Fire at Sea – first look

Lampedusa’s overwhelming influx of boat people is given initially oblique, ultimately eye-opening expression by Gianfranco Rosi, the quicksilver master of present-tense documentary cinema.

Geoff Andrew
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Fuocoammare (Fire at Sea, 2016)

The latest documentary by Gianfranco Rosi (whose films include Sacro GRA, winner of Venice’s Golden Lion in 2013), shot on and around the Italian island of Lampedusa, focuses on a number of the inhabitants – notably 12-year-old Samuele, his fisherman father and grandmother, a diver, the doctor, the local radio DJ and his elderly aunt and uncle. Interspersed among the deftly observed sequences depicting the in many ways highly traditional daily lives of these people are scenes of the considerably more harrowing experiences of the countless migrants – dead, dying or almost miraculously alive – who have braved the waters of the Mediterranean in cramped, fragile boats, fleeing Libya in the hope of finding peace, freedom and happiness in Europe.

At first it feels almost as if Rosi might be treating these unfortunates as faceless second-class citizens since (unlike the locals) they are not really presented as individuals but in large, barely differentiated groups – inevitably perhaps, given the difficult circumstances of their arrival in Lampedusa, as they’re rescued from boats, taken ashore, searched, photographed and checked for disease. But just as some viewers might begin to tire of following the admittedly cute Samuele in his apparently endless quest to destroy birds and cacti with his beloved catapult, Rosi shifts the emphasis a little: one youth, being photographed for purposes of identification, suddenly meets and holds the camera’s gaze (and ours), establishing a real sense of contact; among a group of Nigerians chanting prayers, one man recounts the many trials and tribulations they have faced, including the demise of most of their fellow travellers, in their odyssey across the Sahara, through ISIS-held Libyan towns and then across the sea; women are shown grieving in close-up; and the corpses of those who didn’t make it appear piled upon one another in a boat’s hold.

Fuocoammare (Fire at Sea, 2016)

As the film proceeds it becomes clear that the early focus on Samuele and his compatriots is crucial, not only in suggesting how little the passage of the migrants through the island seems to affect the daily lives of most Lampedusans, but also in rendering the film watchable: were it focused exclusively on the experiences of the migrants, it might be too distressing to bear. The crucial figure in the movie, in fact, is not Samuele but the doctor, who effectively serves as the link between the two seemingly separate worlds on view. He also provides the film’s most powerful scene, pointing out that, in contrast to what his friends tell him, he can and will never ‘get used’ to having to deal with so much death and suffering, and lamenting the affronts the migrants have to undergo even in death. His testimony, like many of the images in this film, should be compulsory viewing for all those politicians and others who would refuse these people a safe haven and a new home.

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