Gianfranco Rosi has a zeal for peripheral figures. In El Sicario, Room 164 (2010), he approached the topic of violence in Mexican cartels by sitting down with one of their veteran hit men. His much-acclaimed 2013 film Sacro GRA literalized the trend with a perambulating examination of Rome’s Great Ring Junction. Rosi’s newest film, Fire at Sea, takes us around another border realm, this time at the edge of the European migrant crisis. Here, the action centers on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, ninety miles off the shore of Tunisia and the primary stop for tens of thousands of Europe-bound refugees.
The film is divided into two parallel worlds: the native islanders’ daily lives, and the Italian navy’s rescue operations, giving a view onto two Lampedusas, sealed off from each other but ever-active in their respective affairs. The Lampedusa native with the most screen time is Samuele, whom we follow through a series of humdrum tweenage struggles and affairs: school, the doctor’s office, slingshotting birds, and coming of age. He’s personable, and has a funny, youthful nervousness. Just offshore, but well beyond the horizon of Samuele’s world, is the foil for this simple humanity in the cold electronic buzzing of the navy as they set out to rescue overloaded vessels en route from North Africa. Rosi confines our time with the seamen to their rescue missions and the technical operations of processing refugees afterwards, preventing us from having a personal connection with any individual rescuers or refugees. It’s a curious but effective strategy: he places us deep within the human and technological machinery even as he shows its alienating procedures.
Literally and metaphorically bridging these perspectives is Dr. Pietro Bartolo, a local physician who’s taken on the responsibility of examining and medically processing incoming migrants, meaning he sees some of the worst effects of the sea crossings. He’s sincere and does his job out of love or a strong sense of duty, which is perhaps the only way one could bear the horrors he does. His tenderness and deep exposure to the refugees balances Samuele’s naïve ignorance and the cold and technical work of the Italian navy. In a moving monologue given in his office from in front of a computer screen showing images of mangled refugees, Bartolo informs us that even his constant exposure to the most horrible suffering from this crisis doesn’t make it easier. Each victim is just as painful as the last. In a film otherwise devoid of commentary or judgment, the inclusion of this confession is suggestive of a question that haunts the margins of Fire at Sea. Even after seeing its most gruesome effects, how can we comprehend, much less respond to, human tragedies on this scale?
Likely everyone watching Fire at Sea has seen harrowing images of the effects of the crisis and has read the statistics of mass displacement and death. Yet, for all this viewing, Fire at Sea suggests the West has only been an idle spectator. We haven’t genuinely grappled with, much less addressed, the deadly sea crossings. Rosi has indicated in interviews that he intends his documentary to be an impetus to action by making us see this crisis as a human tragedy, not the anonymous flood of statistics and photos found in the news. Rather than present us with coldly factual images, he focuses on personal interactions, choosing to examine this crisis from its human interior—the HBO special rather than the evening recap.
At its best, Fire at Sea is able to do just that. In an effective scene inside the island’s refugee camp, Rosi turns his camera to a group of Nigerian men recounting their perilous journey to Europe in song. The camera is still, in a medium shot capturing the lead as others sing in the background. This single shot (it’s the only moment of its kind in Fire at Sea) makes the suffering as forceful as it could be for those who didn’t live through it. It is perhaps the purest expression of the human touch that raises Fire at Sea from a simple depiction of the crisis to an attempt to live it from within.
And yet, despite these gestures, Fire at Sea too often wavers between a sympathetically multifaceted portrait of the European migrant crisis and one simply of the spectating West it seems to rebuke. Apart from the aforementioned moment and a select few fleeting shots from inside the camp, our contact with the refugees is confined to their encounters with the Italian navy. Further, about half of the roughly two-hour documentary pointedly refuses to acknowledge what is happening at sea, limiting itself to the mundane lives of the native islanders—fishermen, DJs, grandmothers—going about their daily business. Their silence about both what is going on offshore and the presence of thousands of refugees on the island creates an uneasy fracture in the imagined topography of Lampedusa.
Why does Rosi choose a military force as the means to see this crisis? Why does he narrativize the lives of Lampedusa’s natives, but refuse to so much as ask the name of a single refugee? These decisions bar us from seeing this disaster in the way Rosi seems to intend, forcing us to sympathize with the crisis not from the perspective of the refugees it affects, but from that of Lampedusa and, by extension, the West. Fire at Sea’s relative scarcity of points of view produces something that can’t help but have dangerously simplistic or platitudinous insights into the crisis. This becomes most glaring in its frequent juxtaposition of idyllic Lampedusa life with the refugees’ arrival, a gesture that oddly suggests that they pose some sort of threat. In this manner, Fire at Sea’s urgency partially stems from making one feel the unending bureaucratic and technical challenges of processing these refugees as they wash in from the horizon, as if they were disrupting an eternal peace with their political circumstances.
There’s a similarly deep ambivalence in the passion Rosi’s camera feels for the austere beauty of Lampedusa. Whether it’s on the imposing marine cliffs or the vast Mediterranean, it seems to delight in framing every action within the natural splendor of Lampedusa itself. Often, these eye-dilating panoramas of the cloudy-blue island offer a reflective counterpoint to the busy, bloody, and punching news images more associated with the migrant crisis—as in an early scene where we see the matutinal sky backgrounds rotating naval communication towers while we hear the frantic cries for help from a sinking ship attempting to give its position. This fissure between sound and image lets the viewer be affected by their panic without indulging in it and sets the stage for the chief drama of Fire at Sea. At a certain point, though, it seems Rosi leans on the trick too much and the effect dissolves into something more morally puzzling. We’ve learned that people are dying out there, so why take this much pleasure in the vistas? It starts to make the island feel too isolated and uncomfortably innocent, a paper villa in a burning ocean.
Fire at Sea aims for humanity and sympathy, but too often only grants it to those suffering on the grounds that they can be made visible to the viewer on the documentary’s peculiar terms. It’s a truism that documentaries are mediated by their creator’s hand. But here Rosi makes formal and narrative decisions that explicitly mediate the European migrant crisis through a suspect lens, barring us from the humanizing gesture he appears to aim for. These problems find their apogee in Fire at Sea’s risky and brutal final sequence, one requiring a delicate touch to pull off. Though Rosi has the chops for it, the ambivalence that mars his technique produces something that borders on the exploitative.
Fire at Sea deserves some of the praise it has received for giving us a distinctly human view into the migrant crisis. In challenging our inactivity with respect to this disaster, it ought to be celebrated. However, Rosi’s attempt serves to remind us that we still live in a world where refugees, especially those of color, still have to fight to be seen as humans. And if cinema wants to help serve justice, we need to begin by demanding images that can actually do so.