Fire at Sea
By Adam Cook
One of the most talked about films of the year is Gianfranco Rosi’s masterful documentary, Fire at Sea. After having picked up the Golden Bear back in February—the Berlin Film Festival’s top prize—the film has gone onto rave reviews from critics and audiences around the world. It’s being described as a film about the refugee crisis, which, in part, it is, but its approach is not what you would expect. Shot on the Italian island of Lampedusa, which is as close to Tunisia as it is to Sicily in the Mediterranean Sea, Rosi initially set off to film a short film project, only to discover he had a much larger story to tell once he encountered what was going on. He ended up living on the island for six months while shooting this film. Lampedusa’s geographical location has led to a huge influx of migrants. Thousands of refugees pass through the nearby waters and the island itself, often arriving in terrible conditions on overpacked boats, sometimes dead or dying.
Fire at Sea shows us glimpses of this reality and the harrowing experience of the refugees. But it also keeps a distance from it. This is not the story of the refugees, but rather a portrait of Lampedusa, and the refugee crisis as seen through the eyes of locals. In particular, Rosi focuses on two characters: one is a young boy with a lazy eye and a penchant for mischief. The other is the boy’s doctor, who also has had to treat many refugees. Both characters take on metaphorical dimensions as the film continues. In keeping the story of the refugees at the periphery, Rosi avoids making a simple info-doc, instead creating a complex and artful film that makes its points implicitly. There is no narration, no imposed ideas, no forced guidance of how to think or feel. The viewer is left to make up their own mind, and to see things from a new perspective. Fire at Sea’s observational style immerses you in this unique setting in unique circumstances, taking on poetic significance as the film evolves before your eyes.
It provides no easy answers, and avoids any simplification of a complicated issue. Neither a call to arms nor a lamentation, Fire at Sea can’t be easily reduced into being any one thing. From A.O. Scott’s review for The New York Times:
“I’m not sure that Mr. Rosi is interested in trafficking in hope, which is among his great virtues as a filmmaker. He takes a hard, empathetic look at reality, which contains wonders as well as horrors. He doesn’t bear witness — an overused and often presumptuous idea. He observes, with humility and precision. Instead of raising awareness, he cultivates alertness. “Fire at Sea” occupies your consciousness like a nightmare, and yet somehow you don’t want it to end.”
Don’t miss this unforgettable documentary. It plays at Vancity Theatre November 12, 13th, 14th, and 17th.