FIRE AT SEA is a masterly and moving look at the migrant crisis in Europe, a stellar and timely documentary that contrasts the lives of the desperate thousands of refugees landing on the shores of a Sicilian island with the everyday existence of local citizens. The film won the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlin Film Festival.
A neorealist classic directed by Gianfranco Rosi, FIRE AT SEA is a portrait of Lampedusa, the Sicilian island where desperate migrants from Africa and the Middle East arrive each year hoping for a new life in Europe: 400,000 in the last 20 years. Around its coast thousands are drowned, or dragged dead from their makeshift inflatables or burned or poisoned by fumes from the diesel powered rickety boats that barely navigate through choppy seas. The ones who do survive the treacherous journey to Lampedusa (the island has become the tragic epicenter of this migrant experience), become people with no classification or country, a limbo that is part holding tank, part cemetery.
Using mainly fixed camera positions and no narrative voiceover, the director Rosi enigmatically juxtaposes scenes, switching between the migrants’ daily, desperate landfall, and the everyday existence of one Lampedusa family: and one young boy in particular, Samuele, whose uncle is a fisherman. Samuele does his best at school, he slurps his pasta at dinner, and he likes perfecting his homemade slingshot, which he uses more to cause mischief rather than defending himself. He also has a medical issue and is seen regularly by a depressed doctor, who has to regularly attend to the migrants and also conduct frequent autopsies on wretched corpses that wash up on shore. He is the conduit in the film between the migrants’ story and Samuele, a small symptom to a larger malaise.
But the observational style of the film does not take sides of this dilemma. It is not a call to action. It simply shows us the details, presenting a more holistic perspective that is far more informed than what you see on the nightly news.