For Those in Peril

The third film I saw at this year’s Chicago International Film Festival was far and away the best — and very likely one of the best documentaries I’ve seen in a decade or more.  Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea is by turns beautiful, powerful, moving, quiet, angry, and always deeply humane; as a treatment of its subject, it is both effective and highly unexpected.  Rosi’s eye for imagery, timing, and ability to edit long stretches of expertly filmed footage into an impressionistic but coherent whole make the entire film into a work of art that far transcends its already admirable purpose as an attempt to make people aware of an ongoing humanitarian crisis.

The entirety of Fire at Sea is set on the tiny Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, part of the Italian province of Sicily.  At less than 8 square miles in size, it’s a far-flung, idyllic place that enjoys modern standards of living but seems somehow unstuck in time:  elderly widows still call in dedications of old pop tunes to the local radio station, and most of the island’s residents — little more than 6,000 — make their living through fishing and other maritime work, or from catering to a brisk tourist trade that relies on its pristine beaches and pure turquoise waters.

But there is another aspect of Lampedusa that has made it the unexpected focal point of one of the world’s slowest-moving and tragic disasters.  Located roughly equidistant from the southern tip of Italy, the nation of Malta, and the east coast of Tunisia, the little island has become a flashpoint in the ongoing debate over refugees to Europe.  Because it’s the closest location to North Africa, and isn’t far from the Middle East, it offers to those fleeing war, chaos, environmental upheaval, civil unrest, famine, and poverty a gateway to the relative peace of Europe.

This information is conveyed by title cards at the very beginning of the film:  over 300,000 refugees from Africa and west Asia have crossed the Mediterranean via Lampedusa in the last decade.  But the crossing is fraught with peril:  unscrupulous operators, horrible living conditions, hunger, disease, and most especially, the risk of crossing dangerous waters in boats not even remotely made for such demanding conditions is terribly high and has come at the cost of tens of thousands of human lives, lost at sea.  The concatenation of many complex factors, from economic ruin to civil war, has combined with simple geography to make little Lampedusa the way station for a staggering number of desperate people.

Rosi tells this story without any further commentary.  He does not appear in the film; nothing else is explained, no more title cards appear, and there is no narration.  Instead, he unfolds the crisis in a slow, small way, focusing his attention on the lives of a handful of residents of Lampedusa, and gradually expanding his lens to show us in equal measure the lives of the people to whom the island is the first, and dearly earned, step in the search for a better life. The person we get to know best, oddly enough, is a young boy named Samuele, a school-aged scamp with all the usual tics and interests of a small-town kid:  making slingshots, hanging out with his best friend, eating, running, playing.  Samuele is a real charmer, and he’s so much the picture of idyllic youth that some people at the screening thought he might be a plant.  But it is through him that we connect to other people of the town, and through them, to the vast and complicated human tragedy that is unfolding on their very doorsteps.

We meet his father, a widowed older man who, like many residents of Lampedusa, makes his living as a fisherman — a precarious occupation that has given the local economy a decent living that lets them help sustain the journey of the refugees, but which, like their lives, is tenuous and highly dependent on the weather.  (We also run into another fisherman, another aging, rock-faced fellow, who silently trudges out every morning in SCUBA gear to check his traps; the underwater photography of his work is some of the most visually spectacular in an already sumptuous film.)  We see him and his friend good-naturedly making machine-gun noises, pretending to strafe the massive steel of the naval vessels that constantly patrol the waters around the island — and through them we meet the ship captains, technicians, and other sailors who have the thankless job of rescuing the migrants from sinking ships that were barely seaworthy in the first place; they go about their duties with hard professionalism, but a barely-hidden kindness.  And we meet his family doctor, who treats him for minor maladies like lazy eye; but he is the same doctor who treats the refugees for the often dire illnesses they bring with them, who helps them deliver their children, and who performs autopsies on the drowned, the suffocated, the untreatable.

The refugees are encountered by fits and starts, by slow but revealing glimpses:  first as a disembodied but desperate voice over the radio, then as barely-seen figures being loaded onto helicopters and off of rescue ships, then as concerned mothers, amused onlookers, and ordinary humans just like the rest of the people of Lampedusa:  they interact as best they can with the natives, they joke, they eat and drink, they laugh and cry, they form teams and play football, enacting a World Cup between Ethiopia and Syria at a holding station.  We are not shown what happens to them once they leave the little island, for that is a subject for another — and equally complicated — film:  Rosi leaves us, instead, with first the shattering images of those who never made it to Italy, perishing below decks from disease and deprivation, and then with young Samuele, who has the childhood luxury of thinking of the future as a lifetime away.

A masterful mix of neo-realism, high art, and activist documentary, Fire at Sea is a true masterpiece of filmmaking, and a movie I would recommend to anyone who wants not only to understand the nature of the refugee crisis still tearing across the Mediterranean, but to feel it, in the way that only great art can make you feel.

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