Fire at Sea’s Fresh Eyes on the Refugee Crisis

Fire at Sea is an observational Italian documentary that explores Europe’s refugee crisis through a non-politicised lens. Screening as a part of Perth International Art Festival’s second film season, Gianfranco Rosi’s Oscar-nominated piece offers no stringent call-to-action but rather leaves space for interpretation, observation and humanity.

The film is set on the seemingly quiet traditional six-mile long Italian island of Lampedusa, home to 6,000 residents, many of them fisherman. The island’s location, being closer to Tunisia than Sicily, has made it a major European entry-point for over 400,000 people fleeing sub-Saharan and North Africa over the past twenty years. Braving the elusive Mediterranean Sea, in over-packed and often-unsafe vessels, facing disease and dehydration, has led to the death of over 15,000 people.

The opening scene – detailing setting and statistics and placing Lampedusa amidst the global refugee crisis – is where Fire at Sea’s political contextualisation ends. The film doesn’t use narrative, voice-over or interviews with constructed ‘characters’ to manipulate the viewer. Rather, it quietly observes.

This silent observation is at the heart of Fire at Sea’s importance. We are offered a snapshot into two seemingly disconnected worlds.

The first is Lampedusa’s Italian residents leading simple lives in the tradition of their ancestral fisherman forefathers. The second shows the atrocities faced by the refugees seeking safety. They are are picked up by the Italian naval patrol boats and then ‘processed’ by men in white suits, then sent to detention centres before reaching the mainland in a few days.

These diverse universes exist simultaneously, yet barely touch each other. Perhaps a metaphor for how the refugee crisis sits in the background of contemporary life as an ‘issue,’ yet many citizens are never fully exposed to its atrocities. Perhaps not, the film leaves that up to you.

If Fire at Sea has any sense of a protagonist, it’s the likeable Samuele Pucillo, a 12-year-old boy who enjoys constructing slingshots, hanging out with his friend Mattiass, and playing make-believe war games around the island. Whilst Samuele’s life is simple and not without hardship, it is his sense of innocence and conception of home that is a stark juxtaposition to the refugee experience.

The film’s observation of refugees does not include backstories of persecution, rather a universal suffering is woven between scenes of Samuele and his family’s life. We bear witness to people that have experienced mass dehydration from living in overcrowded boats, their limp, bodies pulled out by navy men; people covered in chemical burns, a mixture of uncovered gasoline tanks and seawater; others who have lost their lives along the way lay scattered along the boat’s undercarriage as if tossed lifelessly with the waves; and their families, mourning the loss amidst terrible circumstances.

These scenes do not require political explanation, nor deep characterisation. Their exploration of human condition and suffering is enough to foster empathy. We are told where they come from not how they feel.

The one person who intersects both worlds is Lampedusa’s only doctor, Pietro Bartolo. Although he has been treating refugees for decades, Dr Bartolo never gets used to seeing dead women and children, and experiences recurrent nightmares about the horrors he’s witnessed. He does not offer a solution to the crisis but instead says “it’s up to every human being to help these people”.

When the film won the Golden Bear at the 2016 Berlin International Film Festival, Italian Prime Minister Matio Renzi sent copies to the 27 European heads of state at the EU Summit in Turkey last March. He was hopeful that exposure to Rosi’s piece would allow European leaders to “discuss immigration in a different way”.

It is this attempt to explore the refugee crisis in a ‘different way’ that makes Fire at Sea so important. When political and nationalistic discourse is dissected from Europe’s refugee debate, it leaves a void that is filled by humanity. The deafening noise of left and right party policies and legislative solutions are silenced, allowing for a quiet and confronting observation of refugees and their plight.

Fire at Sea does not offer us a moral or solution. The film proves that sometimes empathy is best created through quiet observation not through loud calls to action. Through this fly-on-the-wall approach, Rosi makes us actively aware of the refugee crisis.

Fire at Sea is a must-see for all. This is a film that uses shared humanity and empathy to drown-out politically charged discourse, allowing us to see the refugee crisis with fresh eyes.


Fire at Sea is screening at UWA Somerville nightly until April 2nd
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