For The Love Of Volcanoes
A new documentary, “Fire of Love,” tells the story of French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft. The married couple spent two decades chasing volcanic eruptions across the world. Katia was a geochemist and Maurice a geologist. Together, they studied the science of volcanoes and produced films showcasing their power. That is, until their deaths in 1991, when they were killed by the very thing they loved so much.
Guest host Sophie Bushwick talks with Sara Dosa, director of the documentary “Fire of Love,” which is in theaters nationwide, and will be available on Disney+ later this year.
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Sara Dosa is the director of the film Fire of Love.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: This is Science Friday. I’m Sophie Bushwick. Fire of Love tells the story of French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Kraft. The married couple spent two decades chasing volcanic eruptions across the world. Katia was a geochemist, and Maurice a geologist. Together, they studied the science of volcanoes and produced films showcasing their power. That is, until their deaths in 1991, when they were killed by the very thing they loved so much.
SPEAKER: They will leave behind hundreds of hours of footage, thousands of photos, and a million questions. Alone, they could only dream of volcanoes. Together, they can reach them.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: The love story between Maurice and Katia, and the volcanoes they documented, is at the heart of the new documentary Fire of Love. Joining me now is the film’s director, Sara Dosa. Sara, welcome to Science Friday.
SARA DOSA: Thanks so much, Sophie. It’s great to be here.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: What initially drew you to the story of Katia and Maurice Kraft?
SARA DOSA: So I first met Katia and Maurice Kraft, actually, when I was researching images for the last film I directed, a film called The Seer and the Unseen. That film was shot entirely in Iceland, which is actually a volcanic island. And we were looking for old images of erupting volcanoes in Iceland for one specific scene. Once you start researching erupting volcanoes, archives, Iceland, you learn about Katia and Maurice Kraft.
My team and I, we were immediately struck by just these spectacular images. But it was really once we started to learn about them as individuals, these philosophical and playful, hilarious, and brilliant scientists, but also as a couple, the fact that they were married. So we really thought that there could be a unique story here.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And the film is a love triangle between Katia, Maurice, and volcanoes. But this is Science Friday. So how did you decide how much science you were going to put into the story?
SARA DOSA: So we really see Fire of Love as a collage, both in terms of the archival material that we used to edit it together, but it’s also a collage film thematically. We really wanted the film to be a love story, a science story, a character portrait, and also a kind of Sagan-esque meditation on humanity’s place. But it was very difficult to do all of those things without the film becoming volcano movie soup.
But we really realized that a science story and a love story and the character story can all kind of cohere through the lens of seeking understanding amid the unknown, pursuing understanding of these mysteries– the grand mystery that are these powerful forces of volcanoes as well as the mystery of the human heart.
SPEAKER: Katia and Maurice are after this strange alchemy of elements– the combination of mineral, heat, gas, and time that incites in eruption. What is it, they ask, that makes the Earth’s heart beat, its blood flow? They study, examine, and question. Katia and Maurice begin to learn the secrets of the planet that few others know.
Understanding is love’s other name.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: There are so many mesmerizing shots of volcanoes in the film. We see lava eruptions, rivers of lava, these bubbling close-ups. You went through over 200 hours of footage from the Krafts’ archive and then 50 additional hours of TV interviews and appearances. How did you decide which of these images to use for the film?
SARA DOSA: Yeah, well, first, I had a phenomenal team. And we kind of very much tackled this together. It was so challenging to whittle down all of this footage into 93 minutes. But we really used kind of the prism of a love story to guide us, first and foremost. There was no footage of Katia and Maurice kissing or holding hands, or any shots of their romantic life together. They were so focused on filming volcanoes that that kind of intimate personal life, it did not show up in their visual record.
But we very much realized that images of volcanoes was actually their love language. And so to tell a love story using their own footage, we started to kind of look for how that could kind of show up in their imagery itself. For example, at the beginning of their relationship, we used images of kind of bubbling lava and sparks flying, things that can kind of help to communicate the early, exciting, catalytic phase of a relationship. Then, as the love story kind of bloomed and blossomed, we get more explosive, more dreamy with our imagery. Of course, there’s twists and turns and conflicts and darkness that comes, also, in the process of falling in love and really understanding your lover, be it a human or your love being a volcano.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: In an interview included in the film, a young Maurice rejects classification systems. But eventually, he does go on to talk about two different types of volcanoes, red volcanoes and gray volcanoes. So what’s the difference between these, and how did these two types of volcanoes shape the trajectory of Katia and Maurice’s careers?
SARA DOSA: Yeah, I always love that about Katia and Maurice, that they very much rejected labels and really did seek to understand, in their words, kind of the personalities and the moods, the individual characteristics of volcanoes. But yeah, loosely, red and gray, otherwise known as effusive or explosive, volcanoes came to kind of characterize these two loose categories of volcanoes that they studied.
