Fire at Sea (Fuocoammare) (2016)



This stunningly crafted documentary, ostensibly about the European refugee crisis, won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Without narration, context nor exposition other than a few paragraphs before it starts, the film juxtaposes the quiet life of the inhabitants of the island of Lampedusa with the horrific plight of those attempting to cross from Africa to Europe.

The Italian island of Lampedusa, only 20 km², is closer to Africa than Sicily and rescuing refugees from sinking boats has become a regular part of life. Distress calls come in as boats holding hundreds of people founder. Faceless white hazmat-suited officials pull dead and dying people aboard. The only voice to speak about it is a doctor who talks of his experience treating the damaged and dying and shows his grief in the face of such tragedy.

Contrasted with these eerily-lit scenes are the stories of the Lampedusans, in particular 12-year-old Samuele who roams freely, making slingshots and questioning his father about life on the sea. The naturalism of his performance makes you forget this is a documentary, his self-possession and articulateness make him immensely watchable. We see the slow repetition of daily tasks that make up the life of the people on the island. It is predictable, unhurried, unaffected by the world at large and intimately connected to the sea. Though we don’t know their names, we piece together an understanding of Samuele and his family, the doctor, Aunty Maria who phones in song requests to her nephew at the radio station, the diver searching the depths of the turbulent sea lit only by his torch.

In contrast, the refugees are largely faceless, voiceless, a desperate mass gasping and floundering like a nightmare trawl of fish pulled aboard. There are a few resounding moments – the Nigerian singing of their journey across Africa, echoing the diaspora of centuries and the man who describes the upper and lower decks of the boat, two classes that almost guarantee the poor ones below deck will die first.

It is an odd choice, to give no face nor agency to the refugees. Is this because filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi sees them as a homogeneous problem to be solved or is he highlighting that the crisis is being ignored by the European populous, beyond a sympathetic ‘poor souls’? The languid pace of the exquisite cinematography is a distraction so it was a while before I realised that the voices and faces are also nearly all male. Women cook, sew and cry, consigned to a hidden status of passivity and silence. I expect that this relegation of women goes unnoticed, commensurate with so many other films by male directors.

I expect Rosi sees this is as a human story highlighting the plight of the world. It seems though deeply rooted in a white male viewpoint. This is not a story about migration nor refugees but about the ability to ignore the humanity of those who are not like us. Whether this was intended or not is unclear.

Currently screening at ACMI

Have you seen this film? Let me know what you thought of it in the comments below.

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