Film Review: ‘Fire at Sea’

Documentary on migrant crisis captures the surreal nature of tragedy
By Catherine Yang
Catherine Yang
Catherine Yang
November 15, 2016 Updated: November 22, 2016

NEW YORK—Gianfranco Rosi had wanted to make a film about the migrant crisis, something to bring attention to the thousands and thousands who flee to Europe via a harsh journey that costs many of them their lives.

So he spent a year on the little Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, something of a midway point between Italy, Tunisia, and Libya that has already seen over 15,000 migrants this year and serves as a beacon of hope for many refugees.

Soon, the initial idea to make a short film was completely flipped on its head. What Rosi encountered was both brutal reality and something that felt surreal, like an imaginary world.

Rosi saw the magnitude of the situation and moved to Lampedusa to find a way to capture the island’s story. He brought his editor as well, to get him “really immersed in the island.”

At a recent screening of the film, Rosi described an event that changed the course of his story: A chance encounter with a precocious young boy named Samuele.

(Kino Lorber)
Nine-year-old Samuele with his slingshot. (Kino Lorber)

Samuele was playing with a slingshot when he went up to the director and told him all about his life. “He was saying how difficult it was to live on an island of fishermen as a hunter himself, hating the sea and suffering sea sickness, and becoming a fisherman was something of his own tragedy in life, this really tiny little kid,” Rosi recounted. 

Samuele then went to prop up a broom far away and told Rosi to watch how good he was with a slingshot. He let a shot go and—boom!—hit it right in the center.

“He turned to me [and said]: ‘You need passion in your life,'” Rosi said. From then on, Rosi decided to film the boy.

(Kino Lorber)
Samuele, director Gianfranco Rosi’s guide to life on the island. (Kino Lorber)

For about half the documentary, Rosi tells a peculiar coming-of-age story about a boy who lives surrounded by water but hates the sea. Samuele deals with this with his own determined brand of optimism and a good amount of make-believe.

Rosi saw a child who could not face the harsh realities of life—he makes up his own world, conjures imaginary enemies, and fixes problems with liberal amounts of tape.

It was much the same feeling Rosi said he got just being in Lampedusa. There was a huge division between those who live on the island and the refugees who arrive in large numbers, and so telling Samuele’s story became a way to show what “normal life” on Lampedusa was like.

There was also an overwhelming sense of tragedy Rosi felt, seeing the large numbers of refugees that continue to arrive on boat after boat after boat to the island. Samuele’s inability to deal with tragedy felt to Rosi like a metaphor for how the world was dealing with the migrant crisis.

Another chance encounter was with Dr. Pietro Bartolo, the only doctor on the island, who Rosi had met only because he came down with a case of bronchitis. 

Dr. Pietro Bartolo. (Kino Lorber)
Dr. Pietro Bartolo. (Kino Lorber)

Bartolo tells Rosi that as a doctor for refugees, he is forced to do what he hates most: process the dead. It is not something a human being can ever get used to.

Through Bartolo, Rosi learned what the front line of this crisis was like. Half of the film shows rescues of dehydrated refugees, those who have just been pulled to safety, and the documenting of these migrants as they stay in Lampedusa for a day or two before moving on to the mainland. One refugee leads a group in chanting their expression of gratitude to God for helping them survive conflict in Nigeria, beatings and prison in Libya, and the harsh sea journey to Lampedusa. 

Rosi also saw—or rather, heard—encounters that could not result in a rescue.

(Kino Lorber)
(Kino Lorber)

Near the beginning of the film, we hear a distress call coming over the radio, a man from a sinking vessel at sea pleading for mercy while someone manning the radio asks over and over for the vessel’s position so they can send help. 

Rosi said this was one of the saddest moments for him.

“People ask me, ‘What would you like this film to do to people?’ I would like people to leave the room and ask, ‘What’s my position? What can I do?'” he said.

Rosi wants to reclaim the migrant tragedy from sensationalism and headlines that focus on the numbers. In one scene,  we hear a news report over the radio: 250 drowned at sea. The citizens of Lampedusa acknowledge the tragedy, but only for a moment, and then move on with their lives.

There is such a disconnect, but the world can do more to help, Rosi said.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of the director, Gianfranco Rosi.