A void in the stomach: Fire at Sea

Fire at Sea (Fuocoammare) (2016)

A striking look at the European refugee crisis whose fly-on-the-wall directing approach lets it build a revealing portrait of two contrasting realities

Fire at Sea


Writ­ten and di­rect­ed by Gi­an­fran­co Rosi.

Fire at Sea, win­ner of the Gold­en Bear at the 66th Berlin In­ter­na­tion­al Film Fes­ti­val, is a strik­ing look at the cur­rent refugee cri­sis in Eu­rope. Lo­cat­ed about 120 miles off the Si­cil­ian south­ern coast and with an area of 7.8 square miles, the Ital­ian is­land of Lampe­dusa is seen as a pri­ma­ry en­try point into Eu­rope for more than forty thou­sand African mi­grants who risk their lives cross­ing the Mediter­ranean Sea every year in the hopes of start­ing a new life. Us­ing the same fly-on-the-wall ap­proach of his sol­id Sacro GRA (2013), di­rec­tor Gi­an­fran­co Rosi ob­serves the lives of a group of peo­ple on the is­land and in the process builds a re­veal­ing por­trait of the con­trast­ing re­al­i­ties lived by the lo­cals and the Africans who ar­rive there.

A place of tremen­dous beau­ty, Lampe­dusa owes most of its econ­o­my to tourism. The pop­u­la­tion of 6,304 peo­ple, most­ly fish­er­men, live main­ly off what the sea has to of­fer. Rosi un­der­stands the im­por­tance of the sea for the Lampe­du­sans and ob­tains stun­ning shots of it us­ing an ARRI Ami­ra dig­i­tal cam­era that also al­lows him to shoot in dark en­vi­ron­ments. We wit­ness the sur­veil­lance of those wa­ters and the peace­ful mo­ments of the lo­cals in their fish­ing boats and pon­toons. On the is­land, Samuele spends his time mak­ing sling­shots and tar­gets out of cac­ti to pre­tend to shoot at them. His fa­ther tells him about the hard life when he used to spend six to sev­en months per year away on the high seas. Now, he prefers the shores, and Rosi’s cam­era glides un­ob­tru­sive­ly as it shows his fam­i­ly of three eat­ing pas­ta with seafood in peace.

The mi­grants also pre­fer the shores, for the sea can be so cru­el and un­for­giv­ing. In one giv­en mo­ment, we see the doc­tor in need of a cul­tur­al me­di­a­tor so that he can ex­plain to a preg­nant African woman the sex of her twin ba­bies. The lan­guage is also a bar­ri­er, and there is a whole pro­ce­dure for the pro­cess­ing of the mi­grants, who ar­rive af­ter sev­er­al days at sea in bad shape and cov­ered with chem­i­cal burns from diesel fuel. One of them tells us how he fled from Nige­ria through the Sa­ha­ran Desert for many weeks into Libya, where sev­er­al went to prison and died af­ter years of be­ing locked up. Libya un­der ISIS didn’t want to help Africans, and out of nine­ty pas­sen­gers on his boat, only thir­ty sur­vived.

The con­di­tions are so aw­ful for those who at­tempt this cross­ing that some have to be re­moved from the boats to re­ceive med­ical at­ten­tion be­fore reach­ing the is­land due to their crit­i­cal state, de­hy­drat­ed and ex­haust­ed. It is a trag­ic sight, and we can un­der­stand why the doc­tor can’t get used to what he sees and feels a hole in his stom­ach every time he has to ex­am­ine the dead bod­ies of women and chil­dren in such a hor­ri­ble state. “It is the duty of every hu­man be­ing to help these peo­ple,” he says. In­deed, it is. When an African man looks straight to the cam­era at one mo­ment, it is like shades of François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959), al­most beg­ging us to not turn our faces away from what we see.

But even as it shows the hard­ships en­dured by these mi­grants des­per­ate to es­cape hell, Fire at Sea also finds space for del­i­ca­cy and hu­mor, and that in fact also speaks of this cul­tur­al con­trast. We see mi­grants from so many coun­tries like So­ma­lia, Libya, Su­dan, Syr­ia and Er­itrea play­ing soc­cer to­geth­er and unit­ed by their com­mon sit­u­a­tion, which is, how­ev­er, still far from be­ing as peace­ful as the lives of the lo­cals who can af­ford hav­ing a cof­fee in the af­ter­noon and lis­ten­ing to the ra­dio. And Samuele, de­spite hav­ing a fun­ny anx­i­ety cri­sis, does have a child­hood to re­mem­ber when he is old­er, and the scene that shows him in the class­room is de­light­ful in its sim­plic­i­ty.

With no need to make any ef­fort to show us that there are too many things wrong with this world, Fire at Sea touch­es upon more hard-hit­ting points than Sacro GRA did. I agree in parts with The Econ­o­mist that we don’t see how the lives of the lo­cals are af­fect­ed by the pres­ence of the mi­grants who pass through the is­land on their way to Eu­rope or back to Africa, but the last scene couldn’t be more telling and mean­ing­ful as it shows a boy play­ing war while there are peo­ple in so many places who suf­fer real ones and fight to es­cape them.

Sep­tem­ber 7, 2016


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