Very briefly, effusive or red volcanoes are the iconic magmatic volcanoes of the beautiful orange lava flows that come down and cascade like waterfalls from, oftentimes, cones or shield volcanoes. So gray volcanoes, or explosive volcanoes, are also known as killer volcanoes because they’re known to be some of the most powerful and deadly forces on the planet. Mount St. Helens, for example, is an explosive volcano. And in 1980, during that eruption, it was thought to be about 25,000 times the energy release of that of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. So it’s really an extraordinary power.
For Katia and Maurice, they began their career just totally in love with all volcanoes, but particularly enchanted by red volcanoes. First and foremost, they really thought red volcanoes create new land. And that was something that was so enchanting to them, to really see life come forth from this spectacle.
However, over the course of their life, they sought deeper and deeper understanding. They wanted to go towards the unknown and towards the danger. They were driven kind of by the thrill of it. But also, there was a real need to study this beguiling, awesome force.
In 1985, the Nevado del Ruiz volcano in Colombia erupted and very tragically killed over 22,000 people. Some reports have it as 25,000 people died in that eruption. And that was because, even though this volcano was predicted to erupt, warning systems were not properly implemented, and evacuations did not take place.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: I believe Katia and Maurice actually contributed to the report that warned authorities that they had to do it, a report that was ignored.
SARA DOSA: Yes, yeah. Katia and Maurice were very much part of a chorus of scientists that were calling for these warning systems to be implemented. However, they really were not taken seriously, largely due to political economic complexity in Colombia at the time.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That really echoes what we’ve seen today with a lot of big issues– climate change, the COVID pandemic. Scientists warn that there’s a big problem, but governments fail to act. Do you see a parallel there?
SARA DOSA: Absolutely. That was something our team really thought a lot about as we were making Fire of Love, the fact that all these scientists and also people who lived in relationship with the volcano aside from volcanologists, people who really had lived experience and a relationship with the land, their voices were very much ignored because largely economic interests were taking priority. And that’s something we’re absolutely seeing right now with our climate crisis. We really hoped that that storyline could resonate in today’s world, even though we’re telling this story 30 years ago.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: I mean, one of the reasons that Katia and Maurice were focusing on film was that they hoped to use that to communicate some of the risks about volcanoes that were ignored in 1985. Do you think that there is value to science communication today to the use of film or to other techniques to communicate clearly where just a written report wouldn’t work?
SARA DOSA: Yeah, absolutely. That was something Katia and Maurice really gravitated towards, especially towards the end of their career. They really noticed how people responded to the power of their imagery. And specifically, Katia and Maurice’s imagery, they were willing to get so close to this totally dangerous phenomenon to capture their imagery. They really thought that if they could kind of create these portraits of these dangerous forces, that would move decision makers, politicians, and help inspire them to create warning systems and various evacuation plans to save lives.
I think that there’s a long history of the power of imagery in terms of environmental movements. For example, the image of earthrise really is always credited as a meaningful one that kind of showed, in 1968, this powerful image of Earth from space really helping to galvanize this idea of this shared home, the power, the sentience, and the aliveness of our planet at a time when we really need stories like that.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And now there are drones that can get really close to volcanoes. But that doesn’t really have the intimacy or the danger of standing so close the way the Krafts did. So do you think that their work was a moment in history that can never be replicated?
SARA DOSA: Yeah, it’s fascinating. I do feel like Katia and Maurice occupy this sliver of time between “never done before” and “will never be done again in the same way.” Katia and Maurice were very much some of the first people to document volcanoes at that close range, and specifically with the kind of technology that they used. They were using 16-millimeter cameras, mostly, which is extremely cumbersome, difficult equipment. But you’re right– you can get up up close. And for Katia and Maurice, too, that was part of the appeal, was that proximity, was literally feeling that heat.
It’s funny, one of Maurice’s friends has said that he thinks that Maurice would absolutely adore drones if he were around today. And I could totally see him being a, quote unquote, “gearhead.” But at the same time, I have to believe that they would still continue to go up to erupting craters if they were still with us today. But drone technology has contributed volumes to the study of volcanoes and geoscience in general, but it has completely kind of changed the relationship and the scope and of course the imagery captured. So yeah, we’ll just say they were pioneers. And I feel like their work is almost kind of a time capsule of that moment.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And that’s all the time we have. Sara, thank you so much for being here.
SARA DOSA: Oh, thank you so much, Sophie. It was such a joy to speak with you.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Sara Dosa is the director of the documentary film Fire of Love. It’s currently in theaters nationwide, and it will be streaming on Disney+ later this year.
Shoshannah Buxbaum is a producer for Science Friday. She’s particularly drawn to stories about health, psychology, and the environment. She’s a proud New Jersey native and will happily share her opinions on why the state is deserving of a little more love.
Sophie Bushwick is technology editor at Scientific American in New York, New York. Previously, she was a senior editor at Popular Science.