This contemplative documentary by Gianfranco Rosi – a Golden Bear winner at the recent Berlin Film Festival – examines the current European migrant crisis, paying particular attention to the way that it impacts (or doesn’t impact) on the small community on Lampedusa, an Italian island in the Mediterranean Sea that is nearer to the north African coastline than it is to its own country’s mainland. Due to its proximity to Libya in particular, Lampedusa has become a point of entry for migrants and refugees seeking passage into Europe, and during the past 20 years around 400,000 people have landed on the island, with many of those processed by the Lampedusa Immigrant Reception Centre (the vast majority within the last 24 months, at the time of writing). However the journey from Libya to Lampedusa is hazardous, and during that same period more than 17,000 people have died trying to make the crossing. It has become the most dangerous migrant route in the world, with those transported on packed, poorly-constructed boats suffering from severe malnutrition and dehydration at sea. As this documentary illustrates many also suffer serious chemical burns when fuel stored in jerry cans mixes with water before coming into contact with skin. On Lampedusa a doctor – one of the few people in this documentary who talk to the director and address the problem at hand – reveals his frustration and his sorrow at not being able to save more lives.

In addition to the doctor, Rosi observes and films others who have direct contact with the migrants as they arrive, such as those who carry out rescue missions on the water and others who process the new arrivals while dressed in hazmat suits. He also (briefly) films the day-to-day activities of migrants living temporarily in the reception centre, while all of this is contrasted with the quotidien life of the permanent residents of Lampedusa, some of whom rely on the sea for their livelihoods and have apparently become numbed by the sheer number of people that have passed through their island. In particular Rosi keeps returning to a man who dives for sea urchins, a local DJ who plays wartime records – including the song that gives the film its evocative title – and a young boy named Samuele who wants to be a fisherman when he grows up. The latter is an endearing kid who roams free on the island, in direct contrast to the cooped-up migrants, and when we see him playing imaginary war games it’s a reminder to the audience that many of the island’s visitors are fleeing real, ongoing conflicts. When we see him attack a bird at night with his home-made catapult it’s an act of childish cruelty, but later we see a change of heart, and he displays a tenderness towards one of the small, unprotected creatures which is more in keeping with the caring adults that appear in the film. The director’s use of Samuele as a symbol for the Lampedusan community’s relationship with the migrants – and possibly Europe more generally – reaches its pinnacle when a visit to the doctor reveals that he has a lazy eye: he can and can’t see what’s happening in plain sight right in front of him, or – put more simply – he’s turning a blind eye to it.


Samuele and his catapult, an object that symbolises warfare in old Europe

At times it’s an aesthetically-pleasing documentary, despite some of the harrowing material shown. Rosi is sympathetic to the plight of the migrants and he films any dead bodies or injured people in a way that is straightforward and respectful. When concentrating on the land itself, or the community living on it, Fire At Sea becomes no less poignant but is infused with much more in the way of beautiful cinematography. (In particular it’s the beauty of the island that is highlighted, as per Luca Guadagnino‘s A Bigger Splash, another recent film set on Lampedusa which also briefly explored its role in the migrant crisis.) Rosi also variously depicts the calmness (and the dangerous swells) of the sea, with some shots included here that could have been lifted directly from Lucile Hadžihalilović‘s recent film Evolution. In terms of the content, there are no answers presented here to the problem, and those looking to hear the opinions of Italian residents on the matter will probably be disappointed. You’ll have to look elsewhere for straight-to-camera accounts from the people who have made the journey by boat, too, but Rosi’s documentary doesn’t feel at all incomplete or lacking; it’s quite insightful about life in this remote community, which serves as an outpost of a kind of lost, old Europe, and it examines the difficult work undertaken by some Lampedusans while never neglecting to acknowledge the suffering of many of the migrants.

Directed by: Gianfranco Rosi.
Written by: Gianfranco Rosi, Carla Cattani.
Cinematography: Gianfranco Rosi.
Editing: Jacopo Quadri.
Certificate: 12A.
Running Time: 113 minutes.
Year: 2016.