When immigration becomes linked to crisis, most bury news about it in the sand, just a little to the left of their heads. In 2016’s Fire At Sea, Gianfranco Rosi instead exposes the dangers African refugees and immigrants face on their voyage to Italy via Lampedusa with sensitivity, perspective, and balance.
Fuocoammare makes its way onto a scene that is inhospitable to migrants. By the time it débuts, Matteo Salvini has been spreading racist propaganda for several years, convincing more and more people that racial diversity is a threat to Italian nationalism and that North African presence in Italy represents a waste of national resources. Increasingly, the commonly held belief in Italian society imagines migrants to be the beneficiaries of the lion’s share of Italy’s wealth. They are offered asylum – a place to sleep, two warm meals per day – while Italians are forced to earn their own bread and pay their own mortgages. They learn Italian quickly and go on to peddle household items on street corners, while Italians still have to open their own shops and pay appropriate taxes to sell the same wares. They benefit from the same social services all Italians do, flooding Italy’s hospitals and upping the wait time for any local visitor to the ambulatorio. It is a dark moment in the history of tolerance and acceptance in Italy, and Gianfranco Rosi is there to document it.
He does so before the mainstream notoriety Ai WeiWei accumulates in Italy with his exhibition of gommoni, the rubber rafts of his own childhood as a refugee and all the perils they represent. He does so before the avalanche in Rigopiano and the casualties it claims, before the earthquakes in Norcia and Amatrice and the people they leave roofless, before the comparisons of what these people are owed and what is given to Italian non-nationals instead. He does so when humanity is arguably showing the worst of itself. But he does so without judgment or criticism. Instead, Fuocoammare is a fly on the wall of African migration to Italy: a series of bystander snapshots curated to contrast daily life in Lampedusa with the struggles of migrants and the workers that usher them into their new surroundings. On a subtler level, it challenges attitudes of Italian entitlement in the face of more glaring misfortune.
Rosi’s artistic-documentary approach juxtaposes the life of a family of fishermen in Lampedusa and the trials of migrants arriving on the island from abroad. Viewers first hear about the migrants’ arrival on the one-station radio playing loudly in a typical Italian kitchen, then watch them enter the country on overcrowded, often disease-ridden boats. They follow the main concerns of a young Sicilian boy in the grips of growing pains as he struggles to follow in his father’s footsteps, then see young African men little older than he as they navigate the bureaucracy that comes with assuming a new identity. They watch as the island’s doctor moves deftly, if with great mental difficulty, from performing autopsies on migrants to performing eye exams on local residents, each test as important to the person requesting it. Ultimately, it is through the doctor that Rosi most successfully addresses questions of lack of perspective and information among native Italian people. How much do the indigenous population of Lampedusa know about the people that wash onto their shores, only some of whom make it in alive? How much can they appreciate what seems to them like a monotonous and impoverished existence? Do they know of or understand the alternative to life floating under their noses? Can they be blamed if they do not?
Though Rosi’s presence as a filmmaker is felt throughout Fire at Sea to those familiar with his work, as per his signature style, he remains firmly outside the plane of action, choosing to bear witness to the events he treats rather than commenting on them. The film features no interviews, no full-frontal monologues, no answers prompted by a script. Instead, it enters into the reality of life on Lampedusa and allows viewers to draw their own conclusions. The magic of Rosi’s storytelling lies in the editing, in the images he chooses to show his viewers, when, and how. Fuocoammare is a constant play of night and day, dark and light, that reflects the different complexions of Lampedusa’s face. It moves from standard Italian and English to Sicilian dialect, further raising questions about integration and assimilation. It flows from the safety of solid ground into the mysterious force of the sea that both gives and takes lives. It is a work of careful balance and exquisite geometry.