Back in February, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said that he intended to bring twenty seven DVD copies of Gianfranco Rosi’s new documentary Fire At Sea (Fuoccoammare) to a European Union summit—one for each of the heads of state or representatives in attendance. Renzi believed that if they watched it, “it will be possible to discuss immigration in a different way.” This might lead one to believe that Fire At Sea is a documentary about the current refugee crisis, but it’s not. At least not in the way you’d expect.
Rosi spends just around a third of the film actually spending time with the refugees, who are crossing the Mediterranean Sea, and the efforts to locate and rescue those who have attempted this perilous voyage. Rosi chooses instead to focus most of his film on the dreary, craggy island of Lampedusa, the southern most point of Italy. Lampedusa has within the past decade become a hotspot for refugee migration due to its proximity to Tunisia and Libya. Rosi observes the lives of the island’s native residents: a local radio DJ answering request calls, a local doctor, a fisherman, but mostly a boisterous young boy named Samuele.
Samuele is like most young boys. He builds slingshots, blows up cacti with firecrackers, and chatters away at anyone who dares listen to him. Life on Lampedusa is not especially glamorous. There’s little vegetation, and most people subsist on fishing, a fact that Samuele may not be too keen on since he’s prone to bouts of seasickness. Despite this, the Lampedusans live in relative comfort and happiness.
What this has to do with the refugee crisis never becomes clear. The relation of the Lampedusans to the migrants is never truly shown on screen. Aside from an occasional radio broadcast announcing that rescuers have found the bodies of those lost at sea, or an interview with the local doctor who treats those who survive the journey, the two plot lines are largely unconnected. There’s hardly any indication that Samuele, who far and away has the most screentime of anyone, is even aware of the refugee’s plight. With no voiceover Rosi leaves it up to the viewer to make connections between the two plot lines.
One consequence of this is that the viewer has no idea what conclusion he’s meant to draw. Perhaps Rosi means to compare the Lampedusans and the refugees: their fates are both linked to the sea. Or maybe he sees the general absence of the refugee crisis in the lives of the Lampedusans as a metaphor for the EU’s minimal efforts to find long-term solutions to the problem. Neither of these conclusions find much support in the film. This isn’t to say that directors should hold the viewer’s hand, but Rosi’s intentions here can be so opaque that it makes the film seem incohesive.
That being said there’s a lot of good to be said about the film’s coverage of the refugees’ journey. Rosi does not shrink from the ugly side of things. The film culminates in the rescue of a small boat carrying 850 refugees. The refugees are dragged off the boat, categorized by nationality, and gruffly treated for any injuries or illnesses.The bodies of the dehydrated and ill convulse as rescuers try to get fluids back into them. In perhaps the bravest piece of reporting, Rosi travels below the deck of the refugee ship to discover the bodies of at least a hundred people who died on the journey piled one on top of the other. It’s nauseating to watch, but perhaps most necessary to show that this not merely a phenomenon, but truly a full-blown humanitarian crisis.
Rosi doesn’t merely dwell on the grizzly elements of the refugee journey. He observes the migrants living at a facility they’ve been taken to on Lampedusa. It’s not particularly luxurious but they are utterly joyful to be out of harm’s way. They sing about how grateful they are to no longer be at sea, and they organize themselves into their respective nations of origin to create an international soccer tournament. It’s absolutely human, creating joy in the wake of such trauma.
The film itself is visually a mixed bag. Rosi does construct the occasional incredible shot. A line of rescued refugees all draped in gold space blankets make them look both alien and ethereal as they’re callously processed in the dead of night. Another shot shows several rescue workers in white hazmat suits standing over body bags looking out at a Mediterranean sea that looks more like tar than water as it reflects a grey sky. The sea looks sinister as the shot colors truly how dangerous the journey is for the refugees.
But this precision can cut both ways. Some of the shots can feel contrived in the documentary format. In one shot a camera watches from the end of a dock as Samuele walks toward it. The seeming spontaneity of this scene vanishes when one realizes it had to have been set-up: the camera had to be there first. In a second scene towards the end of the film, Rosi spends what feels like an eternity watching an elderly couple wordlessly sip tea together. It deflates any momentum the film has. Rosi will often build these shots, both pedestrian and otherwise, and then complacently sit in them, self indulgently soaking up the atmosphere.
And that’s the main fault of this film. Though well intentioned, Rosi’s presentation becomes altogether too sentimental about Lampedusa and adolescence. Lampedusa takes center stage in a film that had been billed as a game-changer for the refugee crisis. Like the EU, Rosi himself ends up pushing the refugees to the peripheries. That’s too bad, because they’re the people we need to hear about.