Fire at Sea contrasts the plight of boat refugees bound for the Sicilian island of Lampedusa with the day-to-day lives of the local villagers, but compromises its emotional power in the process.
Where mass media coverage of the migration of boat refugees to Europe leaves off, Fire at Sea takes up, filling in some of the detail deemed too unpalatable for TV audiences. We hear radio calls for help from frantic people aboard sinking boats, and witness rescues at sea. The cameras move aboard the rescue vessel to record the perfunctory triage process that follows. Survivors are patted down, assessed and disposed of (presumably to hospital or a refugee camp on the nearest Sicilian island of Lampedusa).
One man has been badly beaten up by other refugees. His face and eyes are swollen. He is barely able to stand. Then there are the corpses of those who didn’t make it. And perhaps most horrifying of all, the cameras take us briefly into the hold of one of the boats where the “third-class” passengers end up, jammed together for days without food, water or sanitary facilities. Many die en route of dehydration. Some suffer extensive burns through prolonged exposure to diesel mixed with sea water.
There is no narration. Director Gianfranco Rosi has chosen to let his images speak for themselves, and in the case of the refugee content, they do – with terrible eloquence. However, the bulk of the film is taken up tracking the everyday lives of a handful of Lampedusa locals, with the primary focus being Samuele, an endearing (and loquacious!) 12-year-old boy.
Samuele makes slingshots and blasts cacti full of holes with his mate, hunts birds at night without scoring a direct hit, fires at imaginary enemy aircraft with an imaginary gun, goes out fishing with his father and gets seasick, and visits the GP with a hypochondriacal host of concerns and anxieties. He’s funny and cute; indeed, Rosi appears to have been seduced by the boy’s appeal as a real life character, and herein lies a problem.
The Lampedusa subjects take up far more screen time than the refugees. In a sense, Rosi lets the viewer and himself off the hook by lingering over the far more easily documented local life in Lampedusa which, it must be said, makes for pleasant and interesting viewing. That said, the most memorable scene of the film is Samuele’s grandmother’s response to radio news of the deaths of a boatload of refugees lost at sea. “Poor souls” she mutters as she prepares the evening meal.
To the film’s detriment, we are spared any personal involvement with the refugees. They remain exotic, other. There is no attempt to focus on any individual, no background on the nature of the crises back in their countries that has prompted their desperate actions in risking death at sea in unsound boats for an unknown future in a foreign land.
We are given no sense of the size, facilities or condition of the refugee camp, its location in relation to the village community, or the extent of interaction – if any – between refugees and villagers. We are given only some short grabs of some of the residents playing soccer, phoning home and performing a sort of rap lament (which is poignant – the rest we’re well familiar with through TV broadcasts).
Approaching the refugee topic through a study of contrast is a valid strategy, and potentially an effective one, but the execution is the problem here. In giving such uneven weighting to the two worlds, Rosi has compromised the great emotional power inherent in the material. I can’t help but suspect that the film he has ended up with is not that he intended to make.
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