Williams, “Mirrors Without Memories: Truth, History, and the New Documentary,” Film Quarterly 46, no. 3, (Spring 1993): pp. 9–21
  26.  Ibid., p. 10
  27.  Ibid., p. 14
  28. Kerr, “Dancing with Death,” p. 271
  29.  Calderazzo, “Fire in the Earth, Fire in the Soul,” p. 71
  30. Ibid., p. 77
  31. Alexandra Juhasz, “Introduction” in A Companion to Contemporary Documentary Film, Alexandra Juhasz and Alisa Lebow, eds. (Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Wiley Blackwell, 2015) p. 16

About The Author

Associate Professor Wendy Haslem researches the intersections of film history and new media. Her book From Méliès to New Media: Spectral Projections (Intellect, 2019) examines the persistence of traces of celluloid materiality on digital screens. Wendy produced the 'MIFF at 70' dossier for Senses of Cinema in 2022 and her current research project is dedicated to the histories and possible futures of optics and screen media.

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