The island of Lampedusa sits between Sicily and the Libyan capital Tripoli, occupies approximately 20 square kilometres and, for generations, has been a place of little import on a global scale; primarily known for its modest fishing industry.
In recent years, however, its seas have become increasingly busy with shabby vessels transporting desperate migrants toward the supposed safe havens of Europe. Gianfranco Rosi’s Grand Bear winning documentary Fire At Sea throws a coolly detached light on the island, contrasting the horrendous discoveries made by the local military out day and night searching for the scores of drowning men and women with the blissfully unaware mundanity of island life.
‘Detached’ is perhaps something of a misnomer in this instance for, as the film progresses, one can’t help but sense Rosi’s aghast indignation behind the camera at the travesties of human suffering he documents out on the ocean waves. Yet, Fire At Sea pointedly, determinedly remains passive in its depiction of such things. Rosi is unseen, unheard. Aside from brief text at the top of the picture providing context, there is no narration, no hand-holding for the audience. Rosi’s film is an example of observational filmmaking, and he has captured some indelible images here.
Early on, for instance, a solitary searchlight combing the featureless waves at night seems like the beam from a UFO, so stark and lonesome in it’s wandering, almost futile focus. Soon after the sci-fi trappings continue as we encounter numerous African survivors glinting in foil recovery blankets, looking like dispossessed extras from an Ed Wood film set. One senses how these ‘aliens’, greeted by men in hazmat-style suits designed to avert contamination, might feel as though they’ve been abducted themselves. Europe’s greeting is as pragmatic as it is intimidating.
Later, a weary doctor (whom we meet frequently) talks solemnly about his work and his discoveries, countering the argument that seeing so much death and degradation must become numbing. Eventually we are afforded a look inside one of the wretched boats that have arrived near the shores of Lampedusa – still scattered with the bodies of those who died of dehydration on the journey – and Rosi quietly trumps any sense of horror seen in the depths of The Blair Witch Project, say.
It’s a riveting peek into the realities of a crisis so often brushed over in Western society (often reduced to yet another repetitive, divisive news cycle of stock images, none of which capture the matter-of-fact hardships Rosi sends us). In perhaps the film’s most memorable scene, a refugee leads a chant with his fellow survivors, documenting their journey so far from country to country, cataloguing their woes.
Every scene that depicts the crap shoot chaos at sea lands with weight. Yet this is not the only tale Rosi tells us. The rest is far harder to quantify.
For every scene within the immigration crisis there are two spent on land a few precious miles away with a boy named Samuele and his surrounding family. Samuele likes to make sling shots and, with a friend, practices his aim on targets cut from cacti. He has a lazy eye and is subdued about wearing an eye-patch to help correct his vision. His father works in the fishing industry, but Samuele himself gets sick at sea. His mother is a homemaker. Another relative has a radio show and takes requests. Elsewhere we also occasion upon a diver.
Rosi’s eye picks out unique and pleasing compositions in which to frame his subjects, but the overwhelmingly mundane nature of their everyday lives quickly begins to frustrate, something only compounded by the emergencies happening just off the coast. Rosi’s point is clear -while we get on with the minutiae of day-to-day-life there are lethal news-worthy events happening just out of our line of sight – yet his method proves exceedingly trying. I say again; the ratio here is about 2-1, making our visits to the horrors at sea feel oddly precious as so much running time is used up on the trivialities at home.
It’s a lesson hard learned, especially in the second hour, when virtually any return to the island and Samuele’s increasingly banal activities generates resentment. The migration crisis feels too important for these laboured departures. We spend several minutes, for instance, watching Samuele’s mother make a bed. It’s almost insufferable and it almost capsizes the film entirely. If there are any deeper correlations to be made between the films disparate narrative subjects, I’m at a loss to pinpoint them.
All of which makes Fire At Sea something of a quandary. On the one hand it provides a shining spotlight on a situation too often scoffed at, taken for granted or worse still ignored, one the other it often feels as though proving this point has, by necessity, taken away from exposing the crisis more completely.
An exercise in underlining indifference that troubles as much as it, frankly, bores (there were several walk-outs at the screening I attended). Ultimately, however, Fire At Sea presents it’s share of provocative, important imagery that it cannot be cast aside. But such insights come at a notable cost.