Fire At Sea, Kino Lorber, Inc.
In his award-winning documentary Fire at Sea, Eritrean-born director Gianfranco Rosi shines a light on the most devastating refugee crisis since World War II. He focuses on Lampedusa, an Italian island just seventy miles west of Tunisia. In the past twenty years 400,000 migrants, mostly from sub-Saharan and North Africa, have crossed the Mediterranean Sea to the eight-mile-long island of 6,000 residents—many of them fishermen—using it as an entry point to the European Union.
Rosi moved to Lampedusa, spending months there to explore what press notes calls “the greatest humanitarian tragedy of our times.” The deplorable conditions the black and Arab immigrants experience while at sea are heartbreakingly depicted. Like modern-day Roman gladiators—clad in white hazmat suits instead of armor—sailors aboard the Italian naval vessel Cigala Fulgosi make radio contact with desperate, English-speaking boat people, pleading to be rescued. Crewmen in helicopters and motorized crafts pinpoint their position and often arrive to find overcrowded wooden boats, where many of those in third class—in the hold—die due to dehydration, hunger, heat, and other deprivations endured during a passage for which they’ve paid between $1,500 and $800. According to the film, one cramped, rickety boat carries 840 passengers: Human trafficking is big business.
In one haunting shot inside the hold of a ship, what are apparently corpses are strewn about. It calls to mind the disturbing scene in Costa-Gavras’ Missing, the 1982 classic about the Chilean coup against socialist President Allende, when the Americans played by Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek stumble across the cadavers of political prisoners executed by General Pinochet’s henchmen.
Upon being rescued out at sea, the human cargo is transported by Italian servicemen to a detention center at Lampedusa, where conditions appear to be basic, but not drastically inhumane. There, the newcomers from places such as Somalia, Libya, Sudan, Ivory Coast, and Eritrea are given water and some sort of plastic garment to wear. They compete in soccer matches, use payphones to call home, and hold religious services for Muslims and Christians. The camp is merely a way station, a clearinghouse of sorts.
Rosi, who was able to gain rare access to the Italian navy ship as well as the encampment, described the latter as “a world within a world, sealed off from the daily life of the island.” There, for the documentarian, “the greatest challenge was finding a way to film this universe that could convey a sense not only of truth and reality but also of the humanity within.”
In addition to the nautical hell Rosi’s probing camera exposes, the filmmaker reveals that “humanity” very compellingly in a scene where the refugees describe the risks they have undertaken and why. During what may be a church service of Nigerians, one English-speaking man (most of Fire is subtitled) articulately recounts, in harrowing detail, how he and fellow expatriates fled bombing in Nigeria. Escaping to the Sahara, many of them die as they encounter “killing,” “raping,” “hunger,” and the drinking of one’s own urine.
During the nearly two-hour film, Rosi crosscuts between the desperate newcomers to Lampedusa and its longtime Italian inhabitants, who lead simple lives. We see lovely underwater, nighttime sequences of a man in a wetsuit hunting denizens of the deep such as squid. Islanders go fishing in small boats as they pursue a traditional lifestyle. Fire focuses on a little boy, Samuele Puccilo, who enjoys hunting birds in the bush and along Lampedusa’s cliffs with his homemade slingshot and goes to school, where, among other things, he studies English.
Remarkably, the isle’s Italians and migrants appear to lead completely separate, if unequal, lives. But one thing unites them: When they get sick they must turn to Lampedusa’s sole physician, Dr. Pietro Bartolo, who treats Europeans and Africans alike. Bartolo describes himself as a “witness” who must examine every cadaver and describing the horrors he’s seen for three decades, confesses that he “never gets used to it.” Bartolo shares some of these atrocities with Rosi by providing him with computer images and files, but complains of the “emptiness” and “nightmares” they cause him to experience.
“It’s up to every human being to help these people,” proclaims Bartolo, whose compassion and humanity propels him to center stage in Fire. With one foot in both worlds, the doctor symbolizes the conscience of a beleaguered Europe, not unlike Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler, the German who rescued hundreds of Jews from the Holocaust in Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg’s 1993 masterpiece about man’s inhumanity to man.
Rosi attended university in Italy and studied cinema at New York University. His 2013 documentary, Sacro Gra, about Rome’s ring road highway, won the first Golden Lion award at the 70th Venice Film Festival ever awarded to a documentary film. Fire at Sea won the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival and is Italy’s official submission to the 89th Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film. Fire at Sea is a powerful, poignant chronicle about the mass migration catastrophe. It was theatrically released in New York on October 21 and opens October 28 in Los Angeles.
L.A.-based film historian/critic Ed Rampell is the author of Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States and co-author of The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.