FIRE AT SEA (Fuocoammare) B
Italy France (108 mi) 2016 d: Gianfranco Rosi Official site [UK]
The island of Lampedusa has a surface area of 20 square km, lies 70km from the African coast and 120 miles from that of Sicily. In the past 20 years 400,000 migrants have landed on Lampedusa. In the attempt to cross the Strait of Sicily to reach Europe it is estimated 15,000 people have died. —opening innertitles
While it’s impossible to see this film and not think about Rossellini’s Stromboli (1950), this is the kind of film that infuriates some, adding obvious fictional aspects into what is ostensibly a documentary film, where some do it well, like Jia Zhang-ke in 24 CITY (2008) or I WISH I KNEW (2010), or Haskell Wexler who invented the mold in Medium Cool (1969), creating a documentary-fiction hybrid that has become more prominently used today. While this is more of an impressionistic film essay that often loses its way, what ultimately catches the viewer’s attention is the artful manner in which this film addresses the refugee crisis, arguably the biggest humanitarian crisis in Europe since World War II, with more than 60 million forcibly displaced people around the world by the end of 2014, where nearly 20 million were refugees flooding out of Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan, where at its peak nearly 60,000 refugees per month were arriving in Greece by sea (curtailed significantly by the implementation of the EU-Turkey Deal on Migrant Crisis in March 2016), yet there were also record numbers of deaths from those who drowned while attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea, often on flimsy, home-made crafts or overloaded boats with poor equipment. Looking exclusively from the vantage point of Lampedusa, a tiny Italian island between Sicily and the African continent, only about 45 miles from Tunisia in Africa and 120 miles from the southern Italian coast, with a population of only 6,000, they are on the front lines in the attempt to rescue refugees arriving in ships at risk, mostly from North Africa or the Middle East, providing rescue teams of helicopters and patrol boats, though often they arrive too late, with reportedly as many as 15,000 people having lost their lives just off the coast of the island. But this doesn’t provide newsreel coverage like one can view on nightly news broadcasts, but instead creates a glimpse of life in a faraway part of the world that is disrupted by harrowing events occurring just off their shores. Many will likely be disappointed that there is not more footage devoted to refugees, perhaps only 20% of the film, with the camera continually wandering elsewhere, mostly following a young kid, and while this remains the heart of the picture, the filmmaker takes the unusual steps of making only tangential references to the crisis, showing how easily it gets lost to the banality of everyday existence.
Winner of the Golden Bear in Berlin for Best Film, the first documentary film to win the 1st Place prize, awarded by a jury headed by Meryl Streep who applauded the film, “It’s a daring hybrid of captured footage and deliberate storytelling that allows us to consider what documentary can do. It is urgent, imaginative, and necessary filmmaking.” Born in Eritrea and raised in Italy, Rosi spent a year on the island, initially intending to spend a few weeks and shoot a 10-minute short, but he met Dr. Pietro Bartolo in the island’s emergency room, who recounted many of his experiences over the years, which shifted the focus of the film. Instead Rosi got to know the residents before ever turning a camera on them, where according to the director, “The films are basically two separate stories — the island, the people of the island — and the migrants arriving on the island. They never interact, they barely touch each other, and in between there is this [reception] institution, and there is the doctor who is somehow in between the two things.” While he has months to interact with the residents, the same can’t be said for the refugees, who were much more challenging to film, passing through the personnel of rescue operations, examined for health risks by the doctor, then moved to a detention center where he didn’t know any of them, with most long gone after only two days, heading for the mainland. The film is more of a character study of the residents on the island, including the doctor, the lone medical practitioner on the island for years, who bridges the cultural divide between escaping refugees in crisis and local residents. 10-year old Samuele Pucillo, whose name we don’t even know until we’re well into the film, is initially seen climbing trees, removing the bark to make a homemade slingshot, then crossing the landscape to find objects to target, such as birds and cactus plants, filmed from a variety of angles. We also meet his grandmother Maria, who listens to the same radio broadcast every day, calling in to the local deejay to request one of her five favorite songs, including a 50’s song by the same name as the film title, Fuocoammare (OST) by Giuseppe Fragapane on Spotify, that recounts World War II and the dangerous conditions for fishermen who went to sea during artillery fire, often forced to endure “fire at sea.” For generations, the island residents’ biggest fear was dying at sea. Now the close proximity to Africa has brought that fear to their doorstep in the form of a trail of refugees who live that reality daily, bringing to life the myths of Virgil and the ancient Greek tragedies of Homer, with adventurers crossing that same sea route from Carthage in northern Africa to Sicily.
