Fire At Sea


Capturing life on the Italian island of Lampedusa, a frontline in the European migrant crisis.

For those who like their cinema directly linked to the pressing issues of the day, Gianfranco Rosi’s latest is an important work. Fire At Sea documents life on and around Lampedusa, Italy’s southernmost island, with the same observational style and ethnographic approach as Rosi’s previous film Sacro GRA, Venice’s Golden Lion winner in 2013. It's rare for a documentary to receive such an honour, but Italy has this year chosen the film to represent it at the Oscars in the Foreign Language Film category.

Poster for the documentary Fire At SeaThe mere mention of Lampedusa has tragic connotations. Located little more than 100 kilometres from Tunisia, the rocky isle has become known as the entry point into Europe for masses of refugees fleeing war and genocide in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Some 400,000 migrants have passed through Lampedusa in the last two decades, while in the same period, 15,000 are estimated to have died in transit.

As a director, Rosi prefers for the viewer to build a picture rather than be sold one. He refrains from perpetuating, at least with his own camera, the media’s go-to avatar for Europe’s refugee crisis: an alarmingly primitive, badly equipped vessel overcrowded with hundreds of indistinguishably desperate people. When we do see this image in the film, it’s a still photograph held by a local doctor, who reckons 850 refugees are aboard what can only be described as a glorified raft. Those on the top deck have paid $1,500 for the ‘privilege’ of being first-class.

Rather than hammering home such horrific absurdities, Rosi instead accumulates details and cuts between the various protagonists – islanders and refugees alike. It’s an intelligent approach to a subject matter too often sensationalized by the mainstream media. There are no debates, no sermons, no semantic confusions between ‘migrant’ and ‘refugee’ to distract from the important issue at hand.

Rosi captures the lesser-seen sides to this ongoing catastrophe. A local doctor performs an ultrasound scan on one refugee who’s expecting twins. Other refugees huddle aboard a rescue ship in foil-thin heat-sheets.

Such scenes are interspersed with snapshots of life on Lampedusa itself, as experienced chiefly by one intergenerational family, in particular Samuele, a precocious 12-year-old who provides unexpected but welcome levity to the film. Somewhere amidst these scenes, however, we sense a poignant contrast between the plight of those refugees who Samuele never encounters and the ultimate loneliness that accompanies his own life in such a remote locale (he spends much of his spare time shooting make-believe aircraft from the sky).

Himself a refugee, Rosi was born in Eritrea in 1961 during that country’s war of independence, and transported to Italy in 1977 – without his parents. Opting for a highly stylized and often strikingly beaufitul observational mode, Rosi understands that an urgent frontline missive needn’t be ugly. He also illustrates how cinema’s strength lies not in posing facile questions (never mind providing answers), but in bearing witness to those unable to record their own ongoing resilience and for whom a future is far from secure.

– Michael Pattison, IndieWire

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