Over 20 years, more than 400,000 migrants have landed on the Italian island of Lampedusa. In their attempt to reach Europe, an estimated 15,000 people have died. As refugees overwhelm 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 process of arrival, as well as the reaction from locals, that have come to define a humanitarian crisis.
The winner of the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival, 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 eyes and damaged spirits of the masses. 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 trying to find their way onto safe shores are one 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. When watching an extended visit to Samuele’s eye doctor, one wonders what will become of the ill, homeless migrants drifting at sea, huddled in foil and desperate for freedom.
As a document of the current migrant crisis, Fire at Sea tilts between urgency and ambivalence. The lack of interest among Lampedusa residents of the refugees approaching their borders is certainly striking, and should make Canadians think about their response to a crisis that affects us in less pronounced ways. Yet, the relative silence and apathy of the locals shouldn’t merit such a large segment of the documentary’s running time. As a result of the lopsided balance between the two stories, the African refugees we do meet are mostly a shrouded mass. Worse, they rarely receive subtitles. Fire at Sea is fascinated with these bodies, albeit less concerned with their voices.