FNE at Berlinale 2016: Fire at Sea

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Fire at Sea directed byGianfranco Rosi Fire at Sea directed byGianfranco Rosi

BERLIN: Italian documentary maker Gianfranco Rosi looks to have scored another hit with his Berlin competition Fire at Sea focusing on the small Italian island of Lampedusa and its residents as a way to look at the international migration crisis.

Rosi is already one of the world’s leading documentary makers with his recent festival prize winning documentaries.  Sacro GRA which won the Golden Lion in Venice in 2013 exlores the life along Rome’s ring road while Below Sea Level set in a small town located below sea in the California desert. But Fire at Sea is more focused and more keenly observed than either of these two earlier films and may just be his most successful film to date.

We experience the community of the tiny island of Lampedusa mainly through Samuele Puccilo, a young boy who lives on this small Mediterranean island which just happens to be at the crossroads of the migrant route between North Africa and Europe.  Lampedusa is half way between Sicily and Libya making it the landing point for African migrants trying to reach Europe.

We see Samuele skipping school, climbing rocks by the shore and playing with his slingshot like other young boys.  Lampedusa is a community of fishermen and Samuele looks destine to follow in the footsteps of his family despite getting sea-sick when we see him going out on a boat.

Rosi contrasts the seemingly ordinary life on this small island with the enormous tragedy that is washing over it with thousands of desperate refugees crammed onto small boats trying to land here in an attempt to flee their situation in Africa and the Middle East and get to Europe. 

Rosi shows us the search and rescue operations of cruisers and warships that patrol the area looking for refugee boats in trouble.  In one tragic scene we hear a voice from a rescue ship asking a sinking boat for its position but the boat cannot give its coordinates and all we hear is the response “God save us.”

Rosi also follows the refugees as the land on the island and are taken to a camp to be processed before being taken to the mainland on the surface there seems to be little connection between the life of the fishermen on the island and the migrant crisis that is bringing thousands of migrants to this tiny island.

One of the major exceptions is the island doctor Pietro Bartolo who has to examine the incoming boatloads of refugees and determine who needs immediate medical attention.  He tells heart-breaking stories.  One boy was covered with chemical burns from boat fuel and sea water.  Others do not survive the trip and the doctor has the task of carrying out autopsies on the dead bodies which he laments are “too many, too many.” As he says it is the responsibility of all of us to help these desperate people.

While many filmmakers have thrown together reports on the migrant crisis Rosi spent a year on Lampedusa making this film. He shows he is a great documentary maker as this is not just another report but a fine and moving film.  His previous films were definitely art house faire but the timeliness of the tragic subject may well mean the film finds a much wider audience.  Let’s hope so.

Fire at Sea (Italy, France)
By Gianfranco Rosi

Cast: Samuele Pucillo, Mattias Cucina, Samuele Caruana, Pietro Bartolo, Giuseppe Fragapane