Other than the doctor and rescue teams, the residents of the island have little contact with the steady flow of refugees, and mostly hear by radio news reports, as otherwise there’s no interaction. According to Rosi, “Lampedusa became a microcosm of what is Europe: these two worlds that barely touch each other, but somehow there is never an interaction.” Samuele is the innocent protagonist of the film, too young to understand the implications of what’s happening around him, and to some degree provides the comic relief, as he’s seen playfully scampering around the island, lighting firecrackers on the beach, willing to talk endlessly to anyone who comes near, seen making wild gestures when expressing himself, also butchering the English language in classes at school, even making a mess while he eats his grandmother’s spaghetti. The irony is he’s expected to be a fisherman, like his father, grandfather, and all the fathers that came before, but he suffers from the effects of sea sickness, hypertension, has a lazy eye problem, shortness of breath, chronic panic attacks, and amusingly displays the typical behavior of a hypochondriac. But what he does have is what all the refugees passing through don’t have — a loving family and a home, seen treated by the same doctor that treats all the incoming refugees. Side by side with Samuele’s daily routines are scenes of a hangar door opening for a rescue helicopter, the coast guard unloading refugees that appear more dead than alive, emotionally devastated by the journey, where not everyone survives. There is a choreography of routines on display, as new arrivals are slowly processed, sitting behind walled compounds waiting for a judge to decide their fates, lives marked by poverty and war. A Nigerian preacher sings his lament in oral tradition, surrounded by other Africans, engaging in a solemn group prayer describing how they fled their homes in Eritrea, Mali, Syria, Nigeria, or Sudan, avoiding falling bombs from the sky, so they crossed the Saharan desert, were forced to drink their own piss, were tortured and driven out of Libya, before being forced out to sea. The only spark of joy captured is a spontaneous soccer game in near darkness at the detention center. Dr. Bartolo is the moral center of the film, a man of decency and good will, whose sense of purpose is undeniable, whose only comment is an off-handed remark, “It’s the duty of every human being, if you’re human, to help these people.” By the end, however, as the coast guard unloads a newly arrived boat, we hear first-hand accounts of more horrors at sea, bodies piled on top of bodies, some unconscious, some in convulsions, others in hysterics screaming uncontrollably, a man viciously beaten, unable to speak, signs of chemical burns caused by diesel fuel mixed with sea water, dehydration, hunger, with the camera lingering on the stack of lifeless bodies in the lower deck where all perished. Stuck in the back of our heads is the sound of that Nigerian chant, “The sea is not a place to pass by… The sea is not a road… On the journey on the sea too many passengers died. They got lost in the sea. A boat was carrying 90 passengers. Only 30 were rescued and the rest died. Today we are alive.”
Interesting observations from this year’s Midnight Sun Film Festival in Sodankylä, Finland by Antti Alanen on his website, Antti Alanen: Film Diary: Fuocoammare / Fire at Sea:
On 16 June when I asked Rosi whether he felt any affinity with neorealism he denied it. Yet while digesting Fuocoammare I kept thinking about Visconti (La terra trema), Rossellini (Stromboli) and Antonioni (he started as a documentarist, there is a strong documentary impulse in L’avventura, and late in his career he made documentaries such as Ritorno a Lisca Bianca, and Noto, Mandorli, Vulcano, Stromboli, Carnevale). All three directors had a documentary impulse and a strong social consciousness.
Rosi’s answers to the morning discussion’s obligatory questions: 1) the first film you saw: he said that the first film that really impressed him was Antonioni’s La signora senza camelie, 2) the desert island film: Buñuel’s Los olvidados. His summation of a documentarist’s calling was of anthology quality.