'Fire At Sea': The Incredible Doc About The Refugee Crisis On The Mediterranean

Where do you start when you want to help? Gianfranco Rosi provides an empathetic window to the path of action.

Fire at Sea documents the present state of the refugee crisis in Lampedusa, an Italian island that has become a landing place for refugees departing from the North African coast. At present, upward of thousands have died trying to reach Lampedusa’s shores. To make his film, director Gianfranco Rosi followed aid workers onto migrant ships and entered detention camps with the migrants themselves, but he also made a record of Lampedusa itself — its customs, its citizenry, its culture. As a result, the movie records the two-way street of cultural preservation that has made the issue of resettling the stateless so contentious in Europe. On one hand, there are the refugees, whose struggle to preserve their lives has led them to Lampedusa, and on the other there are Lampedusan citizens like Samuele, the 10-year-old boy with a lazy eye who loves his slingshot and his spaghetti and who practices standing in a pontoon so he can find his sea legs to match his father, a former sailor. Rosi’s camera watches both citizens and stateless with similar patience and calm — each party in the crisis has their own rituals which preserve their sense of self. The Italian mothers cut tomatoes and make their beds, even as the refugees stand in lines to use the pay phone, even as the aid workers board helicopters and patrol boats.

Of the refugees, none are singled out to become characters alongside Samuele. They are drawn en masse from the sea as if from the dead, their bodies and minds bearing the marks of trauma, their languages lost in the disorientation of international waters. Our global crisis of displacement has happened because of violence, poverty, and climate change, but while it has been well-documented that the war in Syria has produced millions of migrants seeking housing, the maladies that cause statelessness afflict nations from across the globe. Among the physical frustrations it documents, Fire at Sea is a testament to the terrible diversity that makes the migrant crisis so globally destabilizing and so difficult to counteract, watching as Somalian, Libyan, Eritrean, Ivorian, Sudanese, and Syrian migrants all seek refuge on an island with just 6,000 citizens. Even those who are personally able to muster the strength to provide the continual aid needed by each new wave of refugees are plagued with the logistical confusion of a crisis with no single origin point.

Despite the grim nature of its subject, Rosi’s film is starkly beautiful, dominated as it is by gray skies, choppy seas, and refugee boats framed with the precision of a Turner painting. Rosi spent a year and a half in Lampedusa collecting footage for the film, over time earning enough trust to gain access to rescue boats as well as the aftermath of collecting who could be rescued. When a crisis is as severe as it has become in Lampedusa, maybe all there is left to offer is access, in hopes that showing the futility of the situation will lead to a change in circumstance. But if the appeal of making the film from an activist perspective is clear, the appeal of watching a film like Fire at Sea is as murky as the waters it treads. Why seek out the sorrow of strangers? Why bother watching Fire at Sea when the people who are able to go to the theater are for the most part trapped within the boundaries of states that refuse to welcome the stateless? What is there besides voyeurism to be gained from combing through the wreckage of a storm that is still raging? Is it invasive to make a beautiful film from an ugly situation? At one point, one of Rosi’s Lampudesans, the sympathetic and weary Dr. Pietro Bartolo, sighs to the camera. “Every human being has a responsibility to help,” he declares, as he describes wading onto boats filled with dead children, dead mothers, and teenagers whose bodies are covered in chemical burns from refilling the fuel on their boats. “My colleagues say I’ve done it so often, I’ve become used to it. It’s not true.” Bartolo aids the ill, comforts the recovering, helps deliver babies, and examines the dead, but even on the front lines it’s hard not to feel the effects of systemic impotence that has characterized the refugee crisis from the beginning. In solving the problems of nations, what is an individual to do?

In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, a Nigerian refugee chants in English the story of the journey he and his statesmen made to land in Italy. They chose statelessness after being bombed in Nigeria, their families subjected to rape and violence. The group fled into the Sahara desert. Some of the man’s friends died in the desert for lack of water — the rest drank urine to survive. They walked to Libya, where they were jailed. More died in the jails, following beatings and hunger. Released from prison, they boarded a boat from Libya to Italy, where 60 more died. Of the hundreds who fled with this unnamed man, only 30 people survived the entire journey. “The sea is not a road,” the man concludes, and as his voice shakes, it’s impossible to distinguish the sound of pain from the sound of relief.

Why does this man sing? Why does he let the camera watch him? Why do the women who weep for their lost husbands not balk at Rosi and his crew? Who do they imagine is watching from behind the camera?

Rosi’s film doesn’t pretend to have solutions for the crisis, but he provides a two-hour provocation, an opportunity to ask the kinds of questions that fuel activism and undermine indifference. We are all capable of googling on our own time what can be done to aid those in need across the globe, but to take the step of buying blankets or donating funds or voting for candidates who support refugees, you must have a will to act that is difficult to engage in our age of information and unrest. With so much pain in the world, where do you start even if you want to help? For this, at least, Rosi provides a window to the path of possible action. Every time the pain of the crisis seems like it might become overwhelming, Rosi cuts to a scene of soccer within a refugee camp, or Samuele whistling to birds. He builds into his film the kind of escapes that make it possible for people like Dr. Bartolo to venture back into the sea, and in modulating global unrest with quotidian pleasure, Rosi provides a model for Western audiences to resist the overwhelming pull of impotence and indifference. Maybe this is why, despite the pain, Fire at Sea remains riveting. When watching a crisis provides an inspiration to act, it is an honor — even a pleasure — to bear witness.

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