Over 20 years, more than 400,000 migrants have landed on the small Italian island of Lampedusa. In their attempt to reach Europe, around 15,000 of them have died. As refugees overwhelmed Europe’s shores in recent months, those working on the island have had to deal with much of the gruesome aftermath. This new documentary from Gianfranco Rosi explores the harrowing arrivals, as well as the reaction from locals, that have come to define a humanitarian crisis.
Fire at Sea is, in some instances, a searing glimpse at the risk and uncertainty migrants face in perilous travels. Rosi doesn’t flinch when showing the bleary, tired eyes and damaged spirits of the arriving Africans. As one of the first major films to chronicle a key moment of our contemporary times, Fire at Sea is mesmerizing. The shock and despair is palpable.
However, these moments of migrants finding their way onto Europe’s shores is a small part of a larger film. Rosi contrasts these difficult journeys with the mundane, trivial activities of local islanders. For instance, we spend much of the 108-minute doc with 12-year-old Samuele, as he plays with a slingshot and fishes with his family. While the juxtaposition is overwhelming, the leisurely moments with the Lampedusa residents take up too much of the running time. Watching an extensive visit to Samuele’s eye doctor, one wonders what will become of the ill, homeless migrants, huddled in foil and desperate for freedom.