The adventures and anxieties of a young boy, one who possesses impetuous curiosity and imagination and whose gestures resemble the stature of a much older man, are shown in contrast to the traumatic experiences of migrants seeking refuge on the island of Lampedusa in Fire at Sea. For Golden Bear winner Gianfranco Rosi’s fifth feature documentary, Lampedusa became his home for a year in order to capture life on the island where approximately 400,000 refugees have attempted to cross and 15,000 have died in the process.
Rosi establishes the frequent states of emergency the islanders find themselves in; the coast guard receiving a distress call, radio news reporting more deaths, the familiar sight of a boat over capacity floating precariously in the waves. Then we meet Samuele, an expert in the construction of slingshots and mimicking of bird calls, who seems to emanate confidence. Cutting between Samuele’s routine – torturing cacti and slurping seafood spaghetti – and the rescue, processing and aid given to refugees, Rosi demonstrates eloquently what we already know, that tragedy and banality always coexist. That life must go on and that this life can include the romance of a dedicated love song or the perfunctory drinking of coffee, is something that Rosi has clearly taken time and patience to document.
Rosi’s subjects appear totally at ease with his presence, whilst Jacopo Quadri’s neat editing weaves together each human connection, be them small or epic in scale. Such observations of Lampedusa life naturally go beyond what is provided by news media at times of crisis. Whether shooting in a refugee camp, or right alongside the medics attending to the perilously sick aboard rescue boats, Rosi’s camera goes so much further than the familiar, proliferated images of this humanitarian disaster. At one point, among scenes of refugees being processed, once such exhausted traveller looks into the camera directly, his face at once indifferent and exasperated – as if to say, what do we get from looking at him?
Later, the extent of the journey is described through exalted prayer, as men testify to God, for allowing them to survive passage from Nigeria, through the Sahara, then Libya – “a place of ISIS” – and finally, the sea. Of the ninety on their boat, only thirty survived. Alongside Samuele, who reveals a burgeoning hypochondria, is Dr. Bartolo, seen treating both incoming refugees and his young neighbour’s “breathing problems” with the same compassion. Carefully he explains one of his many experiences living on Lampedusa, how a boat carrying 850 people charged thousands of dollars to make the journey and that those below deck, in ‘third class’ were not only hugely dehydrated but also burnt, sometimes fatally, by the combination of sea water and gasoline.
Samuele’s story is told with a resignation and deep sadness that testify, more than mere images ever could, the scale of human tragedy. Fire at Sea is a film that expertly plays with contrasting moments and themes. Moonlit underwater shots, both terrifying and beautiful, portray the elemental drama that those seeking refuge must face around Lampedusa, whilst Samuele, attempting to emulate his seafaring father, strives to learn how to row whilst hindered by a lazy eye. Such innocence and experience, tragedy and comedy, demonstrate the very essence of Rosi’s humanity as a filmmaker and his great skill in representing the unimaginable.
Harriet Warman | @HarrietWarman