Known as La Porta D’Europa (The Door of Europe), the small Italian island of Lampedusa marks Europe’s southernmost point, lying 120 miles from Sicily and only 70 from the Libyan coast of Africa. Situated on Europe’s edge Lampedusa has become a key point for migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean to seek asylum in Europe. In the last 20 years over 400,000 people have attempted the crossing despite the UN Migration Agency deeming it ‘the most deadly in the Mediterranean.’ Gianfranco Rosi’s 2016 film Fire at Sea is a portrayal of life on Lampedusa, both for its residents and the waves of people arriving on its shores.
Visions of Lampedusa might take form as an island where resident and migrant interact and integrate. Lampedusa’s residents, and particularly the island’s fisherman, have a long history of compassionate support and rescue. (The island has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times.) However, in 2013 in the midst of the migration crisis an invisible line is draw around Lampedusa. This new southern European border becomes militarised and patrolled by Frontex, the Italian Navy and the Coastguard. Overcrowded boats carrying hundreds of refugees are intercepted at this pre-emptive border, given medical attention, taken to Lampedusa’s Hostpot Centre for registration, and within 72 hours are transported onward to Sicily or Italy. Lampedusa is therefore an island of two worlds-the world of the migrant and that of the resident. Rosi’s portrait of the island captures this unique dynamic where two realities exist in extreme proximity but fail to touch.
Life on the island is seen mainly through the eyes of 12-year-old resident Samuele. We explore the sleepy fishing island by joining him at school, at his grandmother’s dinner table, or on the rugged cliff tops where he is so often in pursuit of an imagined enemy armed with his trustee slingshot. Poised in a moment of boyhood that is both full of innocence and newly acquired knowledge Samuele makes for a deeply captivating protagonist. He is, as Rosi so affectionately calls him, ‘a young kid with the head of an old man.’ His identity seems to be forming in front of our eyes. We find Samuele wrestling with the expectation that he will become a fisherman like his grandfather as he struggles to learn how to row, and is made sea sick by a strong swell. Through tracing Samuele’s developing relationship to the water, and in turn to his future, Fire at Sea can be understood as ‘a coming of age’ film as well as one that is deeply concerned with migration.
Juxtaposed with Samuele’s narrative are the scenes of chaos unfolding just out of sight along Lampedusa’s coastline. Fire at Sea brings us face to face with the humanitarian crisis at Europe’s border through its devastating account of the migrants’ journey. The distressed phone calls pleading for rescue, chemical burns caused by spilt fuel etched over bodies, and figures that are limp from dehydration pulled from the boats, all powerfully announce the suffering inherent in the Mediterranean crossing. Unlike Rosi’s depiction of life on land which uses a single voice, his portrayal of the migrant’s experience works to powerfully signal both the volume and pace of movement. Watching the registration process however, which sees those rescued by the border authorities have their picture taken holding a number, I began to wonder if Rosi’s collective focus meant something more. What if this journey requires a sacrifice of individual identity? Who you once where is lost somewhere at sea, you assume a new name-‘migrant.’
Seeing these two narratives side by side in Fire at Sea creates a strange sense of unreality. How can normality coexist with tragedy? There is something unreal in the institutionalisation of these rescues, the anticipation of suffering at this scale and the ability for the procedures of rescue to become routine. There is something alien in the Hazmat suits worn by the Coastguard making them appear like ‘phantoms’ policing an invisible border to another world. And yet this is reality. It is our reality, as Rosi finds in the uncomfortable duality of Lampedusa, a microcosm of Europe.
Despite its undeniably political subject, Fire at Sea is not didactic in its message. It emerges as a film of great sensitivity, lyricism and beauty. It is poetic in its approach, fostering an interior mood that allows the language of cinema to sketch its argument. Fire at Sea is a witness. It is a call to action.
Fire at Sea is the first non-fiction film to win the Golden Bear Award at Berlin Film Festival. In his acceptance speech Rosi recalls a particular conversation with a resident of Lampedusa. He asks ‘Why for 20 years has Lampedusa been alone in welcoming people? What makes this island so special?’ to which the man replies ‘you have to understand that this is an island of fisherman, and fisherman always welcome whatever comes from the sea.’ To this Rosi adds ‘maybe we should all have a little of the soul of the fisherman…’
Where can you find it?
It is available on Amazon prime.