Fire at Sea
Directed by: Gianfranco Rosi.
Written by: Gianfranco Rosi and Carla Cattani.
Fire at Sea opens with a title card that informs the audience that Lampedusa in an island in the Mediterranean Sea – some 70 miles off the coast of Africa, and 120 miles away from Sicily. Because of this, the island ends up being a popular place for migrants from Africa, fleeing war and death, to end up – after they’ve packed themselves into rickety boats and head off for Europe. In the past few decades, roughly 400,000 of these refugees have ended up travelling Lampedusa – and 15,000 of them have died. That is all the context that director Gianfranco Rosi provides the audience with in the course of the movie – there will be no more title cards, no narration. He will just cut together the story of the locals on Lampedusa, most of whom go about their lives as if this crisis isn’t literally on their shores, and scenes of more and more of these refugees trying to get to Europe – and hopefully freedom.
The point of Fire at Sea is hard to miss – that there is a very real crisis going on right now, and most of us in the Western world really don’t give a shit. The Syrian refugee crisis is the biggest tragedy of its kind since WWII, and European countries (and America) are all arguing about what to do with them because no one wants them. It isn’t just Syrians either – its people from many countries in Africa – in the movie, we’ll see some from the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Sudan, etc. They pack these boats with hundreds of people – and set out to sea without enough food or water – some will die of dehydration, some will die simply because they are packed into too tight. Some will get covered in diesel fuel that will leave burns all over their bodies – that may will kill them. They are coming in by the thousands, doing anything they can to survive.
For most of the first part of Fire at Sea though, we don’t see these refugees. Instead, we see the people of Lampedusa go about their lives as normal. A DJ, who takes requests for songs, who does report on how many people on the latest boat to arrive died – so that Italian housewives, can click their tongues and say “So sad”, and go back to their lives. The main subject of this part of the documentary is Samuele – a young boy on Lampedusa, who comes from a long line of fishermen, but may not be long for the sea (he cannot row a boat very well, and throws up when he’s on the fishing boat). He prefers the mindless destruction he inflicts with his slingshot, or pretends to inflict with a machine guns. We see the local doctor talk about treating these migrants – who difficult it is, but how if you are a human being, you cannot turn away. Then we see the same doctor provide help to Samuele – whose main problem (aside from a lazy eye) may be hypochondria. It really isn’t until the last third of the movie that we start to see more and more of the refugees – a long close-up of a man singing his story – about travelling through the desert, being locked in jail, drinking his piss, etc. We see as an Italian boat is called in to help a refugee boat – where the lucky refugees are just mildly dehydrated – while the unlucky ones are literally twitching on the ground close to death – and the final people off the boat are the dozens who have already died. Rosi doesn’t flinch away these details, making the audience take in the images we try to look away from.
Fire at Sea is the antithesis of so called “hyperlink” documentaries – those well-meaning docs that we see by the dozen each year, that look at a tragic issue facing America or the world, congratulates the viewer for caring, offering a simplistic solution – and whose end credits always contain a website and a plea to “Get Involved”. Those films, as well meaning as they are often dutiful and rather dull, and who technical credentials are barely passable. Rosi’s film doesn’t lecture the audience, it doesn’t congratulate us in anyway – and is brilliantly constructed. There are beautiful images throughout the film, that serve to underscore the pain and suffering we see at the same time. The film doesn’t lecture – because it doesn’t need to. Everything it has to say, it says clearly (in fact, a few times, I think Rosi underlines his point too much – even without preachy voiceover). But the result is a haunting, and important film – a film that demands to be seen and reckoned with.